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Attention Mumbaikars! We know where your stolen car went

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Over 36,000 cars were stolen across India last year — 3,800 of them from Mumbai alone. The police have lost track of how many car stereos, emblems and other accessories have been robbed. Where do these vehicles and spare parts land up? Who steals them and how are they stolen? And who is the man we have to thank for catching many of the crooks and retrieving hundreds of cars? Bhupen Patel unravels a modern-day thriller

DOES the name Pratapgarh ring a bell? It probably doesn’t for most Mumbai residents. But here’s why thousands of citizens, who own and drive four wheelers, should do a bit of research on this remote town in Uttar Pradesh.

Cars whose parts have been stolen are dumped at a graveyard at Kurla. Pic/Sameer Markande
Cars whose parts have been stolen are dumped at a graveyard at Kurla. Pic/Sameer Markande

According to the Mumbai Police website, at least 36,000 Indians have had their vehicles stolen each year for the past three years. The annual loss is to the tune of Rs 115 crore. Of the almost 36k stolen vehicles, only a mere 14,500 were traced last year. Mumbai alone recorded 3,800 stolen vehicles last year.

Shops selling various car parts at Chor Bazaar. PIC/ Bipin Kokate
Shops selling various car parts at Chor Bazaar. PIC/ Bipin Kokate

So where does Pratapgarh fit in? It is the city where many, if not most, of these stolen vehicles end up at some point. For Pratapgarh is home to India’s finest duplicate key makers and car breakers.

Cars that have been seized by the police in various cases parked outside the Bandra Police station.  PIC/ Rane Ashish Cars that have been seized by the police in various cases parked outside the Bandra Police station. Pic/Rane Ashish

Known as ‘Rajaon ka garh’ (home of the kings), this town, allege senior officials of the city’s police force, is responsible for the maximum car thefts in Mumbai.


Illustration/Amit Bandre

“You show them any automatic car and they will create a duplicate key and crack it open in a few minutes. They work like computers. These master craftsmen just need the moulds and a duplicate key can be ready in a matter of minutes,” says an officer who was earlier attached to the state’s Motor Vehicle (MV)
Theft department.

Where have all the cars gone?
Thieves who use these specially made keys to steal cars are just foot soldiers, who get a small share of the loot. And even these foot soldiers come from Pratapgarh, say cops, as they have a good rapport with the key makers. “They come here in search of jobs like many others from across India. Some land up as garage mechanics while others drive taxis in the city. However, while driving around the city, their eyes are not just focussed on the roads but also on the cars parked by the roadside. They scan all details — which car is parked in an isolated corner and which vehicle is not driven every day. They execute the theft after doing their research well,” says the officer.

The brands most favoured by the ‘car-jackers’ are heavy vehicles such as Pajero, Scorpio, Bolero and Tavera. Data available with the Mumbai Police, mainly from the few thousand cars they have managed to retrieve so far, shows that most of these vehicles are routed to Uttar Pradesh, with the demand picking up before state or national elections. Interestingly, while these stolen vehicles are bought at high rates by some unscrupulous election campaign managers, the price the thieves receive for executing the high-risk thefts is peanuts. “Those we have caught said they get around Rs 60,000 for a Scorpio or a Tavera. Smaller cars earn them even less, in the Rs 20,000-Rs 30,000 bracket.

A part-by-part story
According to the official website of the Mumbai Police, 36,000 vehicles worth R115 crore are stolen annually in India out of which only about 14,500 are traced. And even the stolen cars that are retrieved come back stripped bare. Why? Because before they are sold off, many of the accessories and spare parts are taken out since they command a high price in Mumbai’s infamous Chor Bazaar.

Car stereo sets, car brand emblems and other accessories are in huge demand in Mumbai’s grey market. The music systems are usually sold in Kurla’s Chor Bazaar while the emblems are sold both at the Chor Bazaar as well as in some garages in Kalina and Kurla. It depends of what make and price range the music systems belong to, says a senior officer of the city police’s detective department.

Cops say they have lost track of how many thousands of car stereos and logos have been reported stolen. Small wonder then that Mumbai is apparently referred to as the ‘one-way godown’ among car thieves. An officer who has helped trace many stolen cars from, Gujarat, Rajasthan Uttar Pradesh and other nearby areas, says behind every stolen car lies a huge network of the inter-state gangs, operating in seven to eight well-organised modules.

Each module or sub-team works on a ‘need to know’ basis, making it difficult for any detective or cop to find a link between the different arms and track the masterminds. This is the reason, says the officer, why the Mumbai police have not been able to break into the syndicate that forges papers for stolen vehicles.

Arms of the Octopus
There are at least six to seven teams working while a vehicle is in transit from one state to another. Often, says a senior inspector of the MV department, the driver who is taking the vehicle out of the state is not even aware that the car is stolen. Drivers working for one team are sent to pick up a vehicle from a spot and usually told that they have to pick up a car bought in an auction. “The vehicle is constantly on the move before it is sold to the final buyer. At times if the masterminds come to know that the cops are on their trail, the driver is asked to switch off his mobile phone to mislead the cops about the whereabouts of the vehicle. Worse, even if the cars are intercepted on the way, they are often let off as they have original papers, which are usually stolen along with the cars. “The group operates throughout the year, but slows down on important holidays and high security days such as August 15 and January 26,” says the inspector.

A ray of hope
With the general elections just round the corner, all car owners should be worried therefore. Very worried in fact. But MV Theft officers believe that the recent conviction of over a dozen high-profile car theft gang members, may act as a deterrent for active gang members in Mumbai.

We ask the cops why these poor men who come in search of an honest job — working in garages or driving trucks and cars — turn to the high risk profession like stealing cars. “But the risk is minimal, there is little investment needed and the money comes easy,” says a cop.

How so? Terming it an “addiction”, a senior officer earlier associated with the MV Theft department recalls an incident. In 2010, the Motor Vehicle Theft department arrested notorious car thief Shakir Ali Liyakat Ali Qureshi who was wanted in at least 20 cases. The officer who arrested Qureshi was showered with accolades. But as the hearing proceeded, Qureshi applied for an anticipatory bail, which he was granted. A day after his bail, when the officer met Qureshi and suggested he change his ways, he promised to turn over a new leaf. “I advised him to give up crime and lead a new life. He agreed. But my happiness lasted only for a few hours! I got a message on my phone that same day saying that Qureshi was back in business and caught red-handed by the Oshiwara police while trying to break open the lock of a vehicle parked at an isolated area,” recalls the officer.

Cops allege that car thieves get away with the crime or get lenient sentences, as the sections of the law that are applied in these cases are bailable. A senior officer, who has interacted with and interrogated many such car thieves, claims that most of them are not aware that the vehicles they are helping to steal, could be used for murders, robberies or even by terrorists.

Even cops are not spared
since 2006, at least six police force Boleros have been stolen from the city, of which four have been recovered. In two cases, the accused abandoned the vehicles within the city after they realised that the vehicles belonged to the Mumbai police.

The key to Pratapgarh
the district of Pratapgarh, which forms a part of Faizabad division, is named after its headquarter town Bela Pratapgarh, commonly known as Pratapgarh. Soeluddin, a Raja of the locality who ruled here during the 17th century, fixed his headquarters at Rampur near the old town of Aror. There he built a fort and called it Pratapgarh (1617AD). Today this sleepy town is known for being home to some of India’s most skilled duplicate key makers specialising in vehicle keys.

The cop who rescues cars

Mumbai has its fair share of encounter specialists and nightlife crusaders such as Vasant Dhoble. But few know of the officer who has been the main reason why hundreds of Mumbai residents have got back their stolen cars. This man, in fact, needs a round of applause.

Sub- inspector Sadanand Kokitkar
Sub- inspector Sadanand Kokitkar

Sub-inspector Sadanand Kokitkar is perhaps one of the few cops the car thieves fear. Attached to the Mumbai police’s Motor Vehicle Theft department since 2006, Kokitkar is the only officer in the entire police force to have recovered more than 700 vehicles stolen from the city. When we congratulate him on a job well done, he says he has still not reached a target he has set for himself. “I am aiming for 1,000,” says Kokitkar.

The man is extraordinary in more ways than one. He has studied only till Class XI. Yet, he regularly holds workshops and lectures senior officers in the police force on how to prevent car thefts and catch the crooks. His fame has spread all the way to Pratapgarh. Some of the car thieves arrested by Kokitkar have confessed that the inspector is on the hit list of the car-jacking mafia from Pratapgarh.

Such threats, however, haven’t deterred the man from helping those he arrests. He has rehabilitated some of the car lifters by enlightening them about the serious consequences of their acts and proactively helping them get a job and lead an honest life.

“I give them examples of the 1993 blasts to show how even the loaders of RDX who had helped the accused only to unload explosives from the boats were imprisoned and branded terrorists. This has deterred some of them and they are now helping us trace other criminals,” says Kokitkar.

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