Within seconds, Mumbai Traffic Department’s towing team attaches your car to its crane and leaves you a chalk-scribbled note on the now-empty spot, directing you to their pick-up point.

The white number plate on a towing van shows it is a private vehicle
The white number plate on a towing van shows it is a private vehicle

You reach the spot, pay the fine and retrieve your vehicle. Next time, however, take a closer look at the colour of the number plate of the towing van. Is it yellow, as all commercial vehicles should be, or white? That it is white is proof that a private vehicle is being used, illegally, for the job.

RTI activist Mandip Singh Sehgal. Pic/Datta Kumbhar
RTI activist Mandip Singh Sehgal. Pic/Datta Kumbhar

On January 16, the Sion traffic police towed Mandip Singh Sehgal’s two-wheeler from outside Arora Cinema, Matunga. “My vehicle was picked up from a parking lot. When I brought this point up, they released my vehicle, but not before I paid a towing van charge of Rs 100. They did not levy the full charge of Rs 300, which means it was a loss to the government, but not to the private player,” said Sehgal, also an RTI activist.

The GTB Nagar-resident also noticed that one of the towing vans had a private number plate. But towing vans are considered commercial vehicles. Something was amiss. This prompted him to find out more about the traffic department’s towing vans from the RTO office at Bandra and the Worli traffic department office.

From the response to his RTI query, Sehgal learnt that the Mumbai Traffic Police has hired 61 vehicles owned by private contractors, in addition to 94 government-owned vehicles. These contractors do not pay the commercial tax necessary for them to operate as RTO towing vans.

Digging deeper
“According to RTO law, if a private vehicle is used for commercial purpose, the owner needs to pay a higher tax every three months, conduct regular fitness tests and pay a higher insurance premium.

On the other hand, the tax on a private vehicle is due only every 15 years. These vehicles are causing huge lose to the state exchequer,” said Sehgal, adding that private vehicles have white number plate and commercial vehicles, a yellow one. “A commercial diesel vehicle can’t be used after eight years, but a private vehicle can be used for 15 years.”

Sunday mid-day also found documents indicating that the number could be higher than the 61 revealed in Sehgal’s RTI. The traffic department and contractor split the earnings from each pick-up equally, says the RTI response. Those who ply the towing vehicles are hired by the contractors and not the Traffic Department.

Sehgal also clicked pictures of vehicles (especially with cranes) parked outside traffic chowkies in Sion and Matunga. These were not in the list of 61 crane numbers he got from the RTO. “This means that they are using more than the said 61 private vehicles.

The private cranes used by the Traffic Department have series starting MH04 to MH06 or MH 43, suggesting they are registered in Thane or Navi Mumbai for commercial purpose. They are registered out of Mumbai in order to save on octroi,” he added.

Old contracts
Sources confirm these contracts are old. The Joint Commissioner of Police, Traffic Department, Milind Bharambe, is in talks to appoint a single contractor in the city. However, his plans to hire only cranes with CCTV cameras, so that damage to vehicles can be tracked, are being opposed by the crane lobby. Additional Commissioner of Police, Traffic, Vitthal Jadhav, told this newspaper, “I will look into the matter and revert.”