03 Mar 2020

She began making headlines for her brilliance and bravery right from her maiden posting as SDPO, Jeypore, in her home cadre of Odisha. A black belt in martial arts with the gift of the gab (TEDx speaker), she has already earned her stripes as one of the finest young IPS officers of the country. Now serving as DCP Traffic Bhubaneswar-Cuttack, Sagarika Nath spoke to Siddhartha Tripathy in an in-depth and enlightening interview about the toughest challenges facing the Odisha Traffic Police in the twin cities, its biggest achievements since she started working from the Police Seva Bhawan in the state capital six months ago, and much more

Q. What are the key problems that the Traffic Police is facing these days in Bhubaneswar and Cuttack?

A. Right now, the biggest challenge will have to be implementation of the new Motor Vehicles Act. People think that it’s a revenue-generating mechanism. They don’t want to pay the hefty fines. They think “if our earning is not so much, why are we being fined so much?” What they do not understand is that it is not a tax; it is a fine. It’s not something you have to pay; it is an option. You follow the rules and do not pay the fine. But they are not able to accept it yet. Here’s the point: the old law that had been existent so far was from 1988. Given the income levels of people back then, Rs 100 used to pinch. Now that figure is Rs 1,000 because of inflation and the rise in standard of living. The new law has been made accordingly.


Q. Is it mainly a mindset problem, then?

A. Yes, the attitude has to change. We have to transform ourselves from a law-questioning society to a law-abiding society. Because the law has been made by the government we have elected. Other than that, the main challenge we face is the crunch of human resources. That’s been an eternal problem with policing. The police-to-people ratio is very low and we need to think about that. To cope with that issue, we are relying on technological advancements. We are trying to use more of technology rather than using our human resources on the ground. The first thing we did was to start this traffic violation detection system at Rupali Square as a pilot project. With this, if you violate any traffic norm, the system and its cameras will flag you off, read your number plate and automatically detect the mistake that you have done – all without any human intervention. So now we do not send our enforcement team to that square anymore; it’s all done automatically.


Q. Are there specific age groups or sections of society that need special attention on this front?

A. Yes, there is a particular age group – the youth of today. There are broadly two factors at play here. One is the process of licensing and the other matter is people’s attitude. These days the youth know what is right and wrong. Yet, because of many reasons, be it peer pressure or ease of accessibility, or some other reason, they do not follow the law. Statistically, too, we have a bad record of Odisha being the highest in road accident fatalities nationally. Annually we lose around 5,000 people to road accidents in Odisha, and 75% of that belong to the age group of 15 to 45. This means, we are losing our youth, the demographic dividend of our country, to traffic accidents. And the two big reasons behind these accidents are drunken driving and wrong-side driving. We have naturalised the latter in that it is somehow OK to drive on the wrong side of the road. People have these stock excuses of being in “an emergency situation” or being senior citizens, you name it. We have to accept the fact that if a law has been made, it is for everybody’s good, and it can be so if everybody follows it. Every day in India we lose 24 people just because of wrong-side driving. That makes for one-third of our road fatalities. It’s huge, but we have normalised it saying it’s OK. Even on national highways people drive on the wrong side, and exit points are used as entry points, which creates precarious situations, aspeople are driving on national highways at a higher speed. And there when someone is coming from the wrong side, the driver actually cannot see early enough to avoid collision, which leads to a lot of fatal accidents. I have been to memorials like World Remembrance Day where road traffic accident victims are remembered. And it’s very sad to see that these people who have died are mostly underage who should not be driving a vehicle. These are things that the parents need to realise. With the new MV Act, parents can be jailed if they are found to be letting their underage children drive. We have done numerous campaigns in schools where I have heard principals saying how the parents actively let their children ride without license or helmets. It’s very unfortunate as we don’t seem to understand the importance of lives.


Q. It is obviously early days, but what do you think have been your biggest achievements so far as DCP Traffic in Bhubaneswar and Cuttack?

A. I have been here for the past five months. During this period, apart from trying to implement the new MV Act, which in itself is a huge challenge, we have had a few success stories. Firstly, we have managed to decongest the Vani Vihar-Rasulgarh stretch. Earlier it used to take 15 minutes to cross that stretch.There were some 600 buses plying it between 8 to 10.30, which was causing a huge jam. So we called a meeting of all the long-distance bus owners, and with proper deliberation, they agreed not to take the lower road and use the flyover instead. We also developed a dedicated busway for them in SatsangViharso they do not go to Vani Vihar anymore. Now that stretch can be covered in four to eight minutes. Secondly, we have decongested the stretch from Raj Mahal Square to AG Square through the Unit 1 market. I have heard stories that they have been trying to do this since 1992! I would like to also thank the BMC (Bhubaneswar Municipality Corporation) for this because together we were able to find out spaces for two-wheeler parking. Thirdly, we have found ways to deal with other congestion-prone areas such as the one in front of Pal Heights on Nandankanan Road, or the one in front of Lalchnd in Master Canteen, where parking was in front of commercial complexes. We had meetings with security advisorsand agreed that they would provide us with their security guards and we would give policing powers to those guards.Fourthly, we were finally able to come up with an area traffic plan for Bapujinagar commercial sites. We have separated entry and exit lanes, and demarcated three spaces for parking with the help of BMC. We have also put in place an alternate parking system, through which narrow lanes cannot be blocked with vehicles parked on both sides of the road. Apart from these four achievements, the fifth one is the left parallel road to the congested JaydevVihar-Damana stretch along Nandankanan Road. The problem there is not faulty traffic management, but an engineering defect. The road is much narrower than the expected volume of traffic flow there, because the city has developed tremendously on that axis. Everything has developed along that road, except the road itself. If a road was meant for 500 vehicles, but has 5,000 instead using it now, it will obviously be a congested road. Very soon we will have in place a parallel road to resolve the issue. Land acquisition has almost been completed and construction is almost over in the acquired areas.


Q. Coming back to the mindset issue, have you been able to do something to bring about change on that front as well?

A. Yes, we are following the 3E approach, involving education, engineering and enforcement. Firstly, in order to bring about a change in attitude, we carried out many education and awareness drives during my first three months – from September to November. We reached out to all the schools in Bhubaneswar as part of a two-phase programme. In the first phase, we called all the principals and senior teachers of these schools and trained them in a two-hour workshop, with 400 teachers at one go. In total, we trained 1600 teachers. They then went back to their schools and trained their students. On November 25, we ran a massive campaign called “I Pledge” all over Bhubaneswar in which all students took a pledge to obey traffic rules. We also came up with these traffic cartoons to make the message all the more relatable to the children.


Q. So your department must have needed to rope in relevant professionals for all this?

A. Yes, I conceptualised it and outlined the six topics on which we had to convey the message. Then we had an NGO that helped design the cartoon. Once the graphics part was done, we modified the language of the message for all of it to go well together, both in English and Odia. We went bilingual as we realised that we could have a better and wider connect by having the Odia language option, as people here do appreciate it. On November 25, we were able to reach 2.5 lakh kids at one go from over 500 schools. We also designed “nukkadnataks” which were performed at major junctions and educational institutions, particularly colleges, in pure Odia so people can connect and relate to it better. We even provided positive reinforcements at junctions and other places by gifting roses and thank-you cards to people who were following the traffic rules. And then during the National Road Safety Awareness week, we distributed mini-helmets every day. There is this new law that allows triple riding on two-wheelers if one of the pillion riders is a kid who is between four and 12 years of age and also wearing a helmet. To raise awareness about this, at many junctions we approached commuters who were wearing helmets but had kids without one, and gifted them a mini-helmet free of cost. We distributed 500 helmets over the course of the week. I was very happy to see people post encouraging tweets about this and I can now count this as an achievement. Because, if they can be made to learn about these things right from childhood, it can be a game-changer for us in the long run. During the awareness week, we also carried out rallies to raise awareness about the law that requires all pillion riders to wear helmets, which we will be enforcing from this March 1 onwards. We even demonstrated along the way how bike rallies should be done. There must be a certain dignity and discipline while doing bike rallies, whatever maybe the cause; they cannot be free-for-alls.


Q. Soon after the new MV Act came into force, there were some clashes reported between the public and the police, where the former accused the latter of not following the rules even as enforcing them.

A. We came up with a banner, titled “idiots of my city”, which featured our photos of people, including cops, taken over the past four months, who had not followed traffic rules. To those saying that even cops break the rules, I always say: Who are the cops? They are amongst us, they aren’t from Mars or Venus. Every society gets the police that they deserve.


Q. Many of us notice that the traffic nuisance that auto rickshaws were some time ago is not seen as much these days. How was the situation improved?

A. Yes, this again we may cite as one of our achievements. We did what we call streamlining the autowallahs. We have given workshop-based training to some 3,000 of them so far and have implemented the concept of auto stands (permanent stands with space enough for 20-25 autos) and auto bays (drop-off and pickup points where a maximum of five autos can stay at any given point in time). That is how we have designed the Raj Mahal Square and Vani Vihar so that they are free not only of buses but also of an excess of autos any time of the day. However, the superbusyKalpana Square is a trijunction and has more complications, as a result of which we have roped in a consultancy firm to come up with a bigger area traffic management program. We will also be putting in place a signalled roundabout there to better manage and monitor the flow of traffic – just like the few you can see in bigger cities like Hyderabad and Pune.


Q. How much has your experience in Koraput helped your policing endeavours in Bhubaneswar and Cuttack?

A. To be very frank, it’s a completely different experience. There’s a lot of difference between urban policing and rural policing. Also, this is my first posting as an SP, where one has to take a lot of strategic decisions. However, I must say that I have been really lucky to have a Commissioner who has been very supportive and given me a free hand to execute the ideas that we have. Coming back to my Koraput experience, I must say that my trainer SP, Kanwar Vishal Singh, was a huge support. During my tenure as SDPO Jeypore, we had a lot of encounters with the ganja (cannabis) mafia. In six months, we were able to confiscate 16 tonnes of ganja. In many cases, we seized arms as well. From the five big gangs in operation there, we were able to get hold of three major leaders and put them behind bars. Koraput has been a transit corridor for this illegal trade and that culture of supporting it was unfortunately deeply ingrained. They have numerous ways there to transport ganja – starting from the youth,who put it in their backpack, board a bus and act as delivery boys, to huge trucks with concealed compartments, to fake ambulance vehicles and water tankers, to SUVs with ganja stuffed inside the seats, door panels and stepneys, to ladies’ involvement for avoiding suspicion. My SP was not only cooperative and encouraging but he also he pushed me into naxal operations as an assault commander. So I have been in the jungle as the team leader in three such operations where you have to walk for 20-25 kilometres with 5-6kg of luggage for a few days. That’s a really challenging experience which makes you even mentally stronger.


Q. So you did not have to deal with gender discrimination in these things, which was rather typical before?

A. Yes, I have been lucky as most of my bosses have been kind of feminists so far. Touchwood!So building confidence, knowing what policing is and knowing how to treat your subordinates is what I learnt during my time in Koraput. And that I have tried to incorporate here. But there’s a big difference in the type of policing that I am doing here compared to what I did in Koraput. Also, this is not a regular SP role; it is DCP Traffic, so the orientation is only for traffic and no more on crime. But it’s a good thing.Just as the Second Administrative Reforms Commission said, we need to be segregating the type of policing that we do. Crime, traffic and regular bandobast duties should be kept separate from each other for better administration.So as DCP traffic, I have got the opportunity to focus on traffic and in the process I have learnt a lot. I have also gone for an exposure visit to Hyderabad to know how their system works and we have learnt a lot and are trying to incorporate a lot of that here.


Q. Do you think the twin cities need something like an anti-Romeo squad that you so famously led in Koraput?

A. Here in Bhubaneswar we have appointed Special Police Officers (SPOs). The Commissioner himself has taken up this initiative to ensure the safety of women. We have identified colleges, workplaces and institutions with high number of female students or employees and we have asked them to give us the names of a few volunteers who are keen to contribute more to the cause. This way, instead of the girl facing problems having to come to the police station to report a case, we have moved the police station to the college where our volunteering SPO can attend to these cases on a one-on-one basis. We have a dedicated WhatsApp group having such SPOs as members, along with many senior police officers and even the Commissioner himself. So whenever the SPOs face any problem, they can report it through WhatsApp. We also have a nodal officer who the SPOs can directly reach by phone. They can also assist the women directly in many different ways, such as accompanying those who want to go to the police station and don’t know their way around or provide security whenever and wherever it might be necessary. All issues are area-specific or institution-specific. That’s where SPOs are invaluable in giving us the right feedback for us to take the right kind of action. It’s always easier to talk to a friend or colleague rather than to the police, and communication needs to be two-way in order to be effective.


Q. So what are the incentives that encourage people to volunteer as SPOs?

A. Yes, they are not paid, but they have policing powers. They can in fact effect arrests if need be. We give them that much power. They get an appointment letterwhere everything from their powers to their responsibilities are explained. So far we have appointed 246 girls as SPOs from 30 different institutions, and we intend to increase it to 500. Many cases are being solved through such SPOs, from issues of domestic violence to eve-teasing to many other things. So, people who have a sense of responsibility towards the society are officially empowered this way to do their bit. We even give them an I-card that identifies them are SPOs.


Q. Being a martial arts black belt yourself, do you think such disciplines should be made compulsory for girls in Odisha?

A. I wouldn’t go so far as to call for making it compulsory, but yes, parents and schools should encourage children in general, and the girl child in particular, to practise some kind of martial arts. Because it’s not about just self-defence, but also about building self-confidence. It also gives you a better sense of judgement in dealing with troublesome situations. This is all in line with our goal to have a gender-equal society where women come out of the four walls of the house to contribute to the development of the country. If 50% of the population don’t do that, it is impossible for a country to develop. Hence, we must create an environment where this can happen. But there is still a long way to go because there is still an inherent level of patriarchy and scepticism existent in this country. Given these circumstances, the girl child needs to know that she can defend herself and get out of trouble or get enough time to get out of trouble. Besides, martial arts ultimately helped me in my service.


Q. How would you compare the traffic management system in big cities like New Delhi vis-à-vis here in Bhubaneswar? Can we say that Odisha Traffic Police is one of the best in the country?

A. I would agree that we have one of the best traffic control systems in the country. But we must also respect the scale in cities like New Delhi and Bengaluru, which are known for their traffic problems. Let’s take even Hyderabad for instance. It has a population of nearly a crore whereas Bhubaneswar has around 10 lakh. With increase in population, we see that the problems rise manifold. Therefore, this is the right time for us to use all the modern facilities and technologies that have been used in these bigger places and proven to be successful, so that things don’t go bad for us here later. Since we are striving to make Bhubaneswar a smart city, let’s make our traffic systems smart first.


Q. How much is the government’s 5T governance programme, particularly the Mo Sarkar initiative, helping officers like you carry out your duties for the state and country?

A. It is definitely helping us. You see 5T is focusing a lot on technology and teamwork. For instance, how can we ever achieve non-contact enforcement without technology. You need those state-of-the art cameras. Now we have these e-challan machinesand we have already started the online payment system. If I give you a challan, and you cannot pay now, you can go home, click on the link and pay it there. I would count that, too, as one of our biggest achievements over the past few months. In the long run, however, we want to go completely cashless. Then nobody will ever be able to accuse the police of taking bribes, as there will be no cash transfer on the roads, and people can pay at our counters, pay online or by card. That will help a lot in building a positive perception of the police. Coming to the teamwork part of 5T, that is exactly how we are building our enforcement teams. The current structure and process we have is such that everybody, starting from the ground level, must feel included. We have also requested the government to give enforcement powers to graduate constables and the honourable minister has agreed with our proposal. Right now, only the officers have enforcement powers. The constables, who make for 93% of our force have no power. No power leads to no responsibility. That’s why we have incorporated the concept of teamwork. Now we have frequent meetings and briefings where constables come and share very innovative ideas, which is very heartening to see.You see, most of our constables are graduates, some are even engineering graduates, whom we use for technology-related services


Q. Can technology really help Odisha Traffic Police perform its duties more effectively? Do you think the technology infrastructure here can be robust enough to reduce human interface without compliance and order getting compromised?

A. Yes. We are trying to digitise the entire system and use more and more of technology. The TVDS (Traffic Violation Detection System) has come up and our goal ultimately is to bring all major junctions in Bhubaneswar under this system, equipped with Automatic Number Plate Readers (ANPRs), Red Light Violation Detection Systems (RLVDs) and Speed Violation Detection Systems (SVDs). With these we will no longer need enforcement teams on the road and the number plates and violation will be flagged in the system. In Hyderabad Commissionerate, 80% of their challans are non-contact and only 20% is spot-enforcement. We are also aiming for the same, and that is exactly what has been happening in Western countries for years. Regarding robust infrastructure, thanks to Bhubaneswar’s smart city status, there is a lot of technology infusion into the city, and we are trying our level best to ensure that all these technologies are implemented end-to-end. For instance, we are laying a dedicated lease line for transmission of our CCTVs and other systems. Initially it used to be on the lines of BSNL or RailTel or any of the existing fibre cables. But the Rs 400-crore Smart City project has just been completed for laying down of dedicated cables just for these purposes. All our traffic signals, CCTVs will be connected to a single Smart Control Room from where all agencies will be given feeds. Yes, a lot of technological things coming up and implementing them effectively is a challenge, but we are committed to seeing it through as we are all living in this city and want our traffic systems and utility systems to be streamlined. There should be ease of living; we should have a quality of life. Meanwhile, in Cuttack we have identified 50 locations for installation of CCTV cameras. We have identified parking spaces there as well. The Cuttack beautification project has already begun in and around SCB Medical College and the riverside areas. So, technology is the solution itself in a way. We need it to make life easier for the traffic department and all other departments as well as the people of the city.


Q. It’s been around four years in service for you after you made the state proud by clearing the civil services examination. How has your overall experience been as an IPS officer? Has it been an easier or tougher job than you had initially imagined it to be?

A. I actually expected the IPS service to be hard. Frankly speaking, easy bores me. People did have apprehensions and dissuaded me about it. They wanted me to either take up the IAS or IRS -- but I already have an IPS officer in my family. My uncle is ADG right now. There are a lot of preconceived notions about girls not being right for the IPS service even in these days and times. When I went to Koraput, I remember my grandmother telling me “Please be back home by 8pm”! Even in our batch of 150 IPS officers, we were only 20 girls. Of late, things have been improving, probably because policing as a concept has changed. It’s more about community policing, evidence-based policing rather than the colonial-style policing of old. Much has changed for the better. Police officers are no longer armchair officers. They have to interact with the public on a daily basis and must solve a lot of issues with their soft skills. So, policing overall has gone through a paradigm shift in the way it was traditionally and the way it is now. We don’t believe in third-degree torture. You can’t get away with beating somebody, it’s illegal. That’s exactly why technology plays such a big role, be it for enforcement or evidence. But I must say this: my parents never discouraged me from joining the IPS. I was very lucky in that regard. My mother herself was trained in martial arts and horse-riding as her parents were supportive of her even back in those days.


Q. Before the end of your stint with Odisha Traffic Police, what kind of legacy would you like to leave it with?

A. I would be happy if people can realisethe fact that the problem with traffic is not the traffic police but they themselves, and they can also be the solutions – the change – they seek. They should know that lane-driving, giving way to emergency vehicles, or not honking incessantly, is all for their own benefit. I will actually be very happy if the children of today whom we have been approaching to raise awareness about traffic and road rules grow up to be responsible commuters.

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