Audacious gangs of thieves target railway passengers in Andhra Pradesh; four robbery attempts reported in a month in Guntakal division
It was past midnight on July 12. The Egmore-Kacheguda Express was running at a moderate speed. Enjoying cool wafts of air from empty fields, 45-year-old Manjula from Hyderabad was half-asleep on the side lower berth. The rhythmic chugging of the train stopped somewhere outside the Venganur Railway Station on the Tadipatri-Gooty section.
Ms. Manjula saw a man’s head swaying outside and, before she could collect her thoughts, he shoved his hand through the open window and disappeared in a flash. Her gold chain was gone. But her senses were fully alert only when she heard the sound of a gunshot from the next compartment. “If I hadn’t heard the gunshot, I would have slipped into another dream,” the robbery victim told the Government Railway Police (GRP) escort personnel on duty.
A gang of about 15 men had snapped the cables of the signal system in the ‘outer’ area of the station, forcing the express to halt. Dashing to the bolted coaches, the gang wanted to get in, but when they could not, one of them stood on the ballast while another climbed onto his shoulders. After snatching Ms. Manjula’s chain, the duo had begun moving towards another open window, when the gunshot rang through the night. Quick as lightning, they disappeared into the bushes flanking the tracks. The attack was mitigated by the alert GRP escort.
Train travel has never been so unsafe in the Guntakal division of the South Central Railway zone, with four robberies attempted in the span of a month, thrice in the vicinity of the Tadipatri station and once at Linganenidoddi. In each of these cases, tampering with the signal system brought long-distance trains to a grinding halt. This distinct modus operandi, Railways officials say, is a new trend in the region.
The same method was followed on the night of June 22 when, between midnight and 1.30 a.m., two express trains crossing the Gooty-Tadipatri section — the Hyderabad-bound Tirupati-Kachiguda Express and the Tirupati-bound Nizamabad-Tirupati Rayalaseema Express — were targeted by two separate groups of one gang. Five passengers were robbed, including Nanded passenger Reshma, 35, who too lost her gold chain.
The latest such attempt took place on July 17 on the Tirupati-bound Venkatadri Express outside the Vemulapadu Railway Station; the gang took to its heels when alert escorts flashed their torches.
Gang from Maharashtra?
Deputy Superintendent of Police P. N. Babu (GRP, Guntakal section) told The Hindu that the notorious Pardhi gang members from Sholapur in Maharashtra are suspected to be behind the series of train robberies in Anantapur district in June and July. The same gang is believed to have been behind two train robberies at Sattenapalle in Guntur district on June 16 and 17.
“Guntur’s GRP personnel made a plan to nab the gang at a signal point. While they waited in the dark, the mobile phone of a policeman began to ring. The gang, hiding in the nearby bushes, escaped in no time,” Mr. Babu said. The DSP added that, sensing trouble from the police personnel, the gang could have shifted its operations to Anantapur district.
The official said that a similar attack took place at Khammam in Telangana a couple of months ago, and the Telangana police had nabbed some members of the Pardhi gang reportedly involved in that incident. A special team of the GRP had left for Khammam as part of the investigation, Mr. Babu said.
The Railway authorities are clearly taken aback at the ease with which the signal system can be tampered with. The distance between the signal poles on either side of a railway station is about 2 km. The signal is given 10 minutes before the arrival of a train into a station, but a culprit hiding in the bushes can climb the pole in a jiffy and disconnect the wires. Even as the loco pilot stops the train for the signal and honks once or twice to alert the station, the gang gets into action and decamps with the loot, much before the police personnel can arrive from the station.
Mr. Babu said the gangs select isolated stretches of train routes, surrounded by barren fields and shrub jungles with no human presence.
The Gooty section in Anantapur district is an ideal hunting ground. Gangs of mostly 8-15 members each, in the age group of 20-25, conduct a recce before launching the attacks. Originating in Maharashtra and bordering Madhya Pradesh, the notorious gangs appear not to operate in their own States.
A Railway Protection Force (RPF) official at Gooty surmised that it was possible a gang member travelled in the targeted train, watching the movement and positions of escort personnel, passing the information, also on the movement of the train, to collaborators waiting at the fixed signal posts.
The GRP personnel probing the robberies in Anantapur district suspect a man who had worked in the signal-laying works of the SCR a few years ago to be one of the gang members. He was employed by a Maharashtra-based private construction company, which was given the contract for laying signal lines in the Guntakal division by the SCR.
“Having knowledge of the working of signal lines, one robber stopped or slowed down the trains between Tadipatri and Dhone, while other gang members who entered the bogies tried to loot the passengers,” a police officer said.
“It is clear that one gang participated in all the four cases. The GRP has cracked their modus operandi. We have launched a search for the gang,” Director-General (DG)-Railways K.R.M. Kishore Kumar told The Hindu.
Investigation officers suspect the Pardhi gang could be behind the looting and are searching for its members. “Other gang members may join hands with the Pardhi, Haryana, Delhi, Sholapur or other gangs,” Mr. Kumar said.
In the Anantapur incidents, four potential accused have been identified from attacks that took place in the district in 2016 — Hanumanth Sivaji Kale, Amoo Sagar Parmar, Rahul Amit Kale and Jagan alias Puppy Gangadar Shinde of the Sholapur unit of the Pardhi gangs.
About 1,200 train robberies have been registered annually in the last four years. Most of the cases occurred in Guntur, East Godavari, Visakhapatnam and Anantapur.
The Superintendent of Railway Police, Vijayawada division, K.V. Mohan Rao, said the thieves also resorted to cutting bags, lifting luggage, diverting attention, and attacking running trains from outside.
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