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Mumbai, 28 April, 2015: Can the Police Cybercrime Cell target you for filing an online complaint on the Anti Corruption Bureau? Can Anti Curruption Bureau (ACB) pass on information about your online complaint to the Cybercrime Cell? Isn't ACB supposed to treat such complaints as confidential and investigate the subject of the complaint, rather than turning the spotlight on the complainant himself? On 14 Jan, 2015, Dr Mahesh A Deshmukh, MD, Fellow Rheumatology, based in Nanded, Maharashtra, received a call from Mr. Harshal Chavan, Assistant Sub Inspector (ASI), Office of the Superintendent of Police, asking him to come along with his wife to the SP's office the next morning, regarding a complaint of cybercrime against him. What followed was a harrowing three-week experience of repeatedly being called, "interrogated" and blackmailed for Rs 35,000 by the ASI with the connivance of a conman named Praveen Kumar Khandewal. Throughout this three-week nightmare, there was a continuous pressure on Dr Deshmukh to withdraw or water-down a complaint that he had made in August 2014 on ACB's portal. This happened with the cooperation of the designated Public Information Officer and possibly other office staff also at the SP's office. The IGP's office in Aurangabad may also have been part of this crime-ring.

The doctor was "interrogated" for an undisclosed complaint against him; he was denied a copy of the complaint against him even under Right to Information! The harassment abruptly stopped on 9 February, a couple of days after Praveen Kumar Khandewal was nabbed by police (see http://tinyurl.com/Fake-IPS-Officer-nabbed ). Mr Harshal Chavan, however, continues to be scot-free.

In a complaint letter dated 17 April, 2015 to Maharashtra Home Department and police higher-ups, Dr Mahesh Deshmukh describes the scam: http://tinyurl.com/Dr-Deshmukh-Complaint

EXCERPTS:

"Mr. Chavan asked me whether I was in Nagpur on 7 August 2014; I said yes. He asked my room number. I told him I didn’t remember. Then he told me it was room no 716 room of Radisson Blu hotel of Nagpur, and that he had each and every detail and CCTV footage of my activities during my stay at this hotel. My wife was sitting next to me, and he repeated many times that he had CCTV footage of all my activities during my stay at Radisson Blu Nagpur, implying that my activities were illegitimate. I made it clear that I was alone all the time, and I had not engaged in any activity for which I should feel ashamed or afraid.

"Mr. Chavan made an allegation that during my stay, I acted as an imposter for someone else (i.e. I pretended to be someone else) on the internet and lodged a complaint on the portal of Anti Corruption Bureau (ACB), and that the complaint was false, and therefore, ACB people had asked him to find out who had done it. He alleged that due to this particular complaint, there was harassment of some people and there was misuse of government machinery due to that “false complaint”. Mr. Chavan told me that he had all the digital records which proved that I used the hotel WIFI for lodging that particular complaint and he also had router details. He told me that he got all the details from Delhi. He showed me his laptop screen which had a diagram, which, according to him was digital evidence... necessary proof against me.

"He brought a small book and showed it to both of us, saying that according to law, he had to book me for cyber crime, and if I admitted guilt, then he would talk to senior officers and will see how he could help out, but he did not guarantee anything.

"Then he told me that if I gave in writing that I mistakenly complained, or inadvertently posted a draft of the complaint, then that also would be sufficient for him to help me out. During my wife’s interrogation, my wife was crying most of the time as he told us that we have committed a cybercrime by imposing someone. He also said that as that particular complaint made from the hotel room contained official secrets, I may be booked under Official Secrets Act also, and therefore my wife's job may be in jeopardy.

"At the end of this interrogation on 15 January, Mr. Harshal Chavan asked me whether we knew anyone in police department. I told him that I knew one person who said he was from the police force. Mr. Harshal Chavan asked me to call him and discuss this matter in front of him. I called my contact, Mr. Praveen Kumar Khandewal on mobile and told him what was going on. Then Mr. Harshal Chavan also talked with Mr. Praveen Kumar Khandewal on phone and told him that if we give him in writing what he asked, then there should be no problem."

SOME CRUCIAL QUESTIONS:

  • If this sort of cat-and-mouse game is played by a low-ranking ASI – just a notch above head-constable -- think about what sort of harassment must be meted out to unsuspecting citizens by cops who are placed higher up in the hierarchy! Everybody knows that the aam aadmi isn't safe... but is even an educated and influential citizen safe from blackmail by criminal-minded cops?

 

  • Anti Corrupion Bureau conducts campaigns publicly urges citizens to make complaints of corruption on its web portal and helplines. But if you and I trust ACB's campaigns and lodge a complaint, will we be treated with respect? Or will we be at the receiving end of such harassment and blackmail by cops?

For more details, mediapersons may contact Dr Mahesh Deshmukh on 07588584112 and mkahalekar@gmail.com.

For the other side of the story (assuming there is one), journalists and police higher-ups are also encouraged to call ASI Harshal Chavan 9821779921.

Monday, 9 March, 2015, Mumbai: Imagine you are enjoying dinner with your family at Golden Chariot restaurant, on the second floor of Goregaon's famous mall, The Hub. Suddenly, you see smoke. No, not the delicious smoke from a sizzler, but the black, rubbery-smelling smoke from a short-circuit. An uncontrolled blaze has broken out in the building. People are shouting, "Fire! Fire!" and stampeding in panic. But you are calm. You guide your family to the nearest door that says, "FIRE EXIT". But you are shocked to find that this door only leads to toilets and an enclosed room where drinks and junk are being stored! It does not lead to a staircase! You angrily start yelling at the Golden Chariot employees, asking where is the nearest genuine fire exit door that leads to a staircase. But nobody replies; people are running helter-skelter, the dimly-lit restaurant is filling up with thick smoke, and the temperature is rising.

1 False Fire Exit sign no 2 -- Golden Chariot

Photo 1: Activist Sulaiman Bhimani (right) shows a false Fire exit no. 1 in Golden Chariot restaurant. The fire exit has been illegally enclosed and converted into a storage area.

Then you see another large door in the same hall marked "FIRE EXIT". You push the door desperately, but the door does not open. It is locked! Your wife and children are depending on you, and you are wasting precious minutes by leading them into dead ends!

2 False Fire Exit no 3 -- Golden Chariot

Photo 2: Sulaiman Bhimani pushes Fire exit no. 2 in Golden Chariot, to show that the door is kept locked and will not open.

Finally, you all manage to run out of Golden Chariot restaurant, and reach the fire-exit staircase. You see other people going down the staircase, and you feel reassured that only two floors down, there is a door to exit the burning building.

But when you reach the ground floor, you are in for another shock: the door for going out of the building is chain-locked from outside! You can peep outside and shout, but the opening is too narrow to get out of!

3 Chained from outside -- Ground floor fire exit 2
Photo 3: On ground floor, one fire exit is chained from outside.

 

4 Chained from outside close up -- fire exit 2 at ground floor
Photo 4: A close-up showing the chain-locked door.

The crowd that is trapped with you is pushing, shoving and turning into a panicky stampeding mob. You all try running to another door, and this one is locked from within!

5 Chain locked -- Hub mall ground floor fire exit 1
Photo 5: Another ground-floor fire-exit, locked from inside. Imagine being trapped by this door while trying to escape a fire!

Many of the ways out of Hub Mall seem to be barred! By now, the boxes of goods and inflammable junk that are stored in the fire-exit by Big Bazaar in the basement have caught fire, and the stairwell is starting to feel like the chimney of a furnace! Thoughts of the 59 people who died in the Uphaar Cinema tragedy behind closed fire-exits flashes through your mind...

Is your family safe when it visits The Hub? On the contrary, it has been converted into an accident-waiting-to-happen. Next time you visit to Goregaon's Hub Mall, please take the trouble to walk around the fire-escape doors and walk up and down the stairwells. See for yourself how many fireexit doors are closed, and how many fire-exit passages have been encroached by greedy hoteliers and storekeepers.

Motivated by whistleblower Shaikh Fakhruddin "Fakhru" Junaid, who owns a shop on the second floor, RTI activists Sulaiman Bhimani and Krishnaraj Rao took such a walk on Saturday, and they took photographs of the hazards. Are the authorities aware of these hazards? Absolutely! Fakhru has been complaining to Mumbai Fire Brigade for the last two years, and the Chief Fire Officer's office has written to the Municipal Corporation noting the grave violations. The office of the Chief Fire Officer (CFO) reported various violations to MCGM on 14th November 2014.

CFO's letter: http://tinyurl.com/CFO-Golden-Chariot
Fakhru's letters to MCGM: http://tinyurl.com/Complaint-Golden-Chariot

Highlights of the CFO's observations:

  1. "In the north side landing on the second floor, the staircase landing was partially obstructed by keeping refrigerator and other things by the Golden Chariot restaurant and an unauthorized construction of the steel frame plywood sheet enclosure box for A.C. Unit and a steel ladder for access to the loft in encroached area of common passage by the Golden Chariot restaurant.
  2. "The common toilet block along with its approach passage and way to emergency exit of north side staircase was blocked for public use by illegally encroaching and utilizing it for restaurant activity by Golden Chariot Restaurant."
  3. "The amalgamation of two shop no. 23 and 24 along with its front common passage was done and merged it in the dining area by Golden Chariot restaurant without taking NOC and sanctioning the plan from the Fire Brigade Department."
  4. "In view of the above circumstances, I have to inform you that the MOH and Fire Brigade Department have already rejected the application for the trade licence of M/s Golden Chariot Hospitality Services Pvt. Ltd..."

Ok, so let's get this straight: Golden Chariot doesn't even have a licence to manufacture and serve food, but even then, it is not only serving food, but also alcohol. And it holds live performances!

6 Golden Chariot -- Happy hour and live ghazal
Photo 6: No licence to even serve food... but here they are, serving drinks and holding live performances!

However, the police sees fit to give this dangerous unlicensed restaurant a license to attract the public by holding live performances! See this police performance license: http://tinyurl.com/Performance-Golden-Chariot

Bear in mind, private house parties have been raided by cops, and named and shamed in the media for serving liquor and organizing an unlicensed performance for a single evening! So, the question arises whether the excise department and the police department is hand-in-glove with the restaurant owners? How come they have not cracked down on such blatant and continuing violations of various laws and public safety norms?

One must keep wondering… because yeh hai Mumbai, meri jaan!

Big Bazaar – a bomb in the basement

The story however does not end with Golden Chariot. Big Bazaar, which is situated in the basement of Goregaon’s Hub Mall, is another dangerous violator. Not only is it carrying on business illegally in the basement (a major MRTP violation), but further compounding the hazards, Big Bazaar has blocked numerous fire escapes with shopping carts, cartons of inflammable goods, and huge piles of garbage. See these photos taken on Saturday.

7 What lies inside Big Bazaar's fire exit

Photo 7: This Big Bazaar fire exit is filled with goods, weighing machines, etc.

8 Big Bazaar uses Fire Escape for storage and backroom operations
Photo 8: In this fire exit, Big Bazaar carries on backroom operations.

9 Fire escape of Hub Mall Big Bazaar -- obstructed and used for trade

Photo 9: This stairwell is used to store flammable junk, and backroom operations.

See many more high-res photos of Fire Safety Hazards of Hub Mall, Big Bazaar and Golden Chariot: http://tinyurl.com/Photos-Hub-Mall-Golden-Chariot

Journalists interested in knowing more may contact:
Fakruddin: 08879-414793
Jyoti Ladwal: 098-20-607950
Akash Dhupar: 099-20-752746
Human Rights & RTI Activist Sulaiman Bhimani 093-23-642081

ISSUED IN PUBLIC INTEREST BY
Krishnaraj Rao
9821588114
9821588114

2

As of August 4, 2014, selling food on the street will be a criminal activity. Say goodbye to your favourite panipuri wala, sandwich wala, frankies stand and every other kind of street food vendor. Also bid farewell to small establishments like the neighbourhood mithaiwala, street-corner bakery, doodhwala, lassiwala, kulfi-wala and roadside butcher-shops-cum-kabab-joints. You should worry even if you are one of those enterprising housewives selling homemade chocolates, cupcakes, marzipan bunnies and Easter eggs to your friends and neighbours in the festive seasons.

In the popular serial Taarak Mehta Ka Ulta Chasma, Madhavi Bhide — the typical middle-class housewife — supplements her penny-pinching husband’s income by supplying papads and pickles. Well, now Madhavi faces a choice: either take a license by paying a fee of Rs 2000/-, or face imprisonment of upto six months or penalty of upto Rs 5 lakhs, under Section 63 of the Food Safety and Standards Act 2006.

Read this notification: http://tinyurl.com/FSSAI-4-Aug-Deadline

Also read the highlighted paragraphs in (a) Food Safety Act 2006 and (b) Food Safety (Licensing) Regulations 2011. Download from http://tinyurl.com/Food-Act-Regulations

But a licence is only the beginning. The vendor must meet FSSAI’s high standards. This could mean serious money in modifying facilities, or else shut down. Failure to comply could be fined lakhs of rupees, or even imprisonment for six months. This setup is ripe for a thriving business in bribery. Needless to say, the expenses in being compatible with the law - both officially and unofficially will be recovered from the customer, which basically means more expensive street food.

Food Safety Standards Authority of India has notified August 4, 2014 as the deadline for getting registration and license with Food Safety and Standards Authority. We can hope that this deadline will be postponed as it has been since August 2012, the original deadline. But the sword will continue to hang over our heads… unless, of course, the new government elected at the Centre furiously back-pedals.

NOT JUST COOKS, BUT ALSO TRANSPORTERS AND SELLERS

The dabba-walla who transports a home-cooked lunch to your office is a transporter and handler of food, and a Food Business Operator as defined under the Food Safety (Licencing) Regulations 2011. Needless to say, most dabbawalas cannot possibly meet FSSAI’s hygienic standards - which presumably won't allow tiffins on the floor of dusty luggage compartments on local trains - even though the tiffin itself remains unopened and has been successfully going through this system for decades without health issues.

Your neighbourhood kirana-store, who sells grains, spices, nuts, oil, biscuits etc. is also in jeopardy. Unless he invests lakhs or crores of rupees for upgrading his shop with air-conditioners, glass doors, freshly painted ceilings and marble floors etc, he may not be given a license to sell food items. Then he cannot sell so much as a toffee or a bottle of packaged water.

This is the brave new world envisioned by Government of India. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Bubbling with good intentions, the Food Safety and Standards (Licensing and Registration of Food Businesses) Regulations 2011, are a nationwide disaster-in-the-making. It is about to hit the common man right where it hurts most. Wham! Right in his wallet!

Indeed, the conditions imposed on storage, preparation and handling of foods are so stringent that a majority of household kitchens and office canteens would not make the cut.

BIG BUSINESS IS THE GAINER

Who can possibly meet the impossibly high standards of food preparation and storage set by dozens of scientists at FSSAI? The likes of McDonalds and Pizza Hut may have no difficulties, and ditto for Pepsi, Coke, Haldirams and Britannia. Also, big retail outlets like D-Mart and Big Bazaar.

But small outfits will have no option but to close down, or to operate on the fringes as criminal offenders and fugitives. The current dispensation has given a death sentence to the entire unorganized food sector spread all over the country — consisting of many million self-employed men and women living in various cities, towns and even the remotest villages. In tiny settlements on snowy mountain-tops, or in the midst of forests and deserts, entire families and communities work together to survive by selling various food products to travelers and pilgrims. This vibrant food service industry of India is now marked for slaughter. One wonders why.

A vast expanse of potential criminals waiting for discovery by any cop walking down the street and Shangri La for the greedy who deal in law enforced to taste for profit.

FLYING UNDER THE RADAR

How did this horrific thing come to pass? How did such a far-reaching legislation slip unnoticed, like a jumbo jet flying under the radar? One explanation is: it happened because the Food Safety Act 2006 and the lengthy licensing regulations seemed like a good thing at first.

Food was earlier regulated under various orders passed by the union government, such as Prevention of Food Adulteration Act 1954, Fruit Products Order 1955, Meat Products Order 1973, and Milk & Milk Product Order 1992. Some people in the food industry actively lobbied for all these orders to be unified, so that implementation would be easier. However, the unification exercise was taken up with so much zeal by bureaucrats that it led to a kind of bureaucratic overreach. In the words of Gokul Patnaik (098100 63433), a retired IAS officer who was formerly chairman of APEDA (Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority) is among those who lobbied for such a unification. And now, on hindsight, he regrets the outcome. “We seem to have created a Frankenstein’s monster, whose appetite for controlling our lives seems endless,” he remarks.

Indeed, if you casually browse through Food Safety Act and Regulations with a common man’s eye, it seems like a well-intentioned (if over-ambitious) effort to improve the quality of the food that all of us – both rich and poor – eat and drink. The standards imposed on the licensees are formulated by committees peopled by well-known scientists from all over the country. These standards are aimed at reducing pesticides, enzymes, antibiotics, harmful bacteria, and biological contaminants like hair. Who can possibly argue with that? How can anybody say that it is not a good thing for safeguarding public health?

Public consultations were also held in 2008, and trade bodies like FICCI and CII represented civil society. Hawkers and enterprising housewives were never aware of these consultations, and even if they were aware, would not have been able to put across their concerns in a way that the bureaucrats would understand.

Indeed, the impossibility of holding genuine stakeholder consultations becomes apparent when you consider the mind-boggling span of the term “Food Business Operator”. It climbs up the ladder of scale starting from the tiniest iterant chai-samosa vendors, temporary and permanent food stalls, home-based canteens and dabbawalas. It encompasses office and school canteens, langars in gurdwaras, distribution of various prasads in temples, religious gatherings and fairs, and wedding feasts. And at the top of the ladder are importers, packers, cold storages, warehouses, transporters, retailers, wholesalers, distributors and five star hotels.

Some traders’ associations and food manufacturers’ bodies opposed these regulations, but that too may have been written off as a knee-jerk reaction; after all, who among us says yes to more regulation? The remarks of Confederation of All India Traders (CAIT) can be found here here: http://www.cait.in/cait-articles.php (Article titled “Top Three Issues Under Food Safety Standard Act Faced by the Industry”)

The members of All India Food Processors Association (AIFPA) are on the central advisory committee, scientific panels and expert groups of Food Safety Authority. Dharam Vir Malhan (9868218848), Executive Secretary of AIFPA and formerly head of the Modern Foods, a government enterprise, is coordinating the participation of these members, who are deeply aware of the beneficial as well as adverse consequences of the proposed new licensing regime. “Going from feedback that I receive from food industry stakeholders at various levels, the new regulations are over-ambitious and at many places, highly impractical to implement,” Mr Malhan says mildly.

This is an understatement. The administrative burden at various levels is enormous and widespread. Registration under the Food Safety Act is to be done by local bodies i.e. municipalities and gram panchayats. The licensing mechanism is in state and centre, depending on the scale of the manufacturer. Large scale entities will require multiple licenses – one for each separate activity such as import, repacking, transportation etc., and one for each location of factories, warehouses, etc. The multiplicity of the paperwork required, and the massive reach and discretionary powers of the officials within the registration and licensing mechanisms is a sure-fire formula for both corruption and administrative overload.

According to its preamble, the Food Safety Act was conceptualized to consolidate the existing food laws; one presumes that the intention was to simplify, and not to complicate. Very clearly, this exercise has gone off track.

KILLING MICRO-ENTERPRISES & SELF-EMPLOYMENT AT BIRTH

The full menace of the regulations has clearly not been understood by civil society and activists; otherwise human rights crusaders would have been up in arms! Because even mild enforcement of these regulations will criminalize over 99 per cent of the non-packaged food sector in our country, rendering them liable for penalties of several lakhs of rupees and several months of imprisonment. If that is not a human rights outrage, then what is?

Such a formal business environment – where one is required to get a registration and license before selling his first plate of vada-pav – means that tiny food businesses may never come into existence… or may be seen as an unlawful enterprise from day one!

Let us take an example to understand how small businesses grow. Take the case of a neighbourhood auntie who prepares delicious parathas. One day, a group of young MBA students move into the neighbouring flat as paying guests. As a neighbourly gesture, the auntie sends them six parathas to go with their morning tea. The love the fresh hot parathas, and so they request the auntie to send them a dozen parathas every morning for their breakfast, and they voluntarily offer to pay Rs 5 per paratha. And then, word spreads among their friends, and the auntie, who used to cook only for herself and her family, now finds herself supplying parathas to several groups of paying guests in the neighbourhood. Voila, a food entrepreneur is born!

However, FSSAI’s regulations say that as soon as the students offer to pay for the parathas, the auntie has to apply for a license from FSSAI and pay Rs 2000 for a license. The Food Safety Officer may then come to her house and check her kitchen. He may deny her a license if her ceiling paint is peeling off, and while parting, warn her that if she continues to feed her neighbours, he can fine her Rs 5 lakh or drag her before a special court and get her imprisoned for six months! Behold, a food entrepreneur has been killed at birth!

CRIMINALIZING INNOVATORS

Indian cuisine is full of experimental products, and street foods are at the cutting edge of experimentation. For example, popular items like bread pakodas, Chinese Bhel, roti-rolls and kathi-rolls and novelty items like ice-cream pakodas have all sprung up in response to entrepreneurial inventiveness sustained by market demand. All Indian foods have been created in this way. An over-scientific approach to the process and formulation is toxic to innovation. So, it is alarming that FSSAI’s bloated bureaucratic set-up wants to not only control the cooking and storage environment, but also control the FORMULATION of each and every item, and confine it within documented parameters!

Under the new FSSAI regime, all known items are standardized and their formulations are written down. If someone wishes to make a new item – say an item like bread-pakoda using crushed banana wafers in the filling – then he must first submit this formulation to FSSAI and seek their approval for it – a process that typically takes two or three years. And the new regime makes producing such innovative foods and selling them without approval a punishable offense!

It is both audacious and ridiculous to even attempt an exercise of defining standards for every food in India. Because a “chutney” in every state, every district, every tehsil, every caste and community has very different ingredients and methods of preparation. A simple thing like a roti tastes very different in every household, and has varying amounts of ghee, salt, thickness, diameter etc. The same goes for hundreds of types of halwas made in temples, gurdwaras and sweetmeat shops. How can a centralized body of scientists and bureaucrats like FSSAI impose standards for such things? But that is precisely what it is doing!

Manufacturing apart, it is also an offense now to import and sell a novel food that is well accepted abroad but not currently being sold in India – such as, say, fresh strawberries encased in a hard chocolate cover. Importers will not be able to release their stocks into the markets unless FSSAI first tests and approves it for public consumption.

Gokul Patnaik remarks, “If this sort of pre-approval process were in force in olden days, the halwais could never have invented foods like rasgollas and jelebis. Innovations happen in the kitchen at the spur of the moment, and the only approval needed is from the tastebuds of customers willing to pay for them. For bureaucrats to insist that a gulab jamun must only have this much sugar and this much ghee – no more and no less – is to impose a bureaucratic approach on cooking itself! This can only result in killing innovation!”

IMPOSING INSPECTOR RAJ OVER FOOD

The FSSAI Act mandates Food Safety Commissioners in every state to appoint numerous government employees as Food Safety Officers, with powers to slap a closure notice on any Food Business Operator, and also slap penalties of upto one lakh on them for any offense defined under the Food Safety Act. In the name of safeguarding the health and well-being of India, this is a return to inspector-raj and rampant bribery, far worse than the pre-liberalization days.

India’s people have to raise their voice against this over-zealous bureaucracy, and the time is now.

Edited from a press release ISSUED IN PUBLIC INTEREST BY
Krishnaraj Rao
9821588114
Mumbai