Imagine a country where ‘Jaali’ degrees, bogus votes, fake vehicle number plates, forged property documents, fraudulent licenses, ghost schools, fictitious teachers, quack practitioners, and spurious medicines , to name a few, are not just the norm but also accepted with some level of respect. Should this not be a cause of concern and raise some fundamental questions? Why is the government so unwilling and averse to adopting new processes and technologies that are now routinely used by many other countries to clamp down on crimes in general and fraudulence in particular.
Let us look at our neglect in just one area where the state has repeatedly ignored violation of laws i.e. vehicles and their number plates. It is a well established fact that most criminals rely on stolen or fake number plated vehicles to commit crimes. The 2.3 million smuggled and non-duty paid vehicles in Pakistan offer a world of incentives and opportunities to criminals of all shades. The government officials admit that 450,000 luxury vehicles have been registered on fake documents. There could not have been a better example of public –private partnership for promotion of crime. It has not yet dawned upon the police and the experts in Pakistan that the battle for combating terrorism, killings, burglaries, violence, smuggling and kidnappings begins by controlling vehicles and their number plates.
A recent survey conducted on government-owned green number plate cars revealed that 35% cars were either carrying fake government number plates or were simply posing as government vehicles by illegally displaying their private registration numbers on green background plates. Vehicles of this category are the ones most often employed in terrorism, violence and kidnapping, for they leave behind no clues of their origin or ownership – a phenomenon well observed in many recent crimes. The intimidating official appearance of green plated vehicles also becomes a license to gain access to places like airports, government offices, and other controlled locations where a normal vehicle would not be permitted. The police is too petrified to stop or check the particulars of government vehicles – for they are “supposed” to be carrying high officials and above any suspicion.
A system of Automatic Number Plate Recognition (APNR) has been effectively used by many countries to manage vehicle number plates and control crimes. The system involves a network of CCTV cameras that can read and communicate the number plate, time, and location to a central database. This information helps to identify and track suspicious vehicles, nab criminals, gather intelligence, investigate crime, and automatically generate tickets for traffic violations or non-payment of motor vehicle taxes. With ANPR cameras fitted on roads , highways , intersections and police cars, a typical national ANPR Data Centre could receive up to 50 million number plate ‘reads’ per day.
Despite being plagued with serious terrorism, crime and violence, it is surprising that Pakistan continues to remain oblivious to how the rest of the world has been able to combat crimes related to illegal vehicles and fake number plates. There is thus an urgent need to establish a modern ANPR and a national vehicle database – a decision that can only be taken by the political leadership of Pakistan.
Only in the province of Sindh, there are over 20 different types of number plates in use. Some organizations such as police, do not even register their vehicles with the Excise and Taxation Department and operate with their own generated number plate system. One simple and equitable solution adopted by many countries is to standardize all number plates for all vehicles – same size, same material, same font, same colour, same paint and same location and pattern of installation. This not only enables the police and the ANPR system to easily detect an unlawful vehicle but also makes it easier for the police to stop and check any vehicle – something that is simply not possible with today’s intimidating official number plates.
Changes in attitudes and systems can be accelerated when the leaders begin to do what they preach. Can the Governors, ministers, judges, parliamentarians and bureaucrats be the first to give up their privileged but crime-prone green number plates in favour of the standard number plates issued to all common citizens? Vehicles using plaques and signs that suggest status and power such as MNA, MPA, Speaker or Judge are an insult to the very concept of ‘equal citizens’ and must be declared unlawful.
Even when we have adopted a modern ANPR system and standardized all number plates, we would still be at the mercy of a police force that does not have the competence, courage and the equipment to enforce the law. It may be best to start training them to read basic alphabets like AFR, distinguish between numbers and private names or at a minimum recognize vehicles that carry no number plates at all.