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.