Frontline-Delhi: Wanted: night watchmen who are really scared of the d ark

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RAM, THE new night chowkidar, is afraid of the dark. This makes it difficult for him to enjoy his work as a watchman, but he sits wide- eyed next to his nightlight until daybreak and manages to do the job. I just found out he is scared of me too. Poor Ram, who hails from a rural hamlet near the Nepal border, quakes each time I walk past. He invariably jumps up to salute me, and since I can't help but grimace at such unmerited pomp, Ram thinks I am permanently angry. If I approach with a smile, he backs away timidly.

My landlord employs chowkidars like Ram round the clock. So do most middle- class residents of Delhi. Most of these watchmen are barely literate and lack technical skills. If they could get other work, they would, rather than stay awake outside for a boring eight-hour shift, menaced by mosquitoes. Our three guards, who are envied for their extravagant pay from an agency, take home less than pounds 20 per week. They rarely get a day off.

Chowkidars must take turns pacing round the premises, tapping a bamboo stave on the ground with each step, and whistling to each other. The incessant taps eventually become a reassuring sound that helps us nod off, preferable to being startled by loud snores from the garden. Humming wistful tunes and sharing a bonfire or a fan helps to pass the time if, like Ram, you're hired as a human burglar alarm.

Fear gives Ram insomnia, but that is to our advantage. With a dozy guard, little things eventually go missing: the chrome handles off the car, the brass knocker off the front door, even the manhole cover in the driveway. Day guards sometimes tip off burglars about the schedules of the householders, and become accomplices. Other watchmen sleep so soundly, even a small earthquake won't rouse them.

For extra security, our housing association recently installed iron gates at all vulnerable lanes and crossroads. This turns the drive home after a night out into a maze requiring a sharp memory and sense of direction. Only thieves on foot can get in and out quickly. This development may explain a puzzling letter from the police which came through my letter box.

Pradeep Srivastava, deputy police commissioner, proclaims: "Crime is a by-product of socio-economic factors and it is not possible for the police alone to provide sufficient security. Police must brief and train your chowkidars."

By tradition, the sure-fire way to break into a secure building in India is simply to bribe the watchman - easy, considering their subsistence wages. I read on: "It is essential to install a siren atop the house to alert neighbours in case of emergency, or to keep a pet dog. Also, on request, police can organise a display of safety gadgets for your purchase. Installation extra."

Cynically, I wonder how much commission the police can get for each sale, not counting the dog licences. But surely, such an elaborate scheme would be too blatant for Delhi's men on the beat, whose proud motto is: "With you. For you. Always."

The deputy's letter goes on to list a dozen different types of electronic locks and alarms, all with a charger and a battery back-up, except for a "Panic Alarm, manually operated". But there is one obvious caveat. Due to frequent power cuts and blackouts across Delhi, often lasting several hours, these devices are not apt to work even as well as a snoozing chowkidar. Electronic security is a bit of a non-starter in Delhi, especially since municipal authorities are about to outlaw the noisy generator sets that make us less powerless.

I have that from high authority. My neighbour is a bureaucrat, codenamed the "Prince of Darkness" by local wags because he used to choose the blackout times when electric "load-shedding" would occur. To find his house when the street lamps were out, you only had to listen for the surly mob demonstrating outside. He told me how there would be sufficient electricity on the grid to run all of Delhi, except "Power thieves pilfer 45 per cent of it."

Hi-jacking voltage with makeshift diverters is a dodgy skill, but slum- dwellers and factory-owners alike tamper with the supply. Out go the lights (plus the refrigerators, the fans, and any electronic alarms). To keep the power on longer, maybe authorities ought to employ more motivated guards: night watchmen scared of the dark.