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EDITORIAL: The police are preparing yet again to eliminate criminal gangs involved in highway robberies and kidnap for ransom in the River Indus katcha area (riverside belt) in two neighbouring districts of southern Punjab, Rajanpur and Rahimyar Khan. Press reports say kidnap for ransom incidents have increased during the last seven months.

And victims have been paying large amount of money to get released. In one such case, a PTV news journalist, Sher Muhammad Sahi, bought his freedom for three million rupees. This has gone on because the place has remained ungoverned for far too long.

That has allowed criminal elements equipped with sophisticated firearms as well as speed boats to turn several patches along the river banks into no-go areas. The notorious ‘Chhotu gang’ gave the police the run for their money when in 2016 the government tried to reclaim control of the area. Army had to be called in to help secure surrender of the gang and its leader.

Despite multiple operations by the law enforcement agencies criminal elements have kept resurfacing. A few weeks ago, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, who has had firsthand experience dealing with these elements, including the Chhotu gang, as chief minister of Punjab, presided over a high-level meeting of police officials in Lahore and gave his go-ahead to a large-scale operation led by the Inspector General of Police. It was also decided to set up permanent checkposts, police stations, and construct bridges on the river to facilitate regular police patrolling.

Some 42 pickets have since been established at the region’s entry and exit points while 38 mobile teams patrol the area. These measures, the police claim, have reduced activities of criminal elements. They may be lying low for the time being or trying not to be noticed by the police, who reportedly are getting ready to launch a grand clearing operation.

According to local residents, dacoit gangs hiding in river islands have the latest weapons, even rocket launchers and anti-aircraft guns provided, apparently, by their influential backers in settled areas. In any event, the law enforcement agencies are expected to do whatever it takes to defeat these people.

Use of force alone, however, is not going to banish the menace unless its key cause, abject poverty, is addressed.

Mindful of that reason, the Prime Minister had approved several development projects for that lawless region. The Punjab government was directed to construct hospitals, schools, and roads creating employment opportunities for the local population. His party is no longer in power in the province. It is hoped the new PTI-led government in Punjab will also assign priority to socio- economic uplift of people living in that part of the province and ensure safety and security of all others.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2022

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