In the five years since, they were deployed in large numbers for the two subsequent odd-even schemes and Delhi government’s anti-pollution ‘Red Light On, Gaadi Off’ campaign for cars to switch off at traffic lights last year.
Along with the Home Guard, the Civil Defence Volunteers, or CDVs, are also deployed in public buses as marshals. With the city in the grip of Covid-19, CDVs are back on the roads, this time to assist the authorities in enforcing Covid precautions and prosecuting violators.
Their gear too has become more formal — khaki uniform, belts, shoulder loops, arm patches, lanyards and sharp-looking maroon berets or fatigue caps. The getup has led to confusion sometimes between them and Delhi Police, and perhaps the sense of authority imparted by the dress has something to do with an increasing number of complaints about the CDVs’ high-handedness, particularly with regard to penalising people.
On their part, the volunteers claim to be at the receiving end of public ire whenever they fulfil their responsibility, the latest being to fine those not wearing the mandatory mask. That they have no authority to prosecute violators and can only assist officials authorised to issue challans sometimes pushes people into their worst behaviour, complained CDVs.
A state government official said the volunteer force was set up by the government of India under its civil defence policy, brought under the Defence of India Act in 1962 and then The Civil Defence Act in 1968. “The Civil Defence got its present form then, along with the uniform and rules and regulations. The khaki uniform has always existed and hasn’t suddenly appeared now,” the official said.
The uniform, however, is no guarantee against road rage or ire at being fined Rs 2,000. “People use extremely bad language once they realise we are not policemen,” said one aggrieved volunteer. “Some get really aggressive and it is not easy hauling up the violators.”
The growing animosity was visible during the scuffle between the CDVs and road users near the IIT intersection in south Delhi on Tuesday when a motorist was flagged down for not wearing a mask. The fight that followed led to police registering two FIRs and a protest by CDVs outside the office of the district magistrate (South).
In the last one year, the volunteers have been the muscle behind the measures taken to tackle the spread of Covid. Their deployment and work ranged from manning access points at containment zones to doorstep delivery of essentials in sealed areas, guarding quarantine facilities, distributing food to the poor and homeless, managing crowds at ration distribution centres and of late, helping authorities in creating awareness about Covid-appropriate behaviour and in prosecution drives.
Delhi’s revenue minister Kailash Gahlot looked at the problem from the CDVs’ perspective when he said, “If you look at the overall picture and the amount of work done by CDVs, incidents like the IIT scuffle are rare. The volunteers deployed in active duty number around 35,000, including around 14,000 in transport buses.” The minister added, “Such incidents do happen and will happen in the future too. But every incident has to be seen in the right perspective, and keeping in mind the facts and circumstances.”
The life of a CDV is not easy, not even remunerative, receiving an allowance for voluntary work per day when deployed. While the amount given was around Rs 500 in 2016, it has been raised to Rs 783 now. Even though the allowance is not a huge draw, for many CDVs, this income is welcome and enhanced by public respect.
“You feel a sense of belonging and camaraderie with other volunteers, many of whom are yet to get a fulltime job,” said one volunteer. “Then, there is also the sense of power, of being part of a ‘force’. You only have to be 18 years old and physically fit to join Civil Defence. There are no exacting recruitment standards like in the police force. I feel proud of my uniform and of doing something for the country.”
The government official said, “Unlike in the odd-even days when their role was to create awareness, now the CDVs are not only promoting Covid safety norms, but also enforcing them, having been deployed by the district administrations. The district magistrate is the ‘controller’ who decides where they are deployed. They don’t act independently. So if there are a few cases of excess, you can’t blame the institution, which has done extraordinary work for decades.”
BJP writes to Baijal, demands change of uniform for volunteers
In the wake of recent controversy involving civil defence volunteers, Delhi BJP spokesperson Praveen Shankar Kapoor on Wednesday wrote to lieutenant governor Anil Baijal seeking his attention towards the complaints of harassment and corruption levied against them. He demanded an inquiry into the process of enrolment of these volunteers and their duty deployment. He also sought that their uniform, which is similar to Delhi Police personnel, be changed. The complaints came after a few civil defence volunteers stopped small goods carrying vehicles and asked for e-bills etc, which fall outside their domain, for extortion.