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Concerned citizenry of Kerala call the Rs. 20 lakh crore package a “colossal betrayal”

They demanded that the PM withdraw the anti-people package and work to increase purchasing power of the people

01 Jun 2020

sitharaman

In the month of May, as India saw a surge in Covid-19 cases, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan package for the economic revival of the country. The package was worth Rs. 20 lakh crore and announced in five tranches by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman. However, various publications like India Today cited experts who said that out of the Rs. 20 lakh crores, only Rs. 70,000 crore was fresh money and the rest was already provisioned for in the Union Budget.

The announcement of the package came two months after India was in the throes of the pandemic, with its underprivileged population, especially the migrants, being hit hard by it. Overnight, people lost their jobs and their homes and daily wagers didn’t know where to get their next meal from. Due to this, scores of migrants started walking back to their native villages, thousands of kilometers away, on foot and some met with an unfortunate fate after they died in accidents or due to hunger and exhaustion.

The economic package received a lot of criticism with it being a ‘jugglery of numbers’ by activists and the Opposition who pointed out that the package did nothing to address the current concerns of farmers and migrants. Echoing a similar sentiment, the concerned citizenry of Kerala including prominent persons like Advocate George Pulikuthiyil, Dr. Jyothi Krishnan, Prof. T R Venugopalan, Dr. J Devika and Prof MK Sanu among others issued a collective response in a letter dated May 28 which said, “The corona revival package for 20 lakhs crores announced by the government of India at a time when the country is stagnant politically, socially as well as mentally due to the miseries and sufferings that the pandemic created, is a national betrayal and political hypocrisy.” The letter read that on the pretext of Rs. 20 lakh crore, the government provided a benefit of less than Rs. 1.5 lakh crore to the 40 crore people who were struggling to make ends meet.

They said that instead of providing stimulus to the hapless and weak, the Prime Minister opened up strong assets of the nation – defence, space and coal, to the corporate sector adding that there were no programs in the package to increase and stabilize the purchasing power of the people who lived in the margins of shining India and whose liquidity eroded fully due to the continuous and unexpected lockdown. They wrote that the reforms and economic systems announced in the package called for democratic discussion and legislation, but were instead imposed on the people – an act that wasn’t only alarming but also undemocratic and despotic.

In their letter they alleged that through the package, strategic sectors were being opened up to private companies owned by the Ambanis and Adanis and that with the announcement, the withdrawal of the public sector from strategic and core areas which started in the nineties, had now been completed.

Most importantly, the signatories stated, was the nullification of the Essential Commodities Act which regulated the price and distribution of essential commodities like food products. “With this step the Modi government issued full license to harvest the gains of the Indian peasants at a cheap rate and to hoard it as he liked,” they said. They added, “Modi Government has owed the big corporate and publicly declared unqualified support to them by suspending the existing labour laws in the Country. This act of treachery of workers will invite international consequences.”

It must be noted that during the lockdown, the supply chain took a hit with transport being shut apart from people being asked to stay at home. As migrants returned home, there were very few left in the cities to man factories and other operations like the transportation of grains. Farmers had to pay more for pesticides and seeds, take multiple trips to mandis and sell fares below the Minimum Support Price (MSP) especially if they were selling perishable crops.

Labour laws were diluted too, with job losses, non-payment of wages from companies and state governments increasing the number of work hours, reducing breaks and not offering enough compensation for extra hours – all citing shortage of labour.

In their letter, the prominent citizens of Kerala demanded that the PM make it clear on whose prescription the package was announced at the time of the national lockdown when people were helpless to protest and react. They said, “We demand the withdrawal of this anti people package and give shape to a programme which will help to increase the purchasing power of the people. We remind the democratic forces of the country to take up the issue openly and build up resistance against this. We believe they will do their duty. A strong public opinion and hectic resistance against this anti people package is the need of the hour.”

The entire copy of the letter may be read below.

 

Related:

New Trade Union Initiative (NTUI) demands that governments retract changes in labour laws

India needs a stimulus package to fight the COVID-19 Economic battle

20 lakh crore package just “jugglery of figures”: AITUC

Concerned citizenry of Kerala call the Rs. 20 lakh crore package a “colossal betrayal”

They demanded that the PM withdraw the anti-people package and work to increase purchasing power of the people

sitharaman

In the month of May, as India saw a surge in Covid-19 cases, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan package for the economic revival of the country. The package was worth Rs. 20 lakh crore and announced in five tranches by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman. However, various publications like India Today cited experts who said that out of the Rs. 20 lakh crores, only Rs. 70,000 crore was fresh money and the rest was already provisioned for in the Union Budget.

The announcement of the package came two months after India was in the throes of the pandemic, with its underprivileged population, especially the migrants, being hit hard by it. Overnight, people lost their jobs and their homes and daily wagers didn’t know where to get their next meal from. Due to this, scores of migrants started walking back to their native villages, thousands of kilometers away, on foot and some met with an unfortunate fate after they died in accidents or due to hunger and exhaustion.

The economic package received a lot of criticism with it being a ‘jugglery of numbers’ by activists and the Opposition who pointed out that the package did nothing to address the current concerns of farmers and migrants. Echoing a similar sentiment, the concerned citizenry of Kerala including prominent persons like Advocate George Pulikuthiyil, Dr. Jyothi Krishnan, Prof. T R Venugopalan, Dr. J Devika and Prof MK Sanu among others issued a collective response in a letter dated May 28 which said, “The corona revival package for 20 lakhs crores announced by the government of India at a time when the country is stagnant politically, socially as well as mentally due to the miseries and sufferings that the pandemic created, is a national betrayal and political hypocrisy.” The letter read that on the pretext of Rs. 20 lakh crore, the government provided a benefit of less than Rs. 1.5 lakh crore to the 40 crore people who were struggling to make ends meet.

They said that instead of providing stimulus to the hapless and weak, the Prime Minister opened up strong assets of the nation – defence, space and coal, to the corporate sector adding that there were no programs in the package to increase and stabilize the purchasing power of the people who lived in the margins of shining India and whose liquidity eroded fully due to the continuous and unexpected lockdown. They wrote that the reforms and economic systems announced in the package called for democratic discussion and legislation, but were instead imposed on the people – an act that wasn’t only alarming but also undemocratic and despotic.

In their letter they alleged that through the package, strategic sectors were being opened up to private companies owned by the Ambanis and Adanis and that with the announcement, the withdrawal of the public sector from strategic and core areas which started in the nineties, had now been completed.

Most importantly, the signatories stated, was the nullification of the Essential Commodities Act which regulated the price and distribution of essential commodities like food products. “With this step the Modi government issued full license to harvest the gains of the Indian peasants at a cheap rate and to hoard it as he liked,” they said. They added, “Modi Government has owed the big corporate and publicly declared unqualified support to them by suspending the existing labour laws in the Country. This act of treachery of workers will invite international consequences.”

It must be noted that during the lockdown, the supply chain took a hit with transport being shut apart from people being asked to stay at home. As migrants returned home, there were very few left in the cities to man factories and other operations like the transportation of grains. Farmers had to pay more for pesticides and seeds, take multiple trips to mandis and sell fares below the Minimum Support Price (MSP) especially if they were selling perishable crops.

Labour laws were diluted too, with job losses, non-payment of wages from companies and state governments increasing the number of work hours, reducing breaks and not offering enough compensation for extra hours – all citing shortage of labour.

In their letter, the prominent citizens of Kerala demanded that the PM make it clear on whose prescription the package was announced at the time of the national lockdown when people were helpless to protest and react. They said, “We demand the withdrawal of this anti people package and give shape to a programme which will help to increase the purchasing power of the people. We remind the democratic forces of the country to take up the issue openly and build up resistance against this. We believe they will do their duty. A strong public opinion and hectic resistance against this anti people package is the need of the hour.”

The entire copy of the letter may be read below.

 

Related:

New Trade Union Initiative (NTUI) demands that governments retract changes in labour laws

India needs a stimulus package to fight the COVID-19 Economic battle

20 lakh crore package just “jugglery of figures”: AITUC

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Food, hunger, and the love language of service

Many economically disadvantaged people, stranded migrant workers, and those walking/travelling to their home-towns are finding it difficult to obtain food. There has been a surge of local residents, NGOs, and informal organisations providing food to people in need

01 Jun 2020

CJPCitizens for Justice and Peace volunteer distribute food in Mumbai
 

The line outside the local grocery store is marked out in neat circles 5-6 feet apart, separating the diverse crowd of delivery app executives, hassled middle-aged men and women, and tired senior citizens. There is a heavy silence before spontaneous comments about the impending rain in Mumbai, give way to a full-blown conversation among strangers. There is palpable concern about the extension of the lockdown, unpaid salaries, and apprehension about the condition of migrant workers who are in transit or waiting to go home.

More than 80 people (including children) have lost their lives while travelling in Shramik trains- some due to lack of food and water on the trains, and some due to co-morbidities. While civilian volunteers and NGOs have stepped up to distribute food and water on the trains, the situation begs the question- why has the Ministry of Railways not done its job? Why are the state governments passing the buck to each other?

The humanitarian crisis created by a poorly executed lockdown has seen a surge of volunteerism by common people in trying to provide food to those in need. From celebrities to local volunteer organizations and religious institutions- everyone making an effort to make food available to those in need, is speaking the only love language we can fathom in a time that demands social distancing, making the act of service our primary expression of empathy. The story of author Nazia Erum’s children drawing colourful pictures on food packets meant for children of stranded migrant workers, is one such example.


As much as this phenomenon is a statement of humanity, it also political. We all saw the heart-warming images from Vaishno Devi shrine where food for Sehri and Iftari was prepared for 500 quarantined Muslims observing Ramzan, and we also witnessed the backlash this act received from individuals and organizations like Bajrang Dal. On the other hand, a handful of stories also emerged about quarantined Upper-Caste Hindus wrefusing to eat meals prepared by Dalit cooks. Food, even as a gesture of empathy, comes with added emotional and political connotations, as well as intersections of social inequalities.

With loss of livelihood and homes, hunger is the primary concern of an increasing number of citizens- citizens who in all probability will not receive benefits from the still unravelling economic package, or receive the courtesy of being treated like dignified human beings with the escalating efforts underway to poke holes in labour laws. When the added burden of caste and class discrimination falls on the dynamics of resource distribution in the aftermath of this crisis, the vulnerable will be left hungry. The imminent danger, then, is not a virus, but an empty stomach.

A lot of situations that have come into the spotlight during this lockdown have been dubbed as “wake-up calls” for seeing the truths of economic and caste privilege, rampant inequalities, failures of administration, gender-based violence, and mental health. For the ones who are bearing the brunt of this crisis, this has been their lived reality and the “wake-up calls” for the privileged are too little, too late. The way forward, then, counts on the actions of those who have the privilege to act.

For once, the differences of religion, caste, gender, class, will have to be demolished to make way for the shared goal of service. The authorities will need to be held accountable, and the existing system will need to be hauled up for its shortcomings. Until the day we build an actual system of democracy where citizen volunteerism is not the primary pillar supporting those in need, we cannot say that we have built a successful nation. When common people have to don the roles of heroes, know that the “system” has failed to do its job. Till we achieve this, all we do, is keep each other alive and serve food to anyone who needs it.

 

Related articles:

SC takes suo motu cognisance of migrant crisis

Watch the passengers express their satisfaction with Railway services: Rail Minister Piyush Goyal

Why are only trains carrying migrants being ‘diverted’ to take longer routes?

 

 

 

Food, hunger, and the love language of service

Many economically disadvantaged people, stranded migrant workers, and those walking/travelling to their home-towns are finding it difficult to obtain food. There has been a surge of local residents, NGOs, and informal organisations providing food to people in need

CJPCitizens for Justice and Peace volunteer distribute food in Mumbai
 

The line outside the local grocery store is marked out in neat circles 5-6 feet apart, separating the diverse crowd of delivery app executives, hassled middle-aged men and women, and tired senior citizens. There is a heavy silence before spontaneous comments about the impending rain in Mumbai, give way to a full-blown conversation among strangers. There is palpable concern about the extension of the lockdown, unpaid salaries, and apprehension about the condition of migrant workers who are in transit or waiting to go home.

More than 80 people (including children) have lost their lives while travelling in Shramik trains- some due to lack of food and water on the trains, and some due to co-morbidities. While civilian volunteers and NGOs have stepped up to distribute food and water on the trains, the situation begs the question- why has the Ministry of Railways not done its job? Why are the state governments passing the buck to each other?

The humanitarian crisis created by a poorly executed lockdown has seen a surge of volunteerism by common people in trying to provide food to those in need. From celebrities to local volunteer organizations and religious institutions- everyone making an effort to make food available to those in need, is speaking the only love language we can fathom in a time that demands social distancing, making the act of service our primary expression of empathy. The story of author Nazia Erum’s children drawing colourful pictures on food packets meant for children of stranded migrant workers, is one such example.


As much as this phenomenon is a statement of humanity, it also political. We all saw the heart-warming images from Vaishno Devi shrine where food for Sehri and Iftari was prepared for 500 quarantined Muslims observing Ramzan, and we also witnessed the backlash this act received from individuals and organizations like Bajrang Dal. On the other hand, a handful of stories also emerged about quarantined Upper-Caste Hindus wrefusing to eat meals prepared by Dalit cooks. Food, even as a gesture of empathy, comes with added emotional and political connotations, as well as intersections of social inequalities.

With loss of livelihood and homes, hunger is the primary concern of an increasing number of citizens- citizens who in all probability will not receive benefits from the still unravelling economic package, or receive the courtesy of being treated like dignified human beings with the escalating efforts underway to poke holes in labour laws. When the added burden of caste and class discrimination falls on the dynamics of resource distribution in the aftermath of this crisis, the vulnerable will be left hungry. The imminent danger, then, is not a virus, but an empty stomach.

A lot of situations that have come into the spotlight during this lockdown have been dubbed as “wake-up calls” for seeing the truths of economic and caste privilege, rampant inequalities, failures of administration, gender-based violence, and mental health. For the ones who are bearing the brunt of this crisis, this has been their lived reality and the “wake-up calls” for the privileged are too little, too late. The way forward, then, counts on the actions of those who have the privilege to act.

For once, the differences of religion, caste, gender, class, will have to be demolished to make way for the shared goal of service. The authorities will need to be held accountable, and the existing system will need to be hauled up for its shortcomings. Until the day we build an actual system of democracy where citizen volunteerism is not the primary pillar supporting those in need, we cannot say that we have built a successful nation. When common people have to don the roles of heroes, know that the “system” has failed to do its job. Till we achieve this, all we do, is keep each other alive and serve food to anyone who needs it.

 

Related articles:

SC takes suo motu cognisance of migrant crisis

Watch the passengers express their satisfaction with Railway services: Rail Minister Piyush Goyal

Why are only trains carrying migrants being ‘diverted’ to take longer routes?

 

 

 

Related Articles


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When will we learn our lessons from previous pandemics?

Some lessons from three epidemics of Modern India: 1896-97, 1918-20 & 2020

01 Jun 2020

Pandemic
Image: AP Photo/National Museum of Health.


Why do we know very little about the three epidemics of modern India? Why do we avoid putting the histories of the origin, spread, human sufferings, administrative response, mis-prioritised attention of scientific research to the issue, into our syllabi? So much so that even the Masters courses in the best departments of History in our premier universities largely avoid offering courses (or topics in a course) on this particular theme. Our history textbooks barely mention these calamities, if at all, in just in few words. Even research on such themes are either inadequate, or, these have not transcended select highly micro-specialised academic spaces. Why have we not been letting such studies enter the popular, public domain?

A cursory look into some studies on this subject clearly suggest that there have been essential eerie similarities in the regrettable anti-people response of the ruling elites to all three epidemics of modern Indian history.  

What we continue to do is something we have done all along, hiding many truths from vast sections of our people, those that pertain to some specific issue of human miseries. Just as other exclusions and silences, the politics of the dominant plays a specific role even in determining contents and priorities of education, curricula, syllabi, etc.

It is a select section of people who undertake global travels for their respective professions (traders, high ranking officers and defence personnel) who ‘import’ such infectious diseases and spread these into India. This is exactly what had happened in Bombay in 1896. Yet, they succeeded in spreading widespread public opinion that it was the slum dwellers of the ghettos that were the causes of the origin of the epidemic. Consequently, the concentration of policing, its surveillance and repression was among the poor and labouring classes of Bombay. Thus, this questionable and elitist politics of blaming those among marginalised sections and classes was in play in 1896-97 as well. It is the same pattern that has been manifest today, close to a century later, in 2020!  The manner in which those who work in the informal sector, on daily wages, were disallowed the choice of leaving for their homes when the lockdown was announced all of a sudden. An ultimatum of less than four hours was given to the country, a decision that particularly affected these people. Even in terms of facilities in the quarantine centres, our class based discrimination has been manifest, albeit in a bizarre manner.

Historian Mridula Ramanna’s essay (2003), “The Spanish Influenza Pandemic of 1918-20: The Bombay Experience”, published in an anthology is really quite an eye opener. Added to this is  another useful reference, the speech delivered by the Darbhanga Maharaj Lakshmishwar Singh, in the legislative council (Calcutta) when the bill for the Epidemic Act 1897 was being debated. Just a few months ago, historian David Arnold has also published an essay (2019) pertaining to the epidemic of 1918-20. We need to look into all these.

Whatever little reference to the 1896 epidemic we get in our books, tells us very little about human sufferings. What we study and teach our undergraduate students skips the narrative of widespread human misery. Dealing with this period we shift easily to the Chapekar brothers, who went on to kill two British officers, Rand and Ayerst. During the trial, it was then alleged that the speeches and writings of Bal Gangadhar Tilak had provided the incitement or provocation to them to kill the officers. Subsequently, section 124 A of the notorious Sedition Act 1870 was invoked against Tilak to penalise him. With this reference, our textbooks go on to describe the violent, extremist and right wing majoritarian shift in one of the trends of anti-colonial nationalism. This is arguably another version of popular jingoism that succeeds in excluding narratives of widespread human miseries experienced by thousands of Indians caused by the 1896 epimedic.

Arguably, the fashioning of different variants of nationalism also avoided discussing widespread miseries caused by these epidemics. Can any brand of nationalism really afford to avoid or ignore people’s sufferings?  This is another variety of exclusion and discrimination that our views on nationalism have been perpetrating. It has cost us heavily in the past. It also has a price being paid by large sections of Indians today.

It was in September 1896 that the first patient of plague in Bombay was detected. By February 1897, lakhs of people had out-migrated from Bombay to their respective villages and towns. At that time, this was possibly half of the Bombay population. It is said that the disease had come from Hong Kong and China. About two thousand people were dying each week in Bombay. The British administration was unnerved and had employed all its strength in containing the spread of the epidemic, particularly not letting it reach Calcutta. All in all, there are very inadequate sources or documents readily available for historians to write much about this. We cannot ascertain as to how many people actually died during their travel to homes. With historical commonsense we can however confidently conclude, and quantify that casualties were far higher than what is shown in official records.

The Epidemic Act, 1897 was more about how to prevent such epidemics in future and had little to do with how to tackle the moment. Those having access to the Darbhanga Raj Archives, tell me that the maharaj offered Rs 7000 to the Calcutta University to undertake research on finding medicine or vaccine for the disease. The follow up on this endowment fund is not known to the (presently) surviving descendants of the maharaj. One doesn’t know what does survive in the records of the Calcutta University about this? Inferring from here, do we see in 2020, any big business house coming out to offer such endowment for this purpose, except the offer made by the pharmaceutical firm, CIPLA (of Khwaja Yusuf Hamied; founded in 1935 by his father, a Gandhian, Khwaja Abdul Hamied), which is well known for producing low cost medicines?   

In 1896-97, there were complaints about Police-raids and, house-searches, and their misbehaviour against the women. These were precisely also the grievances of the Chapekar Brothers.

Ramanna tells us that on June 19, 2018, seven police sepoys were first of all found to have been infected with the Influenza in Bombay. From September 1918, it began to spread on a much wider scale. Malnourished women and children were more prone to infections and death. Gandhiji in Gujarat was infected and remained ill for a long spell. Premchand also got infected and many family members of Suryakant Tripathi Nirala (1896-1961) succumbed to Inflenza-casued deaths, which he has recorded in his autobiography in Hindi.

We should keep in mind that in 1918, antibiotics had not been discovered, which treatment has a central significance in modern-day allopathy. Both David Arnold and Mridula Ramanna tell us that the British Indian administration was more concerned about counting the numbers of affected people and entering them in records, kept issuing advisories on how people should prefer living and sleeping out in the open rather than in herding together! These advisories were issued as “memorandums”. Today in 2020, we call such advisories “notification”! In the past two months (April-May 2020), the number of government notifications is close tot 4,000. If we study these notifications carefully, we find that one notification often contradicts the other. There are confusions, and clear signs of a policy paralysis. Yet, despite such situations of human miseries, the governments in Hong Kong as well as in India have shown their promptness in putting pro-democracy critics of the regime behind bars invoking the harshest possible repressive laws.

Lessons learnt? Through the course of a century, we have not changed much in terms of dealing with pandemics. This mocks the popular saying, ‘change is the only permanent thing’.

Many British officers had themselves gone off to the salubrious climate at India’s hill stations from which locations they issued racist and often contemptuous statements! These included questonable remarks on how ‘Indians living in dirty ghettos (were) making themselves prone to the disease.’ Refuge in hill stations and running away from handling the crisis seems to have been a pattern. In 1946-47, when Bihar was aflame with unprecedented communal violence, the Governor, Sir Henry Dow had also, then, run away to Shimla.

In 1918, the British government had closed cinema halls, schools, colleges for about two months in both Bombay and Karachi. They kept advising people to remain fit and healthy and to spray disinfectants. Now imagine, in the India of 1918, how many people could have afforded and could have succeeded in obtaining disinfectants!

During that time, that too very sparingly, perhaps only once, did the Times of India and a few vernacular newspapers muster the courage of subjecting the British government to criticism: to raise the demand for making disinfectants etc available for the people. Otherwise, over all, there was an absence of voices holding the regime accountable. Thus, on this count as well, republican India of 2020 is hardly different from the colonial India of 1918.

The British government too made unsubstantiated claims of releasing lakhs of rupees for the people. Evidence suggests that not much reached people. Today’s experience suggests that quite often, such packages are more to provide for administrative loot and less to ecutally enable people’s relief. A popularly held cynical belief is: what is a calamity in which the bureaucracy and politicians don’t find opportunity to loot public fund!

At the level of policy formulation, there was confusion and inconsistency, then. Two officers, Hutchinson and Turner, kept exchanging conflicting views (and making arguments) on the origin of the pandemic. In the India of 2020, too, we see that more attention has been paid to putting the blame on a particular community, India’s Muslims, already marginalised and oppressed. This politics of diverting people’s attention was at play at that time too, despite the fact that, given the level of consciousness, masses were then more prone to see it as a natural calamity rather than haul up the regime of the day on their handling of the situation.

An example: A Bijapur jailor had asked for instructions on infected inmates. He received no response. And they continued to infect more of the prisoners. The Economy was in doldrums, yet, we hardly see popularised studies on the economic impact. The central government allowed the use of traditional medicines (Ayurved and Unani), but, on the pretext of the Bombay Medical Act 1912, the provisional provincial regimes did not allow the use of medicines other than allopathy. Thus an apathy was perpetuated. Only the caste and community based volunteer organizations were able to provide some relief to the affected populations.

Yet, even after a century and more, we have not been able to learn a lesson and evolve a robust public health system. In the India of today, we have seen that those states like Kerala, having a better public health system, have been able to deal with the crisis in a better way.

Chomsky and Harari, in their recent columns and essays on the pandemic, have explained that scientific research in recent decades has been concentrated on the medicines for cardiac diseases, on lung and liver ailments and on cancer, in which the pharma capital lobbies minted millions. The cost of production of such medicines is low, the cost passed on to patients very high.  The manufacture of both the stent (and angioplasty) is one such pro elite mega scam in the health sector.  In contrast, as Chomsky and others argue, research on vaccines for epidemics just do not get the requisite funds of reserach attention.The politics and priority of medical research should be the subject matter of Indian political and policy debate! Questions need to be asked. Why are vaccines for afflictions like polio and epidemics the sole responsibilities of governments and of the WHO-UNO, whereas private capital extracts money from people only on other medicines?Do we not need to launch a huge mass awareness and mobilisation on these horrific anomalies?

During the 1918-20 pandemic, the repressive Rowlatt Act (1918) was enacyed and the Jallianwala Bagh massacre (April 13, 1919) was perpetrated. Just as in 2020, the Delhi communal violence and arrests of pro-democracy students, activists, intellectuals are underway. Shall we continue to remain immersed in the politics of hatred? Or shall we togethert launch a mass movement demanding better public health?

Neglect by Litterateurs 

Besides our historians and economists, our litterateurs have also paid little attention to pandemic and human miseries. Rajinder Singh Bedi (1915-1984) was a towering Urdu story writer; widely read and well-received within Bollywood as well. His Urdu story “Quarantine”, remained least read. So was the attendant negligence of literary critics. Even in the life-writings and reportage of such perosnalities, we hardly see references of such accounts. Even in the developed world, we hardly get much of such accounts, except the novel, “Plague” (1945) of Camus. Has this novel got enough of attention?

John M Barry’s book (2006), The Great Influenza, is an eye opener. A reading tells us that the book is based more on oral accounts as very little wriiten documentation is available. It is clear also that the Americans, dominant in world politics by then, preferred to hide and downplay the pandemic of 1918-20. The facts were revealed by Spain, hence the name, Spanish Flu, whereas it had acutually originated from within the barracks of the US navy at Kansas. Barry says that sharing the truth about the pandemic is the first prerequisite before tackling or handling it. The second prerequisite is for those in power to obtain confidence and trust of the people. He says,

 “The final lesson of 1918, a simple one yet one most difficult to execute, is that ...those in authority must retain the public’s trust. The way to do that is to distort nothing, to put the best face on nothing, to try to manipulate no one. Lincoln said that first and best a leader must make whatever horror exists concrete. Only then will people be able to break it apart”     

Amit Kapur’s book, Riding the Tiger, cursorily refers to the economic depression after 1918. Inflation had skyrocketed and GDP was down to a negative 11%. Thus, even economists have not made such studies and assessments as popular as they should.  Just as the incumbent regime in 2020 did not consult the state governments while issuing diktats of the first lockdown, the colonial regime in 1896 had not consulted the Calcutta Municipality. The Darbhanga Maharaj had protested against this call. He had also warned the regime that administrative high handedness will be counterproductive.

We don’t seem to have learnt lessons from history.

David Arnold’s essay (2019), “Death and the Modern Empire: The 1918-19 Influenza Epidemic in India” reveals that no other country in the world suffered as many deaths as did India in 1918-20. Government documents, newspapers, memoirs, correspondences, and even obituaries of the day, don’t record much about inflation, food scarcity, and famine like situation. Arnold says that more than the epidemic death, people were concerned about hunger, whereas, the regime was attempting more to put the blame on sections of population. Thus, Arnold concludes, the epidemic of 1918 remains almost as a forgotten one. 

The kind of anti-intellectual ambience that has been created in recent years has contributed to the present malaise. Our historians, economists, health scientists, journalists need to pay attention to such dimensions of history --human miseries-- so that intellectuals are able to regain people’s trust. This trust-deficit seems to have pushed the sections of today’s popular news media Rightward. More worrisome than that, even the judiciary also appears to be slipping.

Saumya Saxena in her essay (2018) warns us about this: “This therefore cannot be written off simply as an unholy alliance between political parties and courts, or a compromise on the separation of powers because the concern here is not with judicial overreach or compromise, but the slippery slope that the Hindutva judgments enabled of campaigning through courts”. Saxena says this even without taking into account certain alarming judicial verdicts on many crucial issues subsequent to 2018. The judiciary seems to be ignoring what the Supreme Court noted in the State of Madras vs V G Row (1952) that the judiciary has to play the role of “a sentinel on the qui vive”—an eternally vigilant institution.     

We have to wake up, learning from the history of the three epidemics of modern India.

(The author teaches at Centre of Advanced Study –CA-) in History, AMU, Aligarh, India)

 

Books:

1. Muslim Politics in Bihar: Changing Contours, Routledge (Taylor Francis), London/Delhi, 2014/2018 (Reprint).

2. Contesting Colonialism and Separatism: Muslims of Muzaffarpur since 1857. Primus (Ratnasagar), Delhi, 2014.

When will we learn our lessons from previous pandemics?

Some lessons from three epidemics of Modern India: 1896-97, 1918-20 & 2020

Pandemic
Image: AP Photo/National Museum of Health.


Why do we know very little about the three epidemics of modern India? Why do we avoid putting the histories of the origin, spread, human sufferings, administrative response, mis-prioritised attention of scientific research to the issue, into our syllabi? So much so that even the Masters courses in the best departments of History in our premier universities largely avoid offering courses (or topics in a course) on this particular theme. Our history textbooks barely mention these calamities, if at all, in just in few words. Even research on such themes are either inadequate, or, these have not transcended select highly micro-specialised academic spaces. Why have we not been letting such studies enter the popular, public domain?

A cursory look into some studies on this subject clearly suggest that there have been essential eerie similarities in the regrettable anti-people response of the ruling elites to all three epidemics of modern Indian history.  

What we continue to do is something we have done all along, hiding many truths from vast sections of our people, those that pertain to some specific issue of human miseries. Just as other exclusions and silences, the politics of the dominant plays a specific role even in determining contents and priorities of education, curricula, syllabi, etc.

It is a select section of people who undertake global travels for their respective professions (traders, high ranking officers and defence personnel) who ‘import’ such infectious diseases and spread these into India. This is exactly what had happened in Bombay in 1896. Yet, they succeeded in spreading widespread public opinion that it was the slum dwellers of the ghettos that were the causes of the origin of the epidemic. Consequently, the concentration of policing, its surveillance and repression was among the poor and labouring classes of Bombay. Thus, this questionable and elitist politics of blaming those among marginalised sections and classes was in play in 1896-97 as well. It is the same pattern that has been manifest today, close to a century later, in 2020!  The manner in which those who work in the informal sector, on daily wages, were disallowed the choice of leaving for their homes when the lockdown was announced all of a sudden. An ultimatum of less than four hours was given to the country, a decision that particularly affected these people. Even in terms of facilities in the quarantine centres, our class based discrimination has been manifest, albeit in a bizarre manner.

Historian Mridula Ramanna’s essay (2003), “The Spanish Influenza Pandemic of 1918-20: The Bombay Experience”, published in an anthology is really quite an eye opener. Added to this is  another useful reference, the speech delivered by the Darbhanga Maharaj Lakshmishwar Singh, in the legislative council (Calcutta) when the bill for the Epidemic Act 1897 was being debated. Just a few months ago, historian David Arnold has also published an essay (2019) pertaining to the epidemic of 1918-20. We need to look into all these.

Whatever little reference to the 1896 epidemic we get in our books, tells us very little about human sufferings. What we study and teach our undergraduate students skips the narrative of widespread human misery. Dealing with this period we shift easily to the Chapekar brothers, who went on to kill two British officers, Rand and Ayerst. During the trial, it was then alleged that the speeches and writings of Bal Gangadhar Tilak had provided the incitement or provocation to them to kill the officers. Subsequently, section 124 A of the notorious Sedition Act 1870 was invoked against Tilak to penalise him. With this reference, our textbooks go on to describe the violent, extremist and right wing majoritarian shift in one of the trends of anti-colonial nationalism. This is arguably another version of popular jingoism that succeeds in excluding narratives of widespread human miseries experienced by thousands of Indians caused by the 1896 epimedic.

Arguably, the fashioning of different variants of nationalism also avoided discussing widespread miseries caused by these epidemics. Can any brand of nationalism really afford to avoid or ignore people’s sufferings?  This is another variety of exclusion and discrimination that our views on nationalism have been perpetrating. It has cost us heavily in the past. It also has a price being paid by large sections of Indians today.

It was in September 1896 that the first patient of plague in Bombay was detected. By February 1897, lakhs of people had out-migrated from Bombay to their respective villages and towns. At that time, this was possibly half of the Bombay population. It is said that the disease had come from Hong Kong and China. About two thousand people were dying each week in Bombay. The British administration was unnerved and had employed all its strength in containing the spread of the epidemic, particularly not letting it reach Calcutta. All in all, there are very inadequate sources or documents readily available for historians to write much about this. We cannot ascertain as to how many people actually died during their travel to homes. With historical commonsense we can however confidently conclude, and quantify that casualties were far higher than what is shown in official records.

The Epidemic Act, 1897 was more about how to prevent such epidemics in future and had little to do with how to tackle the moment. Those having access to the Darbhanga Raj Archives, tell me that the maharaj offered Rs 7000 to the Calcutta University to undertake research on finding medicine or vaccine for the disease. The follow up on this endowment fund is not known to the (presently) surviving descendants of the maharaj. One doesn’t know what does survive in the records of the Calcutta University about this? Inferring from here, do we see in 2020, any big business house coming out to offer such endowment for this purpose, except the offer made by the pharmaceutical firm, CIPLA (of Khwaja Yusuf Hamied; founded in 1935 by his father, a Gandhian, Khwaja Abdul Hamied), which is well known for producing low cost medicines?   

In 1896-97, there were complaints about Police-raids and, house-searches, and their misbehaviour against the women. These were precisely also the grievances of the Chapekar Brothers.

Ramanna tells us that on June 19, 2018, seven police sepoys were first of all found to have been infected with the Influenza in Bombay. From September 1918, it began to spread on a much wider scale. Malnourished women and children were more prone to infections and death. Gandhiji in Gujarat was infected and remained ill for a long spell. Premchand also got infected and many family members of Suryakant Tripathi Nirala (1896-1961) succumbed to Inflenza-casued deaths, which he has recorded in his autobiography in Hindi.

We should keep in mind that in 1918, antibiotics had not been discovered, which treatment has a central significance in modern-day allopathy. Both David Arnold and Mridula Ramanna tell us that the British Indian administration was more concerned about counting the numbers of affected people and entering them in records, kept issuing advisories on how people should prefer living and sleeping out in the open rather than in herding together! These advisories were issued as “memorandums”. Today in 2020, we call such advisories “notification”! In the past two months (April-May 2020), the number of government notifications is close tot 4,000. If we study these notifications carefully, we find that one notification often contradicts the other. There are confusions, and clear signs of a policy paralysis. Yet, despite such situations of human miseries, the governments in Hong Kong as well as in India have shown their promptness in putting pro-democracy critics of the regime behind bars invoking the harshest possible repressive laws.

Lessons learnt? Through the course of a century, we have not changed much in terms of dealing with pandemics. This mocks the popular saying, ‘change is the only permanent thing’.

Many British officers had themselves gone off to the salubrious climate at India’s hill stations from which locations they issued racist and often contemptuous statements! These included questonable remarks on how ‘Indians living in dirty ghettos (were) making themselves prone to the disease.’ Refuge in hill stations and running away from handling the crisis seems to have been a pattern. In 1946-47, when Bihar was aflame with unprecedented communal violence, the Governor, Sir Henry Dow had also, then, run away to Shimla.

In 1918, the British government had closed cinema halls, schools, colleges for about two months in both Bombay and Karachi. They kept advising people to remain fit and healthy and to spray disinfectants. Now imagine, in the India of 1918, how many people could have afforded and could have succeeded in obtaining disinfectants!

During that time, that too very sparingly, perhaps only once, did the Times of India and a few vernacular newspapers muster the courage of subjecting the British government to criticism: to raise the demand for making disinfectants etc available for the people. Otherwise, over all, there was an absence of voices holding the regime accountable. Thus, on this count as well, republican India of 2020 is hardly different from the colonial India of 1918.

The British government too made unsubstantiated claims of releasing lakhs of rupees for the people. Evidence suggests that not much reached people. Today’s experience suggests that quite often, such packages are more to provide for administrative loot and less to ecutally enable people’s relief. A popularly held cynical belief is: what is a calamity in which the bureaucracy and politicians don’t find opportunity to loot public fund!

At the level of policy formulation, there was confusion and inconsistency, then. Two officers, Hutchinson and Turner, kept exchanging conflicting views (and making arguments) on the origin of the pandemic. In the India of 2020, too, we see that more attention has been paid to putting the blame on a particular community, India’s Muslims, already marginalised and oppressed. This politics of diverting people’s attention was at play at that time too, despite the fact that, given the level of consciousness, masses were then more prone to see it as a natural calamity rather than haul up the regime of the day on their handling of the situation.

An example: A Bijapur jailor had asked for instructions on infected inmates. He received no response. And they continued to infect more of the prisoners. The Economy was in doldrums, yet, we hardly see popularised studies on the economic impact. The central government allowed the use of traditional medicines (Ayurved and Unani), but, on the pretext of the Bombay Medical Act 1912, the provisional provincial regimes did not allow the use of medicines other than allopathy. Thus an apathy was perpetuated. Only the caste and community based volunteer organizations were able to provide some relief to the affected populations.

Yet, even after a century and more, we have not been able to learn a lesson and evolve a robust public health system. In the India of today, we have seen that those states like Kerala, having a better public health system, have been able to deal with the crisis in a better way.

Chomsky and Harari, in their recent columns and essays on the pandemic, have explained that scientific research in recent decades has been concentrated on the medicines for cardiac diseases, on lung and liver ailments and on cancer, in which the pharma capital lobbies minted millions. The cost of production of such medicines is low, the cost passed on to patients very high.  The manufacture of both the stent (and angioplasty) is one such pro elite mega scam in the health sector.  In contrast, as Chomsky and others argue, research on vaccines for epidemics just do not get the requisite funds of reserach attention.The politics and priority of medical research should be the subject matter of Indian political and policy debate! Questions need to be asked. Why are vaccines for afflictions like polio and epidemics the sole responsibilities of governments and of the WHO-UNO, whereas private capital extracts money from people only on other medicines?Do we not need to launch a huge mass awareness and mobilisation on these horrific anomalies?

During the 1918-20 pandemic, the repressive Rowlatt Act (1918) was enacyed and the Jallianwala Bagh massacre (April 13, 1919) was perpetrated. Just as in 2020, the Delhi communal violence and arrests of pro-democracy students, activists, intellectuals are underway. Shall we continue to remain immersed in the politics of hatred? Or shall we togethert launch a mass movement demanding better public health?

Neglect by Litterateurs 

Besides our historians and economists, our litterateurs have also paid little attention to pandemic and human miseries. Rajinder Singh Bedi (1915-1984) was a towering Urdu story writer; widely read and well-received within Bollywood as well. His Urdu story “Quarantine”, remained least read. So was the attendant negligence of literary critics. Even in the life-writings and reportage of such perosnalities, we hardly see references of such accounts. Even in the developed world, we hardly get much of such accounts, except the novel, “Plague” (1945) of Camus. Has this novel got enough of attention?

John M Barry’s book (2006), The Great Influenza, is an eye opener. A reading tells us that the book is based more on oral accounts as very little wriiten documentation is available. It is clear also that the Americans, dominant in world politics by then, preferred to hide and downplay the pandemic of 1918-20. The facts were revealed by Spain, hence the name, Spanish Flu, whereas it had acutually originated from within the barracks of the US navy at Kansas. Barry says that sharing the truth about the pandemic is the first prerequisite before tackling or handling it. The second prerequisite is for those in power to obtain confidence and trust of the people. He says,

 “The final lesson of 1918, a simple one yet one most difficult to execute, is that ...those in authority must retain the public’s trust. The way to do that is to distort nothing, to put the best face on nothing, to try to manipulate no one. Lincoln said that first and best a leader must make whatever horror exists concrete. Only then will people be able to break it apart”     

Amit Kapur’s book, Riding the Tiger, cursorily refers to the economic depression after 1918. Inflation had skyrocketed and GDP was down to a negative 11%. Thus, even economists have not made such studies and assessments as popular as they should.  Just as the incumbent regime in 2020 did not consult the state governments while issuing diktats of the first lockdown, the colonial regime in 1896 had not consulted the Calcutta Municipality. The Darbhanga Maharaj had protested against this call. He had also warned the regime that administrative high handedness will be counterproductive.

We don’t seem to have learnt lessons from history.

David Arnold’s essay (2019), “Death and the Modern Empire: The 1918-19 Influenza Epidemic in India” reveals that no other country in the world suffered as many deaths as did India in 1918-20. Government documents, newspapers, memoirs, correspondences, and even obituaries of the day, don’t record much about inflation, food scarcity, and famine like situation. Arnold says that more than the epidemic death, people were concerned about hunger, whereas, the regime was attempting more to put the blame on sections of population. Thus, Arnold concludes, the epidemic of 1918 remains almost as a forgotten one. 

The kind of anti-intellectual ambience that has been created in recent years has contributed to the present malaise. Our historians, economists, health scientists, journalists need to pay attention to such dimensions of history --human miseries-- so that intellectuals are able to regain people’s trust. This trust-deficit seems to have pushed the sections of today’s popular news media Rightward. More worrisome than that, even the judiciary also appears to be slipping.

Saumya Saxena in her essay (2018) warns us about this: “This therefore cannot be written off simply as an unholy alliance between political parties and courts, or a compromise on the separation of powers because the concern here is not with judicial overreach or compromise, but the slippery slope that the Hindutva judgments enabled of campaigning through courts”. Saxena says this even without taking into account certain alarming judicial verdicts on many crucial issues subsequent to 2018. The judiciary seems to be ignoring what the Supreme Court noted in the State of Madras vs V G Row (1952) that the judiciary has to play the role of “a sentinel on the qui vive”—an eternally vigilant institution.     

We have to wake up, learning from the history of the three epidemics of modern India.

(The author teaches at Centre of Advanced Study –CA-) in History, AMU, Aligarh, India)

 

Books:

1. Muslim Politics in Bihar: Changing Contours, Routledge (Taylor Francis), London/Delhi, 2014/2018 (Reprint).

2. Contesting Colonialism and Separatism: Muslims of Muzaffarpur since 1857. Primus (Ratnasagar), Delhi, 2014.

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RTI Impact: CIC directs Chief Labour Commissioner to publish stranded migrant workers' data within a week

Activist Venkatesh Nayak takes us through the entire journey of the case

01 Jun 2020

Migrants

Readers might remember my previous despatch about an RTI intervention to obtain access to information about migrant workers stranded in different parts of the country since the nation-wide lockdown to contain the spread of COVID-19 began on 25th March 2020. On April 8, 2020, the Chief Labour Commissioner (CLC), under the Union Ministry of Labour and Employment had issued a D.O. letter to the Regional Heads stationed in 20 different places across the country to collect  details about every stranded migrant worker and send it to New Delhi within three days. On May 5, 2020, the Central Public Information Officer (CPIO) had claimed in an unsigned reply, that the Statistics Section of the Office of the CLC did not have this information. I filed a complaint with the CIC, the same day. 

On May 27, 2020, the Central Information Commission (CIC) conducted an out-of-turn hearing of my complaint against the CPIO's reply, treating it as a matter deserving urgent attention. Now the CIC has issued an advisory to the CLC under Section 25(5) of The Right to Information Act, 2005 (RTI Act) requiring him to cause all available information about stranded migrant workers to be uploaded on an official website within a week's time, in accordance with Section 4 of the Act. This information is required to be updated from time to time. 

 The CIC's decision may be read here  

The RTI application may be read here  

The CPIO's reply may be read here 

 

The Complaint submitted to the CIC 

The text of the Complaint may be read here 

I submitted the following grounds in support of my prayer for proactive disclosure of data about migrant workers: 

1) that all the Regional Heads to whom the CLC addressed the D.O. of 08/04/2020 are subject by law to his administrative jurisdiction. There is no reason why the Regional Heads would not have complied with the instructions of the Respondent Public Authority to complete the enumeration exercise and send the data within the time period specified in the said D.O.; 

2) that the information sought concerns the lives of not just one person but all migrant workers residing within the territory of India due to the widespread effect of COVID-19. This Complainant searched the website of the Respondent Public Authority for information sought in the instant RTI application before submitting this Complaint After finding that none of the information is disclosed suo motu on the said website, he felt constrained to seek access to such information formally, not for himself alone, but for the benefit of the taxpaying citizenry at large who are dependent on such migrant workers directly or indirectly in a myriad ways; 

3) that all the information sought in the instant RTI application is that which ought to have been disclosed by the Respondent Public Authority proactively under Sections 4(1)(c) and 4(1)(d) of the RTI Act read with Section 4(2) of the RTI Act, so that people are not required to file formal RTI applications to obtain access to it;

 

My additional submissions to the CIC 

The CIC granted an out of turn hearing within three weeks of receiving my complaint. On May 27, 2020, the CPIO and I were heard via telephone because neither of us could travel to the CIC Bhawan during the the fourth phase of the lockdown. The CIC also took note of my additional submission made on the following points (verbally submitted during the hearing and followed it up in writing later on): 

1) that as a founder member of the International Labour Organisation which was constituted 101 years ago, in 1919, India had ratified the Labour Statistics Convention, 1985 in April 1992. Under Article 8 of this Convention, India has accepted its international obligation to collect:  

"Statistics of the structure and distribution of the economically active population shall be compiled in such a way as to be representative of the country as a whole, for detailed analysis and to serve as benchmark data." 

 

This obligation includes the duty to collect information about migrant workers also, and that duty existed even before the CLC issued its April 8, 2020 circular, I argued.

 2) that according to the data presented by the Joint Secretary, Union Home Ministry, at a press briefing held on May 23, 2020, there were four crore migrant workers across the country. Of these, 75 lakh had been ferried to their home States on trains and buses. Even the 4 crore figure was based on 2011 Census whose detailed Data Tables were released as late as in July 2019. So it is reasonable to expect that this figure had become obsolete and the actual numbers might be much more than what the Government was citing, I argued. Nevertheless, by the Government's own admission there were 3.25 crore migrant workers who had not yet returned to their home States, I argued. So, the collecting and publishing of statistics about migrant workers was as relevant as ever because three quarters of them had to be accounted for. 

My additional submission may be read here 

 

The CIC's decision and reasoning 

The CIC took serious note of the issue of stranded migrant workers. In its decision, the CIC extensively cited from the orders of the Supreme Court of India (the suo motu case) and the High Courts of Orissa, Madras and Andhra Pradesh which have already taken judicial notice of the extreme levels of distress and suffering of migrant workers, resulting in scores of deaths.  

The CIC has now issued an advisory to the CLC as follows: 

"...an advisory is issued u/s 25(5) of the RTI Act to the Chief Labour Commissioner, to suo-moto upload maximum data as available with them in relation to the migrant workers stranded in relief camps or shelters organised by governments or at the workplace of their employers or generally clustered in any district and wherever possible cumulative numbers of the migrant workers and the names of the districts from where the data is collected should also be uploaded in compliance with Section 4 of the RTI Act, 2005, having regard to the peculiar circumstances prevalent in the country. The website should be continuously updated as and when additional data on this subject matter is received from time to time. The Chief Labour Commissioner is advised to ensure compliance of this advisory in letter and spirit and to submit a compliance report to the Commission within a period of 01 week from today. The present CPIO is directed to serve a copy of this order on the Chief Labour Commissioner for his immediate and necessary action." (emphasis supplied) 

The CIC buttressed its decision with the following reasoning: 

"Undoubtedly, the need of the hour is to get concrete data regarding the number of stranded migrant workers across the country so that necessary measures may be taken by the concerned State Governments/ UTs to provide some relief to them... 

...The Commission while verifying the authenticity of this (additional) submission found that India has ratified Article 8 of Part II of the Labour Statistics Convention, 1985 on 01.04.1992 which is still in force and for the purpose of implementing the said ILO Convention, India is under an international obligation to collect data about all categories of workers across India even under normal circumstances. This makes it clear that the duty to collect data about migrant workers across India arises not solely from the said D.O. letter but first and foremost from the international obligation as a member of ILO who has ratified the said International Convention. Therefore, the Respondent Authority is under a bounden duty to collect information about migrant workers and make the same publicly accessible even during normal times... 

...Keeping in view the submissions ... and the poor response from the respondent, the Commission considers the contentions of the complainant to be well founded, and strongly opines that what is required is to immediately place the data regarding migrant workers on the website of the Respondent Authority. It is pertinent to note that given the uncertainties of the present times, any further delay in disclosing these details or evading the disclosure will only compound the difficulties of either side, the government and that of the unfortunate migrant workers... 

...Moreover, being a matter of national importance during this pandemic, it is likely that there will be more requests for information on similar lines from the citizens in the immediate future which necessitates expeditious action on the part of the Respondent office to voluntarily disclose as much data as possible so that citizens do not have to file RTI Applications to seek such basic yet significant information. Section 4(2) of RTI Act may be noted in this regard which mandates every public authority to provide as much information suo- moto to the public at regular intervals through various means of communication, including the Internet, so that the public need not resort to the use of RTI Act... 

...Moreover, the purpose and object of the promulgation of the RTI Act, 2005 was to make the public authorities more transparent and accountable to the public and to provide freedom to every citizen to secure access to information under the control of public authorities, consistent with public interest, in order to promote openness, transparency and accountability in administration and in relation to matters connected therewith or incidental thereto.... 

...The foregoing ... lend adequate emphasis on the need for the Respondent office to act in a manner which is favourable to dispensation of justice. Although this bench is conscious of the fact that under Section 18 of the RTI Act, directions for disclosure of information is not warranted, however, keeping in view the extraordinary circumstances that necessitated this complaint, it is prudent to cloak the requirement of the Complainant in the letter and spirit of the RTI Act. In doing so, the Commission invokes section 25(5) of the RTI Act and issues an advisory to the respondent authority to maintain a robust and dynamic website for placing all data related to migrant workers therein as and when it is received from different Regional Heads. At this point, it is necessary for the CPIO to put his best possible efforts to collect this data from different Regional Heads and place the same on their website immediately even if it is done in a piece meal manner. It is also necessary to continue to update this data from time to time as additional data is received from various quarters."

(emphasis supplied)

 

End Note 

The first step towards resolving a problem in public administration is to collect adequate information and data about the problem. That crucial step in the case of migrant workers was initiated late. Even now, there is very little credible information about the actual number of migrant workers stranded in various parts of the country. The CLC's D. O. of 8th April, 2020 was a step in the right direction, but its outcomes are hidden from public view. Meanwhile, innumerable migrant workers continue to suffer despite the well-meaning efforts of various authorities and private actors. I hope the CLC will take the CIC's advisory seriously and make data about migrant workers available in the public domain in real time. It is only on the basis of reliable information that further interventions can be planned in a systematic manner. 

Venkatesh Nayak is the Programme HeadAccess to Information ProgrammeCommonwealth Human Rights Initiative

RTI Impact: CIC directs Chief Labour Commissioner to publish stranded migrant workers' data within a week

Activist Venkatesh Nayak takes us through the entire journey of the case

Migrants

Readers might remember my previous despatch about an RTI intervention to obtain access to information about migrant workers stranded in different parts of the country since the nation-wide lockdown to contain the spread of COVID-19 began on 25th March 2020. On April 8, 2020, the Chief Labour Commissioner (CLC), under the Union Ministry of Labour and Employment had issued a D.O. letter to the Regional Heads stationed in 20 different places across the country to collect  details about every stranded migrant worker and send it to New Delhi within three days. On May 5, 2020, the Central Public Information Officer (CPIO) had claimed in an unsigned reply, that the Statistics Section of the Office of the CLC did not have this information. I filed a complaint with the CIC, the same day. 

On May 27, 2020, the Central Information Commission (CIC) conducted an out-of-turn hearing of my complaint against the CPIO's reply, treating it as a matter deserving urgent attention. Now the CIC has issued an advisory to the CLC under Section 25(5) of The Right to Information Act, 2005 (RTI Act) requiring him to cause all available information about stranded migrant workers to be uploaded on an official website within a week's time, in accordance with Section 4 of the Act. This information is required to be updated from time to time. 

 The CIC's decision may be read here  

The RTI application may be read here  

The CPIO's reply may be read here 

 

The Complaint submitted to the CIC 

The text of the Complaint may be read here 

I submitted the following grounds in support of my prayer for proactive disclosure of data about migrant workers: 

1) that all the Regional Heads to whom the CLC addressed the D.O. of 08/04/2020 are subject by law to his administrative jurisdiction. There is no reason why the Regional Heads would not have complied with the instructions of the Respondent Public Authority to complete the enumeration exercise and send the data within the time period specified in the said D.O.; 

2) that the information sought concerns the lives of not just one person but all migrant workers residing within the territory of India due to the widespread effect of COVID-19. This Complainant searched the website of the Respondent Public Authority for information sought in the instant RTI application before submitting this Complaint After finding that none of the information is disclosed suo motu on the said website, he felt constrained to seek access to such information formally, not for himself alone, but for the benefit of the taxpaying citizenry at large who are dependent on such migrant workers directly or indirectly in a myriad ways; 

3) that all the information sought in the instant RTI application is that which ought to have been disclosed by the Respondent Public Authority proactively under Sections 4(1)(c) and 4(1)(d) of the RTI Act read with Section 4(2) of the RTI Act, so that people are not required to file formal RTI applications to obtain access to it;

 

My additional submissions to the CIC 

The CIC granted an out of turn hearing within three weeks of receiving my complaint. On May 27, 2020, the CPIO and I were heard via telephone because neither of us could travel to the CIC Bhawan during the the fourth phase of the lockdown. The CIC also took note of my additional submission made on the following points (verbally submitted during the hearing and followed it up in writing later on): 

1) that as a founder member of the International Labour Organisation which was constituted 101 years ago, in 1919, India had ratified the Labour Statistics Convention, 1985 in April 1992. Under Article 8 of this Convention, India has accepted its international obligation to collect:  

"Statistics of the structure and distribution of the economically active population shall be compiled in such a way as to be representative of the country as a whole, for detailed analysis and to serve as benchmark data." 

 

This obligation includes the duty to collect information about migrant workers also, and that duty existed even before the CLC issued its April 8, 2020 circular, I argued.

 2) that according to the data presented by the Joint Secretary, Union Home Ministry, at a press briefing held on May 23, 2020, there were four crore migrant workers across the country. Of these, 75 lakh had been ferried to their home States on trains and buses. Even the 4 crore figure was based on 2011 Census whose detailed Data Tables were released as late as in July 2019. So it is reasonable to expect that this figure had become obsolete and the actual numbers might be much more than what the Government was citing, I argued. Nevertheless, by the Government's own admission there were 3.25 crore migrant workers who had not yet returned to their home States, I argued. So, the collecting and publishing of statistics about migrant workers was as relevant as ever because three quarters of them had to be accounted for. 

My additional submission may be read here 

 

The CIC's decision and reasoning 

The CIC took serious note of the issue of stranded migrant workers. In its decision, the CIC extensively cited from the orders of the Supreme Court of India (the suo motu case) and the High Courts of Orissa, Madras and Andhra Pradesh which have already taken judicial notice of the extreme levels of distress and suffering of migrant workers, resulting in scores of deaths.  

The CIC has now issued an advisory to the CLC as follows: 

"...an advisory is issued u/s 25(5) of the RTI Act to the Chief Labour Commissioner, to suo-moto upload maximum data as available with them in relation to the migrant workers stranded in relief camps or shelters organised by governments or at the workplace of their employers or generally clustered in any district and wherever possible cumulative numbers of the migrant workers and the names of the districts from where the data is collected should also be uploaded in compliance with Section 4 of the RTI Act, 2005, having regard to the peculiar circumstances prevalent in the country. The website should be continuously updated as and when additional data on this subject matter is received from time to time. The Chief Labour Commissioner is advised to ensure compliance of this advisory in letter and spirit and to submit a compliance report to the Commission within a period of 01 week from today. The present CPIO is directed to serve a copy of this order on the Chief Labour Commissioner for his immediate and necessary action." (emphasis supplied) 

The CIC buttressed its decision with the following reasoning: 

"Undoubtedly, the need of the hour is to get concrete data regarding the number of stranded migrant workers across the country so that necessary measures may be taken by the concerned State Governments/ UTs to provide some relief to them... 

...The Commission while verifying the authenticity of this (additional) submission found that India has ratified Article 8 of Part II of the Labour Statistics Convention, 1985 on 01.04.1992 which is still in force and for the purpose of implementing the said ILO Convention, India is under an international obligation to collect data about all categories of workers across India even under normal circumstances. This makes it clear that the duty to collect data about migrant workers across India arises not solely from the said D.O. letter but first and foremost from the international obligation as a member of ILO who has ratified the said International Convention. Therefore, the Respondent Authority is under a bounden duty to collect information about migrant workers and make the same publicly accessible even during normal times... 

...Keeping in view the submissions ... and the poor response from the respondent, the Commission considers the contentions of the complainant to be well founded, and strongly opines that what is required is to immediately place the data regarding migrant workers on the website of the Respondent Authority. It is pertinent to note that given the uncertainties of the present times, any further delay in disclosing these details or evading the disclosure will only compound the difficulties of either side, the government and that of the unfortunate migrant workers... 

...Moreover, being a matter of national importance during this pandemic, it is likely that there will be more requests for information on similar lines from the citizens in the immediate future which necessitates expeditious action on the part of the Respondent office to voluntarily disclose as much data as possible so that citizens do not have to file RTI Applications to seek such basic yet significant information. Section 4(2) of RTI Act may be noted in this regard which mandates every public authority to provide as much information suo- moto to the public at regular intervals through various means of communication, including the Internet, so that the public need not resort to the use of RTI Act... 

...Moreover, the purpose and object of the promulgation of the RTI Act, 2005 was to make the public authorities more transparent and accountable to the public and to provide freedom to every citizen to secure access to information under the control of public authorities, consistent with public interest, in order to promote openness, transparency and accountability in administration and in relation to matters connected therewith or incidental thereto.... 

...The foregoing ... lend adequate emphasis on the need for the Respondent office to act in a manner which is favourable to dispensation of justice. Although this bench is conscious of the fact that under Section 18 of the RTI Act, directions for disclosure of information is not warranted, however, keeping in view the extraordinary circumstances that necessitated this complaint, it is prudent to cloak the requirement of the Complainant in the letter and spirit of the RTI Act. In doing so, the Commission invokes section 25(5) of the RTI Act and issues an advisory to the respondent authority to maintain a robust and dynamic website for placing all data related to migrant workers therein as and when it is received from different Regional Heads. At this point, it is necessary for the CPIO to put his best possible efforts to collect this data from different Regional Heads and place the same on their website immediately even if it is done in a piece meal manner. It is also necessary to continue to update this data from time to time as additional data is received from various quarters."

(emphasis supplied)

 

End Note 

The first step towards resolving a problem in public administration is to collect adequate information and data about the problem. That crucial step in the case of migrant workers was initiated late. Even now, there is very little credible information about the actual number of migrant workers stranded in various parts of the country. The CLC's D. O. of 8th April, 2020 was a step in the right direction, but its outcomes are hidden from public view. Meanwhile, innumerable migrant workers continue to suffer despite the well-meaning efforts of various authorities and private actors. I hope the CLC will take the CIC's advisory seriously and make data about migrant workers available in the public domain in real time. It is only on the basis of reliable information that further interventions can be planned in a systematic manner. 

Venkatesh Nayak is the Programme HeadAccess to Information ProgrammeCommonwealth Human Rights Initiative

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European Parliament raises concerns about intimidation of activists in India

Writes to Amit Shah expressing alarm at how UAPA is being used to silence even peaceful protesters

01 Jun 2020

european union

Maria Arena, Chair of the European Parliament’s Subcommittee on Human Rights (DROI), has written to Indian Home Minister Amit Shah raising serious concerns about the manner in which human rights activists, peaceful protesters and sundry dissenters are being thrown behind bars and being silenced using provisions of the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA).

The DROI is a parliamentary body that actively monitors human rights developments across the globe and publicly advocates in favour of the respect for fundamental rights. In her letter Arena states, “…we are closely following the protection of human rights defenders in India and wish to express serious concerns about the recent arrests of Anand Teltumbde and Gautam Navlakha by the National Investigative Agency. It is particularly alarming to note that human rights defenders cannot conduct advocacy activities, notably in favor of India’s poorest and most marginalized communities, without becoming subject to intimidation and harassment, but equally worrying is the fact that terrorism charges, including under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), are used to silence them. As pointed out by United Nations Special Procedures, this clearly represents a violation of international human rights standards.”

The letter further states, “To date, the European Parliament has noticed that various forms of legitimate peaceful protests against laws, policies and governmental actions, including the Citizenship Amendment Act, have been portrayed as terrorist activities under this legislation, resulting in a number of arrests under this umbrella. This is notably the case for human rights activists such as Safoora Zargar, Gulfisha Fatima, Khalid Saifi, Meeran Haider, Shifa-Ur-Rehman, Dr Kafeel Khan; Asif Iqbal and Sharjeel Imam who were recently arrested by the Police.”

Elaborating on the concerns regarding UAPA it states, “Indeed, the vague definition of ‘unlawful activities’ and ‘membership of terrorist organisations’ could allow for wide discretion by the government in applying the law. Such a process would substantially weaken judicial oversight and the protection of civil liberties in the country. Consequently, we strongly believe that measures should be urgently taken to stop impeding and criminalising the work of human rights defenders by means of overly broad national security legislation and to respect their freedoms of association and expression.”

The entire letter may be read here:

Related:

Designate India as 'Country of Particular Concern', impose sanctions: USCIRF

Continued and systematic vilification of minorities during lockdown: Report

Freedom Report slams India’s record on civil liberties

 

European Parliament raises concerns about intimidation of activists in India

Writes to Amit Shah expressing alarm at how UAPA is being used to silence even peaceful protesters

european union

Maria Arena, Chair of the European Parliament’s Subcommittee on Human Rights (DROI), has written to Indian Home Minister Amit Shah raising serious concerns about the manner in which human rights activists, peaceful protesters and sundry dissenters are being thrown behind bars and being silenced using provisions of the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA).

The DROI is a parliamentary body that actively monitors human rights developments across the globe and publicly advocates in favour of the respect for fundamental rights. In her letter Arena states, “…we are closely following the protection of human rights defenders in India and wish to express serious concerns about the recent arrests of Anand Teltumbde and Gautam Navlakha by the National Investigative Agency. It is particularly alarming to note that human rights defenders cannot conduct advocacy activities, notably in favor of India’s poorest and most marginalized communities, without becoming subject to intimidation and harassment, but equally worrying is the fact that terrorism charges, including under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), are used to silence them. As pointed out by United Nations Special Procedures, this clearly represents a violation of international human rights standards.”

The letter further states, “To date, the European Parliament has noticed that various forms of legitimate peaceful protests against laws, policies and governmental actions, including the Citizenship Amendment Act, have been portrayed as terrorist activities under this legislation, resulting in a number of arrests under this umbrella. This is notably the case for human rights activists such as Safoora Zargar, Gulfisha Fatima, Khalid Saifi, Meeran Haider, Shifa-Ur-Rehman, Dr Kafeel Khan; Asif Iqbal and Sharjeel Imam who were recently arrested by the Police.”

Elaborating on the concerns regarding UAPA it states, “Indeed, the vague definition of ‘unlawful activities’ and ‘membership of terrorist organisations’ could allow for wide discretion by the government in applying the law. Such a process would substantially weaken judicial oversight and the protection of civil liberties in the country. Consequently, we strongly believe that measures should be urgently taken to stop impeding and criminalising the work of human rights defenders by means of overly broad national security legislation and to respect their freedoms of association and expression.”

The entire letter may be read here:

Related:

Designate India as 'Country of Particular Concern', impose sanctions: USCIRF

Continued and systematic vilification of minorities during lockdown: Report

Freedom Report slams India’s record on civil liberties

 

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Quarantine facilities across the country crumbling apart show findings

Most quarantine centers suffer from overcrowding, poor hygiene standards and lack of food and water

30 May 2020

LockdownImage Courtesy:timesofindia

One day short of completing the 4th phase of the Covid-19 lockdown, India still seems a long way from conquering the Covid-19 beast. According to the Central government, as on May 26, a total of 22.81 lakh people were in quarantine facilities all over the country.

In Maharashtra, the number of people currently in home quarantine is 535,467 and those in institutional quarantine is 35,967. In Gujarat, a total of 482, 434 people are in quarantine – 471,003 in home quarantine, 10,732 in government facilities and 699 in private facilities. In Bihar, those in quarantine stand at 2.1 lakh, in Uttar Pradesh – 3.6 lakh, in Chhattisgarh – 1.86 lakh, in Odisha – 1.18 lakh, 88,536 in Jharkhand, 13,941 in Assam and 1.32 lakh in West Bengal.

The authorities are yet to enhance testing measures and streamline the methods of transportation of migrants back to their villages. Now, with the number of infections surging, the authorities are finding it difficult to operate their quarantine centers efficiently and provide people admitted to them with basic facilities like hygiene and nutritious food.

Media reports about abysmal quarantine facilities

If one goes through the innumerable media reports on the matter, it will be apparent that people are fleeing quarantine centers, especially those from the underprivileged sections citizens who are lodged in facilities provided by the state government, alleging they are treated like second-class citizens and untouchables who struggle for food, water, clean restrooms and basic medical care. These reports highlight how the quarantine facilities are not upto the mark, especially in terms of food and sanitation.

A fortnight ago, over 100 migrants in Latehar, Jharkhand escaped from a quarantine centre citing poor facilities there, The Times of India reported.

At a quarantine centre in Sheikhpura, Bihar, twelve migrants, including two women fell critically ill after having dinner there, The Week reported.

In Bihar’s Madhepura, nine migrants were booked under Section 188 of the IPC after they allegedly changed their quarantine centre without the consent of local authorities. They had complained that the quarantine center they were kept at lacked basic facilities like water and electricity, ANI reported.

Returnee migrant labourers lodged at the Dhubri River Port mass quarantine centre in Assam protested that they were given only food and not provided any items of daily use, The Telegraph India reported.

In Chhattisgarh, three girls, including two infants died in three separate quarantine centers across the State. Officials said that two of the deaths of an 18-month old and three-month-old caused due to asphyxiation while the children were being fed. A four-month old who passed away too was said to be ‘severely malnourished’, The Indian Express reported.

In another incident, around 33 people at the quarantine center in Beswargaon Nursing Training Centre in Kokrajhar, Assam, tried to flee alleging lack of facilities, East Mojo reported.

Sabrang India’s findings

In light of these reports, Sabrang India spoke to various migrants who have now safely returned home and are in / have been discharged from various quarantine centers across the country. This is what they had to say.

Parmanand Rana from Odisha who was in a quarantine centre in Balangir district said, “We were about 40 people quarantined in a school in the village. There were three bathrooms, but two were dirty, so we used to use only one. We were provided with beds and food. We got food – rice, dal and a vegetable, twice a day – lunch at 12 noon and dinner and around 8 PM. We were also provided breakfast in the morning and tea between meals. The centre is quite clean, though there are no dustbins. At the start, there was a lot of problem regarding water. There was no water to wash hands or to drink. We didn’t even have sanitizers. No doctors visit regularly, but our Covid-19 test has been done and we are now waiting for our results.”

A migrant from Jharkhand requesting anonymity said, “I was sent to a quarantine centre in Barkagaon in Jharkhand when I returned from Mumbai. We were all from one village and were 32 of us. We didn’t face any problem at the quarantine centre at all. The centre was huge and there was space for recreation as well. The beds, food, mosquito nets, etc. all in place when we went there.”

On the condition of anonymity, another migrant from West Bengal’s Birbhum district told us, “When I returned from Mumbai, I went to the police station in the village. The quarantine center there was full and we did wait there for two days. There were some delays in food getting delivered to us and so we a group of 10 – 12 of us volunteered to quarantine at a school in the village. There, however, we had to make our own arrangements for food and other facilities as the government couldn’t provide it to us. The school was cleaned by the villagers and handed over to us and thereafter for 14 days, we maintained the cleanliness in the premises. We have no issues with the government because we know it is trying its best. There were a lot of people who came to the state in the past few days and the government was trying to provide for everybody. Plus, Cyclone Amphan made matters worse. It is still raining continuously here and that is why the delays took place at the start.”

Laxman Prasad from Jharkhand said, “I spent only two days at the government quarantine center. The doctor conducted check-ups and declared us healthy. At the start there were some lapses in the facilities. We weren’t getting proper food at the center at the start due to the number of people there. Hence, we requested for home quarantine and were granted permission for the same.”

A migrant from Odisha who completed his mandatory 14-quarantine at the Biripali Panchayat High School in the Biripali village, said“We were 20 people at the quarantine center. The government has provided us everything through the Panchayat. There are 4 toilets and the facility is clean and well maintained. We’re provided two meals, apart from breakfast and snacks. The mukhiya of the village has made arrangements for the cleaning of the facility. We didn’t face any problem at the center.”

In March, there were a litany of complaints against civic-run Kasturba Hospital in Mumbai which was the first isolation facility in Mumbai where patients complained of filthy conditions, broken and soiled bathrooms and no water. At the time, BMC Chief Pravin Pardeshi had told The Times of India, “We are revamping facilities at the hospital. It is mentally stressful to be alone in quarantine, so we are providing TV and magazines to patients to make them feel better.” The BMC also had plans to rope in a private agency to look after the cleaning requirements at the centre.

The same publication had reported about an Air India Pilot couple who had alleged that the Seven Hills Hospital where they were put in quarantine, wasn’t following WHO guidelines. They alleged that they were not asked basic questions about their health, there were no gloves, no sanitizers, no N95 or triple layer masks at the hospital and the whole area including the common washrooms was not disinfected. At the time, a doctor of the hospital had said that the couple could’ve chosen to stay in a hotel-based quarantine instead of getting admitted to a public facility. Dr. Mohan Joshi, in-charge of Seven Hills, said that people in quarantine didn’t need to be attended to regularly, as they were asymptomatic. He had told TOI, “Regular monitoring is done for patients in isolation who have symptoms.”

Centre’s guidelines for quarantine

According to the guidelines for quarantine facilities issued by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, each facility must have:

1.       Strategic entry and exit points to prevent and control infection in the facility

2.       Medical doctors and other health care staff needs to be available for routine examination

3.       Housekeeping staff should be made available

4.       Availability of security personnel should be ensured

5.       Rooms with an in house capacity of 5 to 10 beds

6.       Potable water

7.       Disposable and pre-packed food needs to be served to quarantine persons

8.       Personal toiletries/ towel/ blanket/ pillow with covers/electric kettle, room heater and water dispenser may be provided to each person depending on availability.

However, two months later, the problem still seems to persist. A most recent report by The Indian Express speaks about 53-year-old Deepak Hate, a constable, who passed away merely hours after being discharged from a Covid Care Centre (CCC) which is earmarked for asymptomatic carriers of the virus.

In the wake of these findings and reports, perhaps the state and central governments need to revisit their testing guidelines apart from conducting strict inspections of quarantine facilities across the country.

Related:

Migrant labourers from Bengal driven out of quarantine center in Odisha
SHOCKING! States ask incoming migrants to pay for institutional quarantine

Quarantine facilities across the country crumbling apart show findings

Most quarantine centers suffer from overcrowding, poor hygiene standards and lack of food and water

LockdownImage Courtesy:timesofindia

One day short of completing the 4th phase of the Covid-19 lockdown, India still seems a long way from conquering the Covid-19 beast. According to the Central government, as on May 26, a total of 22.81 lakh people were in quarantine facilities all over the country.

In Maharashtra, the number of people currently in home quarantine is 535,467 and those in institutional quarantine is 35,967. In Gujarat, a total of 482, 434 people are in quarantine – 471,003 in home quarantine, 10,732 in government facilities and 699 in private facilities. In Bihar, those in quarantine stand at 2.1 lakh, in Uttar Pradesh – 3.6 lakh, in Chhattisgarh – 1.86 lakh, in Odisha – 1.18 lakh, 88,536 in Jharkhand, 13,941 in Assam and 1.32 lakh in West Bengal.

The authorities are yet to enhance testing measures and streamline the methods of transportation of migrants back to their villages. Now, with the number of infections surging, the authorities are finding it difficult to operate their quarantine centers efficiently and provide people admitted to them with basic facilities like hygiene and nutritious food.

Media reports about abysmal quarantine facilities

If one goes through the innumerable media reports on the matter, it will be apparent that people are fleeing quarantine centers, especially those from the underprivileged sections citizens who are lodged in facilities provided by the state government, alleging they are treated like second-class citizens and untouchables who struggle for food, water, clean restrooms and basic medical care. These reports highlight how the quarantine facilities are not upto the mark, especially in terms of food and sanitation.

A fortnight ago, over 100 migrants in Latehar, Jharkhand escaped from a quarantine centre citing poor facilities there, The Times of India reported.

At a quarantine centre in Sheikhpura, Bihar, twelve migrants, including two women fell critically ill after having dinner there, The Week reported.

In Bihar’s Madhepura, nine migrants were booked under Section 188 of the IPC after they allegedly changed their quarantine centre without the consent of local authorities. They had complained that the quarantine center they were kept at lacked basic facilities like water and electricity, ANI reported.

Returnee migrant labourers lodged at the Dhubri River Port mass quarantine centre in Assam protested that they were given only food and not provided any items of daily use, The Telegraph India reported.

In Chhattisgarh, three girls, including two infants died in three separate quarantine centers across the State. Officials said that two of the deaths of an 18-month old and three-month-old caused due to asphyxiation while the children were being fed. A four-month old who passed away too was said to be ‘severely malnourished’, The Indian Express reported.

In another incident, around 33 people at the quarantine center in Beswargaon Nursing Training Centre in Kokrajhar, Assam, tried to flee alleging lack of facilities, East Mojo reported.

Sabrang India’s findings

In light of these reports, Sabrang India spoke to various migrants who have now safely returned home and are in / have been discharged from various quarantine centers across the country. This is what they had to say.

Parmanand Rana from Odisha who was in a quarantine centre in Balangir district said, “We were about 40 people quarantined in a school in the village. There were three bathrooms, but two were dirty, so we used to use only one. We were provided with beds and food. We got food – rice, dal and a vegetable, twice a day – lunch at 12 noon and dinner and around 8 PM. We were also provided breakfast in the morning and tea between meals. The centre is quite clean, though there are no dustbins. At the start, there was a lot of problem regarding water. There was no water to wash hands or to drink. We didn’t even have sanitizers. No doctors visit regularly, but our Covid-19 test has been done and we are now waiting for our results.”

A migrant from Jharkhand requesting anonymity said, “I was sent to a quarantine centre in Barkagaon in Jharkhand when I returned from Mumbai. We were all from one village and were 32 of us. We didn’t face any problem at the quarantine centre at all. The centre was huge and there was space for recreation as well. The beds, food, mosquito nets, etc. all in place when we went there.”

On the condition of anonymity, another migrant from West Bengal’s Birbhum district told us, “When I returned from Mumbai, I went to the police station in the village. The quarantine center there was full and we did wait there for two days. There were some delays in food getting delivered to us and so we a group of 10 – 12 of us volunteered to quarantine at a school in the village. There, however, we had to make our own arrangements for food and other facilities as the government couldn’t provide it to us. The school was cleaned by the villagers and handed over to us and thereafter for 14 days, we maintained the cleanliness in the premises. We have no issues with the government because we know it is trying its best. There were a lot of people who came to the state in the past few days and the government was trying to provide for everybody. Plus, Cyclone Amphan made matters worse. It is still raining continuously here and that is why the delays took place at the start.”

Laxman Prasad from Jharkhand said, “I spent only two days at the government quarantine center. The doctor conducted check-ups and declared us healthy. At the start there were some lapses in the facilities. We weren’t getting proper food at the center at the start due to the number of people there. Hence, we requested for home quarantine and were granted permission for the same.”

A migrant from Odisha who completed his mandatory 14-quarantine at the Biripali Panchayat High School in the Biripali village, said“We were 20 people at the quarantine center. The government has provided us everything through the Panchayat. There are 4 toilets and the facility is clean and well maintained. We’re provided two meals, apart from breakfast and snacks. The mukhiya of the village has made arrangements for the cleaning of the facility. We didn’t face any problem at the center.”

In March, there were a litany of complaints against civic-run Kasturba Hospital in Mumbai which was the first isolation facility in Mumbai where patients complained of filthy conditions, broken and soiled bathrooms and no water. At the time, BMC Chief Pravin Pardeshi had told The Times of India, “We are revamping facilities at the hospital. It is mentally stressful to be alone in quarantine, so we are providing TV and magazines to patients to make them feel better.” The BMC also had plans to rope in a private agency to look after the cleaning requirements at the centre.

The same publication had reported about an Air India Pilot couple who had alleged that the Seven Hills Hospital where they were put in quarantine, wasn’t following WHO guidelines. They alleged that they were not asked basic questions about their health, there were no gloves, no sanitizers, no N95 or triple layer masks at the hospital and the whole area including the common washrooms was not disinfected. At the time, a doctor of the hospital had said that the couple could’ve chosen to stay in a hotel-based quarantine instead of getting admitted to a public facility. Dr. Mohan Joshi, in-charge of Seven Hills, said that people in quarantine didn’t need to be attended to regularly, as they were asymptomatic. He had told TOI, “Regular monitoring is done for patients in isolation who have symptoms.”

Centre’s guidelines for quarantine

According to the guidelines for quarantine facilities issued by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, each facility must have:

1.       Strategic entry and exit points to prevent and control infection in the facility

2.       Medical doctors and other health care staff needs to be available for routine examination

3.       Housekeeping staff should be made available

4.       Availability of security personnel should be ensured

5.       Rooms with an in house capacity of 5 to 10 beds

6.       Potable water

7.       Disposable and pre-packed food needs to be served to quarantine persons

8.       Personal toiletries/ towel/ blanket/ pillow with covers/electric kettle, room heater and water dispenser may be provided to each person depending on availability.

However, two months later, the problem still seems to persist. A most recent report by The Indian Express speaks about 53-year-old Deepak Hate, a constable, who passed away merely hours after being discharged from a Covid Care Centre (CCC) which is earmarked for asymptomatic carriers of the virus.

In the wake of these findings and reports, perhaps the state and central governments need to revisit their testing guidelines apart from conducting strict inspections of quarantine facilities across the country.

Related:

Migrant labourers from Bengal driven out of quarantine center in Odisha
SHOCKING! States ask incoming migrants to pay for institutional quarantine

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Human Rights Defenders’ Alert India asks NHRC to step in to probe Meeran Haider’s arrest

Meeran Haider, a student activist, was booked by the Delhi Police under the UAPA for allegedly inciting Delhi riots

30 May 2020

ArrestImage Courtesy:opindia.com

India is currently reeling under a nationwide coronavirus induced lockdown. In light of this, to prevent transmission in congested spaces, the Supreme Court ordered that the government look at de-congesting prisons. However, going against this directive, the government has continued its targeting of student activists especially from the Jamia Millia Islamia University (JMIU) and Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) booking them under the stringent Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), 1967 and remanding them into custody for their alleged involvement in inciting communal violence in north-East Delhi in February and being part of anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protests in the capital.

The Delhi Police have arrested student activists like Safoora Zargar, Meeran Haider and Shifa-Ur-Rahman among scores of others. The pattern of the activists’ arrest showed that the police first booked them for allegedly organizing protests and later added stronger, more serious non-bailable offences like sedition and conspiracy to hold riots.

In light of this, Human Rights Defenders’ Alert (India) has filed an urgent appeal for action with the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) against the misuse of law and non-compliance with mandatory procedures to falsely implicate and harass student-activist and Jamia Coordination Committee (JCC) member Meeran Haider who is currently lodged in Tihar Jail.

Meeran Haider, is a PhD scholar at the JMIU and also the President of the Rashtriya Janata Dal Delhi Unit has led a number of peaceful anti-CAA protests in the capital. In a letter to the NHRC, HRDA India explained the details of Haider’s arrest and the FIR that was registered against him citing the personnel of the Delhi Police Special Cell to be perpetrators of his arrest.

According to the statement by HRDA India, Haider was summoned to the Special Cell Police Station, Lodhi Road on April 1, 2020, asking him to reach the police station for investigation purposes. He was questioned there for almost all day and then arrested the same day by the Special Cell under FIR No. 59/2020 under Sections 147, 148, 149 read with 120B of the IPC which deal with rioting, unlawful assembly and criminal conspiracy.

On April 2, Haider was produced before a Metropolitan Magistrate for remand hearing who remanded Haider to police custody for four days and later extended it by nine more days. HRDA says that at the time of arrest, the charges invoked under FIR No. 59/2020 were bailable offences with no mention of other IPC sections. Other laws and the UAPA Act were only added at a later stage, after three weeks of his arrest; a violation of the Supreme Court’s directions in Arnesh Kumar vs. State of Bihar, only to keep Haider in custody for a longer period of time.

FIR No. 59/2020

Sub-Inspector Arvind Kumar registered the said FIR on March 6, 2020. Originally it was made out for charges under Sections 147, 148, 149 read with 120 (B) of the IPC. However, later charges under Sections 124A, 153 A, 186, 353, 212, 295, 427, 436, 452, 454 read with Section 34 of the IPC and Section 3 & 4 of the Prevention of Damage to Public Property Act (PPDP) and 25 & 27 Arms Act were added. Haider wasn’t named in the FIR. The complaint said that SI Arvind Kumar received information through secret sources that the riots that took place in Delhi from February 23 to 25, 2020, were a well thought out conspiracy.

The additional charges deal with intention of promoting hatred, promoting enmity between two groups on grounds of religion, obstructing public servants, harbouring offenders, injuring or defiling places of worship with an intent to insult the religion of any class, mischief by fire or explosive substances, house-trespass after preparation for hurt and acts done by several persons in furtherance of a common intention.

Haider has been lodged in Tihar Jail since April 14, 2020. His bail application was filed on April 15 and was rejected on April 20.

However, HRDA apprised NHRC through its statement that though Haider was arrested on the alleged pretext of giving inflammatory speeches during the anti-CAA movement which led to the riots in North-East Delhi, it was found that Haider had given no speech in the week preceding the violence that took place. HRDA said that it was far-sighted to presume that the riots were triggered a week after Haider’s speech. Also, the police had not been able to provide any link between Haider’s alleged inciting speech and the riots.

The HRDA stated that Haider’s arrest was an example of the threat to freedom of speech and expression. Citing the Supreme Court’s decision in Shreya Singhal v. Union of India (2015) which stated that freedom of speech and expression had three parts – discussion, advocacy and incitement, it stated that if any address was made by Haider, there was no evidence to believe it was more than discussion or advocacy – within the fundamental right of speech and expression guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution.

Stating that Haider’s arrest wasn’t an isolated event but an example of the State’s attempt to criminalize speech by arresting activists and defenders in the country and especially apathetic during Covid-19 when directions were given for the de-congestion of prisons.

In light of this, the HRDA said that it believes that Haider was implicated in a fabricated case by the Delhi Police which targeted him for opposing the CAA. The charges under which he was booked demonstrated the malafide intentions of the Delhi Police, HRDA added.

HRDA appeal

It has appealed to the NHRC to direct the prison monitor of the NHRC to take an immediate visit to the Tihar Jail to determine Haider’s condition of detention, issue a notice to the Delhi Commissioner of Police to produce documents related to Haider’s arrest within 48 hours – arrest memo, medico-legal certificate, inspection memo, names of arresting/detaining officers, CCTV footage of the Special Cell police station for the relevant dates and the examination of compliance of the arrest in lines with the NHRC guidelines, and sections of the IPC.

HRDA has sent an Urgent Appeal regarding this incident to the National Human Rights Commission of India (NHRC), UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, UN Special Rapporteur on Minority issues, UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and various international organisations.

According to latest media reports, the court has extended the judicial custody of Meeran Haider till June 25.

The complete statement by HRDA India may be read below.

Related:

Student activist Safoora Zargar, denied bail, judicial custody extended till June 25
Delhi Police arrest Jamia Millia Islamia student leader Asif Iqbal Tanha

Human Rights Defenders’ Alert India asks NHRC to step in to probe Meeran Haider’s arrest

Meeran Haider, a student activist, was booked by the Delhi Police under the UAPA for allegedly inciting Delhi riots

ArrestImage Courtesy:opindia.com

India is currently reeling under a nationwide coronavirus induced lockdown. In light of this, to prevent transmission in congested spaces, the Supreme Court ordered that the government look at de-congesting prisons. However, going against this directive, the government has continued its targeting of student activists especially from the Jamia Millia Islamia University (JMIU) and Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) booking them under the stringent Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), 1967 and remanding them into custody for their alleged involvement in inciting communal violence in north-East Delhi in February and being part of anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protests in the capital.

The Delhi Police have arrested student activists like Safoora Zargar, Meeran Haider and Shifa-Ur-Rahman among scores of others. The pattern of the activists’ arrest showed that the police first booked them for allegedly organizing protests and later added stronger, more serious non-bailable offences like sedition and conspiracy to hold riots.

In light of this, Human Rights Defenders’ Alert (India) has filed an urgent appeal for action with the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) against the misuse of law and non-compliance with mandatory procedures to falsely implicate and harass student-activist and Jamia Coordination Committee (JCC) member Meeran Haider who is currently lodged in Tihar Jail.

Meeran Haider, is a PhD scholar at the JMIU and also the President of the Rashtriya Janata Dal Delhi Unit has led a number of peaceful anti-CAA protests in the capital. In a letter to the NHRC, HRDA India explained the details of Haider’s arrest and the FIR that was registered against him citing the personnel of the Delhi Police Special Cell to be perpetrators of his arrest.

According to the statement by HRDA India, Haider was summoned to the Special Cell Police Station, Lodhi Road on April 1, 2020, asking him to reach the police station for investigation purposes. He was questioned there for almost all day and then arrested the same day by the Special Cell under FIR No. 59/2020 under Sections 147, 148, 149 read with 120B of the IPC which deal with rioting, unlawful assembly and criminal conspiracy.

On April 2, Haider was produced before a Metropolitan Magistrate for remand hearing who remanded Haider to police custody for four days and later extended it by nine more days. HRDA says that at the time of arrest, the charges invoked under FIR No. 59/2020 were bailable offences with no mention of other IPC sections. Other laws and the UAPA Act were only added at a later stage, after three weeks of his arrest; a violation of the Supreme Court’s directions in Arnesh Kumar vs. State of Bihar, only to keep Haider in custody for a longer period of time.

FIR No. 59/2020

Sub-Inspector Arvind Kumar registered the said FIR on March 6, 2020. Originally it was made out for charges under Sections 147, 148, 149 read with 120 (B) of the IPC. However, later charges under Sections 124A, 153 A, 186, 353, 212, 295, 427, 436, 452, 454 read with Section 34 of the IPC and Section 3 & 4 of the Prevention of Damage to Public Property Act (PPDP) and 25 & 27 Arms Act were added. Haider wasn’t named in the FIR. The complaint said that SI Arvind Kumar received information through secret sources that the riots that took place in Delhi from February 23 to 25, 2020, were a well thought out conspiracy.

The additional charges deal with intention of promoting hatred, promoting enmity between two groups on grounds of religion, obstructing public servants, harbouring offenders, injuring or defiling places of worship with an intent to insult the religion of any class, mischief by fire or explosive substances, house-trespass after preparation for hurt and acts done by several persons in furtherance of a common intention.

Haider has been lodged in Tihar Jail since April 14, 2020. His bail application was filed on April 15 and was rejected on April 20.

However, HRDA apprised NHRC through its statement that though Haider was arrested on the alleged pretext of giving inflammatory speeches during the anti-CAA movement which led to the riots in North-East Delhi, it was found that Haider had given no speech in the week preceding the violence that took place. HRDA said that it was far-sighted to presume that the riots were triggered a week after Haider’s speech. Also, the police had not been able to provide any link between Haider’s alleged inciting speech and the riots.

The HRDA stated that Haider’s arrest was an example of the threat to freedom of speech and expression. Citing the Supreme Court’s decision in Shreya Singhal v. Union of India (2015) which stated that freedom of speech and expression had three parts – discussion, advocacy and incitement, it stated that if any address was made by Haider, there was no evidence to believe it was more than discussion or advocacy – within the fundamental right of speech and expression guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution.

Stating that Haider’s arrest wasn’t an isolated event but an example of the State’s attempt to criminalize speech by arresting activists and defenders in the country and especially apathetic during Covid-19 when directions were given for the de-congestion of prisons.

In light of this, the HRDA said that it believes that Haider was implicated in a fabricated case by the Delhi Police which targeted him for opposing the CAA. The charges under which he was booked demonstrated the malafide intentions of the Delhi Police, HRDA added.

HRDA appeal

It has appealed to the NHRC to direct the prison monitor of the NHRC to take an immediate visit to the Tihar Jail to determine Haider’s condition of detention, issue a notice to the Delhi Commissioner of Police to produce documents related to Haider’s arrest within 48 hours – arrest memo, medico-legal certificate, inspection memo, names of arresting/detaining officers, CCTV footage of the Special Cell police station for the relevant dates and the examination of compliance of the arrest in lines with the NHRC guidelines, and sections of the IPC.

HRDA has sent an Urgent Appeal regarding this incident to the National Human Rights Commission of India (NHRC), UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, UN Special Rapporteur on Minority issues, UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and various international organisations.

According to latest media reports, the court has extended the judicial custody of Meeran Haider till June 25.

The complete statement by HRDA India may be read below.

Related:

Student activist Safoora Zargar, denied bail, judicial custody extended till June 25
Delhi Police arrest Jamia Millia Islamia student leader Asif Iqbal Tanha

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Social distancing a luxury, lockdown a challenge in Dharavi: Shafiqa Bagwan

The story of Mumbai’s worst affected containment zone as it struggles through the Covid-19 outbreak

30 May 2020

Shafiqa BagwanImage Courtesy:ndtv.com

First publish on 29 May 2020

43-year-old Shafiqa Bagwan is a social worker who lives in Dharavi, an area known as Asia’s largest ‘slum’. However, reducing the identity of this area to merely being a ‘slum’ is not only insensitive and inappropriate, but also inaccurate, she told SabrangIndia's Deborah Grey in an interview where Bagwan takes us through the trials and tribulations of people in her neighbourhood, that has become one of the largest containment zones for Covid-19 in Mumbai.

Understanding Dharavi and its people

Dharavi is a vast cluster of homes, shops and winding bylanes spread over just 2.1 square kilometers located between Sion and Mahim in Mumbai. It is home to over 7,00,000 people from all religious and linguistic backgrounds; Hindus and Muslims, Maharashtrians and Tamils, daily-wagers and small entrepreneurs, migrants as well as sons of the soil.

But what is often overlooked in the region’s depiction in popular culture is that Dharavi is home to thousands of micro-entreprises related mostly to the production of leather goods, garment manufacturing, pottery, small electronics and recycling. Many of the goods produced here are exported to international markets. Though data regarding the size of the industries remains unreliable as most operate in the unorganized and informal sector, it cannot be denied that Dharavi has its own thriving economic ecosystem.

The people of Dharavi are hard-working people, who have modest means, but have hitherto lived independent lives relying on their own talent, efforts and entrepreneurial spirit to one day improve their economic condition and live the ‘Mumbai dream’.

But, ever since the outbreak of the coronavirus and the subsequent lockdown to combat its spread, Dharavi and its people have been hit hard. In the absence of any means of income and their meagre savings having being wipes off, now the residents of Dharavi are forced to swallow their pride, ask for help. The impact of the disease has therefore been not just on health and incomes, but also on the dignity of people.

At the time of publishing this piece there were 1,675 confirmed cases of the disease in Dharavi with 36 new cases reported just on Thursday, May 28.

Shafiqa Bagwan, who has worked with several national and international organisations as a part of projects related to controlling the spread of HIV and skill development among youth, tells us what makes Dharavi so vulnerable and the shares with us the uique challenges its people face.

Dharavi

Q) Why do you think the infection rate is so high in Dharavi?

A) Well, when 7 to 8 people live in a kholi (local word for small tenement) that measures 6 feet by 8 feet, social distancing becomes a luxury. Moreover, they start feeling frustrated on account of being cooped up inside such congested homes and thus often venture outside, thereby completely defeating the purpose of the lockdown.

Earlier, I used to call the cops to dispel crowds whenever a large number of people would gather together. But then the people started retaliating against me and even my children, so I stopped. It is difficult to make the people understand that they need to stay away from each other for their own protection.

So many times, I see even the elderly who are most vulnerable to the disease step out of their homes, just to catch a fresh breath of air. What can one tell them? It is impossible to control children. The older ones at least are aware that they must wear masks, but the little ones often throw caution to the winds. Now in such a case, even if one person catches the virus, the entire family gets infected!

Q) When cases first started coming to light, how did people respond?

A) Initially, some social workers who work in the field of HIV intervention would go door to door to take temperature readings and check for symptoms. The people who showed symptoms were then quarantined at facilities set up in schools nearby. But most people just dismissed it as a bout of flu or fever that one catches occasionally, and did not treat the coronavirus outbreak with the seriousness it required. Even now, I see the same attitude among many residents. They go for walks to the field nearby thinking nobody else would be there, but it turns out a lot of people had the same idea and it becomes a small crowd.

Q) What can you tell us about the migrant workers living in Dharavi?

A) Most of the single men who lived together in shared accommodations and sent money home have left. That was a large number of people and after their departure the pressure on our shared resources such as community toilets has eased a bit. Meanwhile, those who have families here have stayed hoping that the lockdown would be lifted. They have exhausted almost all of their savings and now depend on rations and aid provided by NGOs such as Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP). These families were on the brink of starvation!

Q) It is interesting you bring up community toilets. What has been the impact on sanitation facilities?

A) There are two types of toilets; the Sulabh Shauchalayas or paid public toilets run by the government and the common toilets and bathrooms that are present in the chawls and redeveloped buildings. Both these places have always been notorious for their poor hygiene despite previously being cleaned thrice a day. But now, the frequency of cleaning has dropped and the fear is that asymptomatic carriers of the virus continue to use these facilities along with uninfected people who have now become even more vulnerable as these toilets have become infection hotspots! But interestingly, public toilets where earlier it was often difficult to even find a bar of soap or handwash, now all have sanitisers!

Q) What has been the impact of the lockdown on women?

A) Their misery has only been exacerbated as now men who would earlier be out of the homes for the better part of the day are now at home all the time. They keep making demands for food and tea. Even today when it comes to domestic chores men are not equal partners and don’t share the burden despite now being at home. Moreover, the instances of domestic violence have increased. Earlier the violence would take place only when the abuser came home. Now victims and abusers are at home together all day so the violence take place at all times. Also, an increase in frustration is causing newer people to become abusers. Needless to say, women and children continue to bear a disproportionate brunt of the violence.

Q) Now let us talk about the facilities still available. What kind of shops are open? What is still available?

A) grocery stores are open for a specific time every day. Milk and medical stores are also open throughout the day. But it is difficult to get vegetables as most shops are shut and there are no thelewalas (hand-cart pushers) operating these days. Most of the time, only onions, potatoes, tomatoes and garlic are available. I had once heard that someone managed to leave without being caught in the middle of the night to get vegetables from an early morning market somewhere in Mankhurd. Most vegetable vendors now just make small packages of whatever is available and sell from their doorstep or just in their immediate neighbourhood.

Q) Dharavi had its own economic eco-system. How has that been impacted?

A) After the shops downed shutter the unsold leather stock caught fungus. Now people are facing huge losses. I know of one man who ran a leather footwear shop who keeps his shutter up for a few hours each day selling small packets of onion and garlic. My husband had a garment business, that came to a grinding halt. Luckily both, my son and I can work from home, so our situation is not as dire as that of many others in Dharavi.

But the impact of the economic crisis truly hit me when one day I saw a young boy, no more than 8 or 9 years old selling tea. With no income, that was what his family for forced to do to survive amidst the lockdown.

Shafiqa Bagwan

Photo credit Shafiqa Bagwan

Q) What was it like to observe Ramzan and what was Eid like amidst the lockdown in Dharavi?

A) Well, all mosques had made it clear right from the beginning that everyone will have to pray at home and must follow all lockdown norms. The entire month of Ramzan was therefore rather sombre as nobody ventured out to meet friends and family or eat traditional delicacies at the night-time food fairs, as none were set up. There was no Eid shopping either as garment stores were shut. But then we realized that all of us were suffering together. After all, Dharavi isn’t home to just Muslims. All our neighbours from different communities and faiths were suffering just as much as us. Knowing we were all in this together helped us all cope. Some of my contacts in the Gulf also assisted in helping even the poor celebrate Eid by providing funds to purchase Sevai, sugar etc. to prepare traditional meals.

Q) Now that you have shared the problems faced by people, what kind of solutions do you think can help Dharavi?

A) We need greater awareness. The lackadaisical attitude of people who are even today dismissing the disease as a common cold, needs to stop otherwise the infection will continue to spread. Also, many families require financial assistance and aid in terms of food rations and essentials. CJP and a few other NGOs are doing this in different parts of Mumbai. In fact, Teesta Setalvad of CJP helped me get ration support from Deputy Collector Furog Mukadam who is arranging food supplies for people of Dharavi. But we need more intervention from the government, especially in terms of creating awareness among people.

Related:

Community toilets, filthy conditions spike coronavirus cases
BMC official passes away due to Covid-19, union alleges negligence
Covid-19: This is what happens when an area is sealed...
Dharavi a ticking bomb after two fresh cases take positive Covid-19 cases up to 9?
Affluent flyers bring Covid-19 to India, but mainly chawls and slums sealed off

Social distancing a luxury, lockdown a challenge in Dharavi: Shafiqa Bagwan

The story of Mumbai’s worst affected containment zone as it struggles through the Covid-19 outbreak

Shafiqa BagwanImage Courtesy:ndtv.com

First publish on 29 May 2020

43-year-old Shafiqa Bagwan is a social worker who lives in Dharavi, an area known as Asia’s largest ‘slum’. However, reducing the identity of this area to merely being a ‘slum’ is not only insensitive and inappropriate, but also inaccurate, she told SabrangIndia's Deborah Grey in an interview where Bagwan takes us through the trials and tribulations of people in her neighbourhood, that has become one of the largest containment zones for Covid-19 in Mumbai.

Understanding Dharavi and its people

Dharavi is a vast cluster of homes, shops and winding bylanes spread over just 2.1 square kilometers located between Sion and Mahim in Mumbai. It is home to over 7,00,000 people from all religious and linguistic backgrounds; Hindus and Muslims, Maharashtrians and Tamils, daily-wagers and small entrepreneurs, migrants as well as sons of the soil.

But what is often overlooked in the region’s depiction in popular culture is that Dharavi is home to thousands of micro-entreprises related mostly to the production of leather goods, garment manufacturing, pottery, small electronics and recycling. Many of the goods produced here are exported to international markets. Though data regarding the size of the industries remains unreliable as most operate in the unorganized and informal sector, it cannot be denied that Dharavi has its own thriving economic ecosystem.

The people of Dharavi are hard-working people, who have modest means, but have hitherto lived independent lives relying on their own talent, efforts and entrepreneurial spirit to one day improve their economic condition and live the ‘Mumbai dream’.

But, ever since the outbreak of the coronavirus and the subsequent lockdown to combat its spread, Dharavi and its people have been hit hard. In the absence of any means of income and their meagre savings having being wipes off, now the residents of Dharavi are forced to swallow their pride, ask for help. The impact of the disease has therefore been not just on health and incomes, but also on the dignity of people.

At the time of publishing this piece there were 1,675 confirmed cases of the disease in Dharavi with 36 new cases reported just on Thursday, May 28.

Shafiqa Bagwan, who has worked with several national and international organisations as a part of projects related to controlling the spread of HIV and skill development among youth, tells us what makes Dharavi so vulnerable and the shares with us the uique challenges its people face.

Dharavi

Q) Why do you think the infection rate is so high in Dharavi?

A) Well, when 7 to 8 people live in a kholi (local word for small tenement) that measures 6 feet by 8 feet, social distancing becomes a luxury. Moreover, they start feeling frustrated on account of being cooped up inside such congested homes and thus often venture outside, thereby completely defeating the purpose of the lockdown.

Earlier, I used to call the cops to dispel crowds whenever a large number of people would gather together. But then the people started retaliating against me and even my children, so I stopped. It is difficult to make the people understand that they need to stay away from each other for their own protection.

So many times, I see even the elderly who are most vulnerable to the disease step out of their homes, just to catch a fresh breath of air. What can one tell them? It is impossible to control children. The older ones at least are aware that they must wear masks, but the little ones often throw caution to the winds. Now in such a case, even if one person catches the virus, the entire family gets infected!

Q) When cases first started coming to light, how did people respond?

A) Initially, some social workers who work in the field of HIV intervention would go door to door to take temperature readings and check for symptoms. The people who showed symptoms were then quarantined at facilities set up in schools nearby. But most people just dismissed it as a bout of flu or fever that one catches occasionally, and did not treat the coronavirus outbreak with the seriousness it required. Even now, I see the same attitude among many residents. They go for walks to the field nearby thinking nobody else would be there, but it turns out a lot of people had the same idea and it becomes a small crowd.

Q) What can you tell us about the migrant workers living in Dharavi?

A) Most of the single men who lived together in shared accommodations and sent money home have left. That was a large number of people and after their departure the pressure on our shared resources such as community toilets has eased a bit. Meanwhile, those who have families here have stayed hoping that the lockdown would be lifted. They have exhausted almost all of their savings and now depend on rations and aid provided by NGOs such as Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP). These families were on the brink of starvation!

Q) It is interesting you bring up community toilets. What has been the impact on sanitation facilities?

A) There are two types of toilets; the Sulabh Shauchalayas or paid public toilets run by the government and the common toilets and bathrooms that are present in the chawls and redeveloped buildings. Both these places have always been notorious for their poor hygiene despite previously being cleaned thrice a day. But now, the frequency of cleaning has dropped and the fear is that asymptomatic carriers of the virus continue to use these facilities along with uninfected people who have now become even more vulnerable as these toilets have become infection hotspots! But interestingly, public toilets where earlier it was often difficult to even find a bar of soap or handwash, now all have sanitisers!

Q) What has been the impact of the lockdown on women?

A) Their misery has only been exacerbated as now men who would earlier be out of the homes for the better part of the day are now at home all the time. They keep making demands for food and tea. Even today when it comes to domestic chores men are not equal partners and don’t share the burden despite now being at home. Moreover, the instances of domestic violence have increased. Earlier the violence would take place only when the abuser came home. Now victims and abusers are at home together all day so the violence take place at all times. Also, an increase in frustration is causing newer people to become abusers. Needless to say, women and children continue to bear a disproportionate brunt of the violence.

Q) Now let us talk about the facilities still available. What kind of shops are open? What is still available?

A) grocery stores are open for a specific time every day. Milk and medical stores are also open throughout the day. But it is difficult to get vegetables as most shops are shut and there are no thelewalas (hand-cart pushers) operating these days. Most of the time, only onions, potatoes, tomatoes and garlic are available. I had once heard that someone managed to leave without being caught in the middle of the night to get vegetables from an early morning market somewhere in Mankhurd. Most vegetable vendors now just make small packages of whatever is available and sell from their doorstep or just in their immediate neighbourhood.

Q) Dharavi had its own economic eco-system. How has that been impacted?

A) After the shops downed shutter the unsold leather stock caught fungus. Now people are facing huge losses. I know of one man who ran a leather footwear shop who keeps his shutter up for a few hours each day selling small packets of onion and garlic. My husband had a garment business, that came to a grinding halt. Luckily both, my son and I can work from home, so our situation is not as dire as that of many others in Dharavi.

But the impact of the economic crisis truly hit me when one day I saw a young boy, no more than 8 or 9 years old selling tea. With no income, that was what his family for forced to do to survive amidst the lockdown.

Shafiqa Bagwan

Photo credit Shafiqa Bagwan

Q) What was it like to observe Ramzan and what was Eid like amidst the lockdown in Dharavi?

A) Well, all mosques had made it clear right from the beginning that everyone will have to pray at home and must follow all lockdown norms. The entire month of Ramzan was therefore rather sombre as nobody ventured out to meet friends and family or eat traditional delicacies at the night-time food fairs, as none were set up. There was no Eid shopping either as garment stores were shut. But then we realized that all of us were suffering together. After all, Dharavi isn’t home to just Muslims. All our neighbours from different communities and faiths were suffering just as much as us. Knowing we were all in this together helped us all cope. Some of my contacts in the Gulf also assisted in helping even the poor celebrate Eid by providing funds to purchase Sevai, sugar etc. to prepare traditional meals.

Q) Now that you have shared the problems faced by people, what kind of solutions do you think can help Dharavi?

A) We need greater awareness. The lackadaisical attitude of people who are even today dismissing the disease as a common cold, needs to stop otherwise the infection will continue to spread. Also, many families require financial assistance and aid in terms of food rations and essentials. CJP and a few other NGOs are doing this in different parts of Mumbai. In fact, Teesta Setalvad of CJP helped me get ration support from Deputy Collector Furog Mukadam who is arranging food supplies for people of Dharavi. But we need more intervention from the government, especially in terms of creating awareness among people.

Related:

Community toilets, filthy conditions spike coronavirus cases
BMC official passes away due to Covid-19, union alleges negligence
Covid-19: This is what happens when an area is sealed...
Dharavi a ticking bomb after two fresh cases take positive Covid-19 cases up to 9?
Affluent flyers bring Covid-19 to India, but mainly chawls and slums sealed off

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Watch the passengers express their satisfaction with Railway services: Rail Minister Piyush Goyal

Railway Protection Force reported 80 deaths on Shramik special trains designated to carry migrant labourers back to their native places

30 May 2020

Indian RailwayImage Courtesy:telanganatoday.com

Even as the Ministry of Railways continues to ‘celebrate’ what it has termed as a successful operation, deaths of workers and labourers travelling in the Shramik Special trains continue to dominate national headlines. Meanwhile, Railway board chairman VK Yadav made an attempt to ‘condole’ the deaths by saying, “Anyone’s death is a big loss... Indian Railways has a control system where the train is immediately stopped if someone is found ill and they are sent to the nearest hospital base to try and save their lives.”

However, the fact remains that people have died while on the packed trains, allegedly without enough food and water on board, and long delays. "Many such passengers were attended to and many deliveries also took place. I can imagine the plight of labourers travelling even in these conditions. In case of deaths, the local zones investigate the reason and without an investigation, there are allegations that they died of hunger when there was no shortage of food. Some deaths occurred and we are compiling the figures... we will issue the figures in a few days," he added. 

An explosive report in the Hindustan Times has exposed that the Railway  Protection Force itself has reported 80 deaths on these Shramik trains, designated to carry migrant labourers back to their native places. At a press conference on Friday, Railway Board chairman VK Yadav had said, “Out of the total 3840 trains run so far, only 71 trains have been diverted to their destination by diverted route.” He added that these trains will continue to run till the “last labourer reaches his home.”
 

However, scores will never reach home. As the HT reports states, 80 deaths have been recorded on board the Shramik Special trains between May 9 and May 27. The data is from the Railway Protection Force. The Rail Ministry has maintained that those who died on board, had already been suffering with “chronic diseases” and were stranded when they went to different cities for “medical treatment”. The dead include men, women, and children, whose families have claimed that the victims succumbed to heat exhaustion, thirst and hunger while on these long journeys. 

The Rail Minister Piyush Goyal, however, has only seen many “smiles and happy faces” so far. He posted: “All Smiles & Happy Faces: Following safety protocols and distributing food & water, Railways is committed to ensuring a safe & comfortable journey for all. Watch the passengers express their satisfaction with Railway services while travelling from Chennai to Madhubani in Bihar.”

According to the HT report, the number of dead is confirmed by the RPF, “and a final list will soon be issued after coordinating with the states .” The HT analysis states that: “the deaths were recorded from May 9 till May 27 across several zones including the East Central Railway zone, North Eastern Railway zone, Northern Railway Zone and North Central Railway zone; and the ages of the dead ranged from 4 to 85. The list also mentions the co-morbidities or accidents that caused the deaths in a few cases.”

The Railway ministry’s statements maintains the official line of how it was passengers who were unwell who have succumbed to their chronic illness while on board the Shramik Special trains: “ It has been observed that some people who are availing this service have pre-existing medical conditions which aggravates the risk they face during the Covid-19 pandemic. A few unfortunate cases of deaths related to pre-existing medical conditions while travelling have happened.” 

The Ministry of Railways also issued directives to passengers. Its “appeal” put the onus of safe travel on the labourers undertaking the journey. It states: “In order to protect the vulnerable persons from COVID-19, in line with Ministry of Home Affairs, Order No 40-3/2020-DM-I(A) dated 17.05.2020, Ministry of Railways makes an appeal that persons with co-morbidities (for example - hypertension, diabetes, cardio-vascular diseases, cancer, immune deficiency conditions), pregnant women, children below the age of 10 years and persons above 65 years of age may avoid travel by rail, except when it is essential.”

While it seems to expect an already distressed and desperate migrant worker to leave their young children or unwell family members behind in the hospitel city they want to escape from, it offers helpline numbers 139 & 138 that can be dialed in case of distress or emergency. 

The Supreme Court has ruled that workers travelling on these special trains must be provided food and water by the states administration, and the  Indian Railways. Many passengers have already said on record that food and water have not been provided by the railways at all. Nor were they able to buy any food at stations where the trains were halted, or diverted to for hours. Most journeys home have taken much longer than they ever thought possible.

And the horrors continue. The Indian Express reported on how a migrant labourer’s body lay unattended on Shramik Special train for four days. It was only discovered when the train was being cleaned at the Jhansi railway yard on May 27. The deceased identified as Mohan Lal Sharma (37), worked as a driver at a factory in Navi Mumbai, was a resident of Basti district in Uttar Pradesh stated IE. He left Mumbai on May 21, on a private bus for Jhansi and then boarded a ‘Shramik Special’ train from Jhansi to Gorakhpur, on May 23. The  ticket found on his body showed the time of departure as 11.40 am. The IE quotes Pankaj Kumar Singh, Chief PRO, North Eastern Railways, confirmed that  the train reached Gorakhpur on May 24, at 4 pm. On normal days the journey takes about 11 hours.

Once empty, it reached Jhansi railway yard on May 27, at 7.30 pm and the body was found inside a toilet in the train when it was being sanitised. The victim’s Aadhaar card identified him as Mohan Lal Sharma, a resident of Basti district,” Jhansi GRP (Government Railway Police) Inspector Anjana Verma told IE.

According to the IE report, Chief PRO, North Central Railway, Ajit Kumar Singh, was asked why the train took so long to reach Gorakhpur, and on its return journey as well. His answer: “During May 23-24, there was congestion on train routes. I can’t give specific details of how long the train was delayed at each station.”

So far, there has been no information of any Railway officials being held accountable for the deaths of  those 80 migrant labourers.

Watch the passengers express their satisfaction with Railway services: Rail Minister Piyush Goyal

Railway Protection Force reported 80 deaths on Shramik special trains designated to carry migrant labourers back to their native places

Indian RailwayImage Courtesy:telanganatoday.com

Even as the Ministry of Railways continues to ‘celebrate’ what it has termed as a successful operation, deaths of workers and labourers travelling in the Shramik Special trains continue to dominate national headlines. Meanwhile, Railway board chairman VK Yadav made an attempt to ‘condole’ the deaths by saying, “Anyone’s death is a big loss... Indian Railways has a control system where the train is immediately stopped if someone is found ill and they are sent to the nearest hospital base to try and save their lives.”

However, the fact remains that people have died while on the packed trains, allegedly without enough food and water on board, and long delays. "Many such passengers were attended to and many deliveries also took place. I can imagine the plight of labourers travelling even in these conditions. In case of deaths, the local zones investigate the reason and without an investigation, there are allegations that they died of hunger when there was no shortage of food. Some deaths occurred and we are compiling the figures... we will issue the figures in a few days," he added. 

An explosive report in the Hindustan Times has exposed that the Railway  Protection Force itself has reported 80 deaths on these Shramik trains, designated to carry migrant labourers back to their native places. At a press conference on Friday, Railway Board chairman VK Yadav had said, “Out of the total 3840 trains run so far, only 71 trains have been diverted to their destination by diverted route.” He added that these trains will continue to run till the “last labourer reaches his home.”
 

However, scores will never reach home. As the HT reports states, 80 deaths have been recorded on board the Shramik Special trains between May 9 and May 27. The data is from the Railway Protection Force. The Rail Ministry has maintained that those who died on board, had already been suffering with “chronic diseases” and were stranded when they went to different cities for “medical treatment”. The dead include men, women, and children, whose families have claimed that the victims succumbed to heat exhaustion, thirst and hunger while on these long journeys. 

The Rail Minister Piyush Goyal, however, has only seen many “smiles and happy faces” so far. He posted: “All Smiles & Happy Faces: Following safety protocols and distributing food & water, Railways is committed to ensuring a safe & comfortable journey for all. Watch the passengers express their satisfaction with Railway services while travelling from Chennai to Madhubani in Bihar.”

According to the HT report, the number of dead is confirmed by the RPF, “and a final list will soon be issued after coordinating with the states .” The HT analysis states that: “the deaths were recorded from May 9 till May 27 across several zones including the East Central Railway zone, North Eastern Railway zone, Northern Railway Zone and North Central Railway zone; and the ages of the dead ranged from 4 to 85. The list also mentions the co-morbidities or accidents that caused the deaths in a few cases.”

The Railway ministry’s statements maintains the official line of how it was passengers who were unwell who have succumbed to their chronic illness while on board the Shramik Special trains: “ It has been observed that some people who are availing this service have pre-existing medical conditions which aggravates the risk they face during the Covid-19 pandemic. A few unfortunate cases of deaths related to pre-existing medical conditions while travelling have happened.” 

The Ministry of Railways also issued directives to passengers. Its “appeal” put the onus of safe travel on the labourers undertaking the journey. It states: “In order to protect the vulnerable persons from COVID-19, in line with Ministry of Home Affairs, Order No 40-3/2020-DM-I(A) dated 17.05.2020, Ministry of Railways makes an appeal that persons with co-morbidities (for example - hypertension, diabetes, cardio-vascular diseases, cancer, immune deficiency conditions), pregnant women, children below the age of 10 years and persons above 65 years of age may avoid travel by rail, except when it is essential.”

While it seems to expect an already distressed and desperate migrant worker to leave their young children or unwell family members behind in the hospitel city they want to escape from, it offers helpline numbers 139 & 138 that can be dialed in case of distress or emergency. 

The Supreme Court has ruled that workers travelling on these special trains must be provided food and water by the states administration, and the  Indian Railways. Many passengers have already said on record that food and water have not been provided by the railways at all. Nor were they able to buy any food at stations where the trains were halted, or diverted to for hours. Most journeys home have taken much longer than they ever thought possible.

And the horrors continue. The Indian Express reported on how a migrant labourer’s body lay unattended on Shramik Special train for four days. It was only discovered when the train was being cleaned at the Jhansi railway yard on May 27. The deceased identified as Mohan Lal Sharma (37), worked as a driver at a factory in Navi Mumbai, was a resident of Basti district in Uttar Pradesh stated IE. He left Mumbai on May 21, on a private bus for Jhansi and then boarded a ‘Shramik Special’ train from Jhansi to Gorakhpur, on May 23. The  ticket found on his body showed the time of departure as 11.40 am. The IE quotes Pankaj Kumar Singh, Chief PRO, North Eastern Railways, confirmed that  the train reached Gorakhpur on May 24, at 4 pm. On normal days the journey takes about 11 hours.

Once empty, it reached Jhansi railway yard on May 27, at 7.30 pm and the body was found inside a toilet in the train when it was being sanitised. The victim’s Aadhaar card identified him as Mohan Lal Sharma, a resident of Basti district,” Jhansi GRP (Government Railway Police) Inspector Anjana Verma told IE.

According to the IE report, Chief PRO, North Central Railway, Ajit Kumar Singh, was asked why the train took so long to reach Gorakhpur, and on its return journey as well. His answer: “During May 23-24, there was congestion on train routes. I can’t give specific details of how long the train was delayed at each station.”

So far, there has been no information of any Railway officials being held accountable for the deaths of  those 80 migrant labourers.

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Continued and systematic vilification of minorities during lockdown: Report

30 May 2020

Modi GovernmentImage Courtesy:theprint.in

The London Story, an organisation that investigates and exposes instances of human rights violation and abuse globally, has come up with a report that squarely hold the government accountable for the communalization of the Covid-19 pandemic in India.

The report on the misuse of the pandemic to target minorities and subversion of democratic values in India says, “While governments all over the world are fighting against the COVID-19 pandemic, Modi government is using the opportunity created by the lock-down for continued systemic vilification of minorities (especially Muslims), and for targeting dissidents.” It adds, “The pandemic has been used to demonise Muslims and scapegoat them for the calamity. This has intensified the continued dehumanization of Muslims in India.”

On the subject of the use of provisions of the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), the report raises serious concerns saying, that it “is now being used to divest citizens of their fundamental rights. People are being picked up and put in jails under flimsy presences and fictitious cases, and being held without trial for long periods of time using provisions of UAPA. Intellectuals, journalists and whistleblowers who are leading the defence of pluralism and democracy are being systematically targeted.”

The report goes on to present a timeline of the systematic targeting of Muslims from April 1 onwards showcasing the call for their socio-economic boycott and coining of the deeply communal term ‘Corona Jihad’. It alleges that the minority community was targeted in a bid to divert attention from the haphazard manner in which the lockdown was implemented. The report says, “Facing criticism for the humanitarian crisis that ensued following the abrupt and unplanned lockdown, the propaganda machinery of the Modi government went on overdrive to divert attention from the disastrous lockdown policy. It concentrated (and continues to concentrate) on expanding its agenda of dehumanization of Muslims and other minorities. Additionally, since the pandemic gave governments the opportunity to suspend certain civil liberties, the Modi government used this opportunity to clamp down on all kinds of dissent.”

The report sites media reports as well as similar concerns raised by international organisations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the United States Commission for International Religious Freedoms. The report then goes on to list instances of police brutality and vigilante justice that have take place during the lockdown and also an incident where migrants were hosed with a disinfectant solution, calling it a “Crisis of Dignity”.

The entire report may be read here:

Related:

Designate India as 'Country of Particular Concern', impose sanctions: USCIRF
Freedom Report slam’s India’s record on civil liberties
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights files intervention application in SC against CAA
Deeply concerned about impact of communal violence in Delhi: Bob Menendez
Delhi Police have not intervened in attacks against Muslims: USCIRF
USCIRF raises concerns about CAB, seeks sanctions against Amit Shah

Continued and systematic vilification of minorities during lockdown: Report

Modi GovernmentImage Courtesy:theprint.in

The London Story, an organisation that investigates and exposes instances of human rights violation and abuse globally, has come up with a report that squarely hold the government accountable for the communalization of the Covid-19 pandemic in India.

The report on the misuse of the pandemic to target minorities and subversion of democratic values in India says, “While governments all over the world are fighting against the COVID-19 pandemic, Modi government is using the opportunity created by the lock-down for continued systemic vilification of minorities (especially Muslims), and for targeting dissidents.” It adds, “The pandemic has been used to demonise Muslims and scapegoat them for the calamity. This has intensified the continued dehumanization of Muslims in India.”

On the subject of the use of provisions of the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), the report raises serious concerns saying, that it “is now being used to divest citizens of their fundamental rights. People are being picked up and put in jails under flimsy presences and fictitious cases, and being held without trial for long periods of time using provisions of UAPA. Intellectuals, journalists and whistleblowers who are leading the defence of pluralism and democracy are being systematically targeted.”

The report goes on to present a timeline of the systematic targeting of Muslims from April 1 onwards showcasing the call for their socio-economic boycott and coining of the deeply communal term ‘Corona Jihad’. It alleges that the minority community was targeted in a bid to divert attention from the haphazard manner in which the lockdown was implemented. The report says, “Facing criticism for the humanitarian crisis that ensued following the abrupt and unplanned lockdown, the propaganda machinery of the Modi government went on overdrive to divert attention from the disastrous lockdown policy. It concentrated (and continues to concentrate) on expanding its agenda of dehumanization of Muslims and other minorities. Additionally, since the pandemic gave governments the opportunity to suspend certain civil liberties, the Modi government used this opportunity to clamp down on all kinds of dissent.”

The report sites media reports as well as similar concerns raised by international organisations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the United States Commission for International Religious Freedoms. The report then goes on to list instances of police brutality and vigilante justice that have take place during the lockdown and also an incident where migrants were hosed with a disinfectant solution, calling it a “Crisis of Dignity”.

The entire report may be read here:

Related:

Designate India as 'Country of Particular Concern', impose sanctions: USCIRF
Freedom Report slam’s India’s record on civil liberties
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights files intervention application in SC against CAA
Deeply concerned about impact of communal violence in Delhi: Bob Menendez
Delhi Police have not intervened in attacks against Muslims: USCIRF
USCIRF raises concerns about CAB, seeks sanctions against Amit Shah

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