A Brief note about activities of AFDR during curfew in Punjab due to Corona Virus

         In view of the cronavirus pandemic, people were asked by PM Modi to observe ‘Janta Curfew’ on 05.04.2020, which was observed in Punjab also. However thereafter, Amrinder Singh led Congress Government in Punjab imposed curfew, while in most other states; technically there was lock-down. All commercial and industrial units, including tea-shops, pan-shops, vegetable and fruit shops, rehris, rickshaws, buses, railway   and small eating places were closed down. Lakhs of people including street vendors, daily wagers, shop boys, rickshaw and rehhri pullers were rendered jobless,

In order to bring people’s problems, the attacks on their democratic rights, the AFDR in view of the restrictions imposed in the course of lockdown/curfew took to a campaign by writing letters to Punjab Govt and its various functionaries, issued press-notes which were widely published in popular newspapers and to the social media – Whatsapp, facebook etc. to highlight the problems of people forcibly imprisoned in their houses.

Letters to CM Punjab on peoples problems under curfew

In the first letter addressed by the AFDR to the Chief Minister of Punjab, on 29th March 2020, the following steps were asked to be taken immediately:

  1. A large number of daily-wage workers, hawkers, rickshaw pullers, street venders, railway coolies, small tea-shopkeeper etc who were living hand to mouth, have lost their livelihood. Govt. should take urgent steps to ameliorate their lot and ensure that they are able to keep their body and soul together.
  2. Effective steps should be taken by the Govt. authorities to ensure distribution of ration through Mobile Vans, to all people living below poverty line either having   Ration Cards or not,
  3. There are wide spread complaints of police high- handedness while imposing the curfew. As per news paper reports in the first 3 days of the curfew, since 24.03.2020, the police registered about 582 FIRs and 591 persons were arrested  At various places the police has beaten up innocent people going to markets for medical help pr going in the neighborhood for urgent necessities.  They have been made to undergo brutal and humiliating treatment. Police has videographed all these illegal activities and put these on social media and on TV channels to name and shame them. Besides this, false cases have been foisted upon them. Heath employees and other Government servants engaged in essential services have also been assaulted by the police. Thus there is gross violation of human rights of the people by the police, fully supported by its top brass.  It is definitely not the way to mobilize the people for fighting against corona virus disease. In view of these ill-happenings, and role played by the police, it should be withdrawn from anti-corona virus drive and confined to its normal duties in the police stations. Civilian staff should take the lead in dealing with the public. It is very unfortunate situation where even the top most officers of the police are making irresponsible, threatening and offensive statements against the people, defending illegal acts of lower wrung police officials. The police and a bureaucratic heart should have no place in the relief operation.
  4. To effectively fight out corona virus pendamic is a gigantic task, especially in view of the line of social distancing imposed through prolonged curfew and peoples’ cooperation is very essential for it. But strangely the administration is repulsive the co-operation voluntarily being extended by various Social, religious and charitable organizations, trade unions and mass organisation of different sections of the people.  The administration is relying more upon the brute force of police than the voluntary cooperation of civil society. This mindset needs to be drastically changed. 
  5. The immediate requirement of the people is to ensure timely and adequate supply of ration, vegetables, fruits, medicines and medical help. The administration has chalked out some schemes which are only partly implemented. These schemes do not reach to vast majority of the people particularly the poor people. For example in Bathinda District the administration has listed some big shopping malls for supply of provision to the people, but a large number of people cannot benefit from this step particularly the lower middle class, the poor and those living in rural areas. Administration has established some help-lines to help in emergency situations, but unfortunately most of these remain unresponsive or  can be approached only after hours long efforts. The administration is putting unjustified and unnecessary restrictions on distribution of langar (community kitchen) to the poor by social organisations on political considerations.
  6. We have come to know that certain local Hospitals have been designated to attend corona virus cases, but they lack required facilities such as Isolation wards, ventilators etc. and the staff posted their do not have personal protective equipments (PPEs) and thus no security against corona virus infection. As all the out-patient departments (OPDs) of Govt. Hospitals, Health centers etc have been closed, there is no provision for medical help even in cases of emergency, while the people do not dare to come out of their houses for fear of police danda.
  7. Our association has also come to know that a large number of employees such as EGS Teachers, contractual workers and pensioner have not received their salary and pension for a number of months. They are likely to face financial difficulties due to this which will get increased due to present cerfew. Punjab Govt. should clear all their dues without any further delay.
  8. We have been informed that the heath staff- Doctors nurses and para medical staff do not have adequate personal protective equipment such as masks, gloves protective overalls, N_95 Masks etc. for treating and testing the corona- virus patients. In absence of these, they are likely tp become victums of this deadly disease. We have further learnt that while the first corona- virus case appeared in India in December -2019, but the procurement of protective equipment began after mid-March 2020. Similarly protective masks, gloves and clothes are also required for sweepers etc. who are sweeping and collecting garbage in various places in cities towns and villages. These should be arranged most urgently, to put their lives in danger and thus depriving them of right to life. No doubt, giving them an insurance cover is a welcome steps but their lives should not be put to risk by bot providing them protective devices (PPE).
  9. Naming and shaming of corona virus patients and their families should be stopped as it has earlier led to suicides fearing ignominy. Unfortunately the police, administration and media is doing it with utmost irresponsibility, prompting corona virus victims to commit suicide. Naming and shaming of corona virus victims be made a cognizable offence and anyone doing so should be severly punished.
  10. While social distancing may be a good weapon to fight against corona virus, we suggest a complete screening of all citizens be undertaking through specially constituted medical teams.
  11. Svachh Bharat Scheme be extended to sanitize and clean India and possible breeding places of corona virus.

Situation in rural areas

  1. While the thrust of present campaign against corona virus is based on Social Distancing the situation in rural areas requires a lot of people to come together for the purpose of agriculture operations at hand, such as harvesting and thrashing of crops. The mustard crops in some areas of Punjab have already got damaged. Harvesting of wheat is  to start from the first week of April, but the curfew is to continue till second week of April. It is a labour-intensive operation  in which either a large number of labourers are employed or it require a large number of combine harvesters, reapers and other agriculture machinery, which is very expensive and beyond the reach of common farmers. The farmers have been forced to uproot their pea and patato crops at many places in Punjab due to lack of labour and marketing opportunities caused by curfew. Poultary farmers are facing cpllapse due to marketing crisis. The Govt. shall have to make some arrangement to get the farmers out of this trouble. Help is required to be extened to them in timely carrying out the coming agriculture operations, in marketing their vegetables and fruits and save their poultries.
  2. While the Govt. of Punjab has decided to give compensation to registered construction workers out of the fund established for their welfare, but it does not take care of all construction workers in Punjab as a large number of them are not registered. Moreover registered constructed workers are just a small fraction of rural labours. They have even lost the benefit of employment under MGNREGA. It is therefore requested that the rural, poor, may be given cash compension to meet their personal and family needs.
  3. The Central Relief Package announced to meet economic set back caused to people, has hit Punjab MGNREGA workers adversely. In this package wages of MGNREGA workers have been raised to Rs. 202/- per day. But in Punjab these workers were already getting Rs. 241/- per day. Central Govt’s Ministry of Rural Development raised these to Rs. 263 vide notification dated 23.03.2020. It needs to be ensured that the daily wage of these workers in Punjab should be raised by Rs. 20/- as announced by the Central Govt, over and above the prevailing rate of Rs. 263/- Per day, otherwise the Central Relief package shall have no meaning for Punjab’s poor and shall be violative of their right to life by not  getting living wage.

On strengthening public health sector

On 14 April 2020, AFDR sent another letter to the Chief Minister of Punjab, laying before him the problems of public health staff – doctors, nurses, pharmacists, lab technicians, ward boys etc, who were forced to work without any protective gear, adequate infrastructure and an abusive and hateful propaganda branding them as virus couriers. The situation was such that even in reputed Govt Hospitals at Amritsar, Patiala, Jalandhar etc, the medical staff was forced to work, wearing polythene bags on their heads, in the absence of any protective gear. The ventilators were acutely in short supply, corona patients were kept in make-shift isolation rooms, ill equipped with medical facilities.

One important aspect of the situation was that while Govt owned public health system was overstretched in dealing Covid-19 cases, most of the big private hospitals and clinics closed their shops. Most of these hospitals have come up with public money and cheap land gifted to them by the Govt., as the one MAX Hospital at Bathinda. They refused to test, admit and treat COVID -19 cases. Democratic mass organisations demanded the Govt to take over these private hospitals and utilize their infrastructure,medical facilities and staff to fight Corona. Capt Amrinder Singh led Congress Govt in Punjab, made some noises and gave some empty threats of taking strict action against these hospitals but nothing happened. There is one case at Ludhiana, where a big private hospital kept a patient in illegal confinement as she was not able to pay the hospital bill amounting to more than 5 lakhs for corona treatment.

In its letter, AFDR demanded that the problems raised by the staff of three prominent Govt Hospital & Medical Colleges at Amritsar, Jalandhar and Patiala be immediately resolved, PPE kits should be provided to medical and sanitation staff in all Punjab Hospitals, supply of corona testing kits, ventilators, uninterrupted supply of oxygen be ensured. AFDR also demanded free door-to-door testing to identify corona patients and ensure their free treatment. It also demanded restoration of health services in rural areas and opening of OPDs throughout Punjab, which were closed since the imposition of curfew. Patients suffering from Cancer, TB, heart ailments should be regularly attended.

Providing ration & cooked food to the needy

People of Punjab are very generous in arranging ration and free kichens (LANGAR) for the needy. A large number of social, religious and charitable organisations came forward to help lakhs of the families who lost their livelihood due to corona curfew. Units of AFDR came forward to help in organizing such campaigns and ensure their direction to utterly needy persons. For the rural poor, a farmers organization – Bharti Kissan Union (Ekta –Ugrahan) and Punjab Khet Mazdoor Union (an organization of dalit agri-laborers) launced a campaign, “No one should sleep suffer hunger” to provide ration and cooked food to the needy. Many other mass organizations of farmers, youth, students and trade unions played a prominent role in this field. In Ludhiana, which has a sizable population of migrant industrial workers, trade unions and youth organisations undertook relief operations. In Bathinda, AFDR unit coordinated with social organizations to organize distribution of ration, cooked food and medicines etc.

Un-helpful attitude of govt. & administration

At many places, attitude of administration towards relief operations being organized by social organizations was negative and uncooperative. In view of curfew, the volunteers of these organizations needed curfew passes to move and distribute food among the needy. The ruling party wanted to utilize this opportunity to make electoral gains. Curfew passes were denied to those social organizations, which refused to give prominence to ruling class politicians at food distribution events. Similar was the situation with relief provided by the Govt. It was distributed through officials, in the presence of ruling class politicians, giving the impression as if it has been arranged/given by those politicians and not by the state exchequer.

Discrimination and violence against Muslim Gujjars

After reading some newspaper reports, AFDR came to know about the discrimination and violence being spread by certain elements against Gujjar community. Sh. Narbhinder, Organizing Secretary of AFDR, collected information through through veious units and prepared an informative report. On the basis of this report, AFDR took up the matter with Punjab Govt, through its letter dated 11.04.2020.

Gujjar community, having faith in Muslim religion, is spread in Amritsar, Gurdaspur, Hoshiarpur, Ludhiana, Roopnagar and Ferozepur districts of Punjab, having links with J & K. They mainly are engaged in animal rearing and selling the milk. During lockdown, milk-business suffered a severe set back as all the tea and Halwai shops were closed. Taking inspiration from the communal propaganda lanched in a big section of electronic and print media against Muslims, especially after Tabligi Jamat congregation, portraying them as corona spreader, some mischievous elements in Punjab also launched a vilification campaign against them. One of the aims was to destroy their milk-business. In many villages they were socially boycotted and people were asked not to buy milk from them. They were subjected to violent assaults and forced to abandon their houses. They were forcibly prevented from supplying milk in cities and towns. Even some milk-collection centers were asked not to collect milk from them. Thus their lives, liberty and livelihood was put in danger.

Besides writing to the Punjab Govt, seeking security of the lives and livelihood of Gujjars and their liberty to pracise their profession, AFDR also launched an effective campaign on the social media.

An offensive whats-app message against Gujjars

It came in the notice of Advocate Rajiv Lohatbadhi from Patiala that a certain whatsapp message has been circulated by the milk collection centres of a dairy company, prohibiting receipt of milk from Gujjar community. He reported it to the police authorities for appropriate action. After consultation with other members of AFDR, an e-mail was sent to the CMD of the dairy company, seeking his comments about the offensive message. Next day his reply was received, completely denying having issued any such whatsapp message. The matter was thus settled.

Protest move against atrocities on J&K workers in Himachal Pradesh       

In the second week of April 2020, poor migrant laborers from Jammu and Kashmir working on a hydel project at Barot (Himachal Pardesh), were assaulted by some anti-social elements. Sh. Buta Singh Press Secretary of AFDR, took up the matter with the authorities demanding registration of FIR against the culprits and their immediate arrests. Wuth the help of press-persons, he got the happening, highlighted in the press in HP. Another member of the Secretariat (N,K,Jeet) contacted some advocates, Professors, and other important persons in the area,  who raised their voices in support of J & K migrant labourers. Consequently the FIR was registered at Police Station Padhar, Distt Mandi (HP) and  investigation commenced.  Superintendent of Police Mandi (HP)  has now intimated the AFDR that all the accused persons have been arrested and investigation completed. Although the court refused to grant bail to the accused persons, but the BJP Govt has released the accused on parole,on the pretext of complying with the Supreme court directions ro decongest the jails.

Similarly in a nearby town, migrant labourers standing near a water tank were also assaulted by anti-socoal elements. AFDR complained against this also and the police was compelled to take action against the assaulters. We have subsequently learnt that for the migrant labourers from J&K, who wanted to return to their native places, HP Govt made arrangements.

Protest on the arrests of Gautam Navlakha &Anand Teltumbde in Bhima-koregaon case

All the AFDR units in Punjab held hunger strikes in-doors, on the day, Gautam Navlakha and Anand Teltumbde, the illustrious leaders of India’s democratic rights movement and noted intellectuals, falsely implicated in Bhima-Koregaon case were formally arrested by the N.I.A. Besides the AFDR, many other mass organisations too joined the protest in Punjab. A mass campaign against this shameful act of the ruling classes was also launched on the social media.

Brutal attack by police on the dalits in Thuthianwali village in Mansa district of Punjab . AFDR does fact-finding and releases report

On 11th April 2020, in the evening, a police party headed by ASI Gurtej Singh arrived in the balit basti of village Thuthianwali, District Mansa. Some of the children and young boys were playing in the streets and some women were also sitting there. The reason for this was that their houses are very small, in which besides the family members, some animals are also kept for livelihood and it is practically not possible to maintain social distancing as required under curfew. The police party, without listening to them started chasing them with lathis and dandas. Police even forcibly entered their houses and started beating up the boys brutally there. It naturally angered the families and they protest. But the police did not hesitate from targeting them too. A large num of people from neighborhood assembled and a scuffle ensued. In this ASI, incharge of the police party also suffered a lathi blow and the police retreated.

But on the morning of 12th April, the police started retaliatory attack. A contingent of about 200-250 policemen in 30-35 vehicles, raided the dalit basti of the village and started attacking all residents. They forcibly entered the dalit houses and dragged the men, women and children out side and severely beated them up. A number of people suffered injuries and fractures.

Thereafter the police took in custody more than 50 people including women and minor boys. They were again badly beaten up on the way to Mansa. Out of these 15 persons were implicated in a criminal case registered under section 307, 188  and other sections of IPC.

AFDR issued a fact finding report on this police brutality, which was prominently carried by media and was widely circulated on social media.

Truckers from Punjab stranded in Gujrat    

Advocate Sudeep Singh, a member of Bathinda unit received a Whatsapp message about more than 200 truck drivers from Punjab, having been stranded at an isolated place in Gujrat, due to lockdown  and were not having any water to drink or food to eat. The thrust of the message was to spread hatred against the people from other states. But Adv Sudeep Singh responded to it positively. On behalf of AFDR, he contacted the Sub Divisional Magistrate of the area and apprised him of the problem. It came out that the place is located in a water scarcity area, where water table usually goes down, particularly during summer season, resulting in drying up of bore-wells and hand-pumps. However the authorities promised to set the things right within one or two hours. The authorities restored the water supply and also ensured continuous supply of food also and confirmed it to the AFDR’s Sudeep Singh. Shortly thereafter, the authorities allowed the trucks to move ahead.

N.K.JEET

State Committee Member, AFDR Punjab

(end)

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