COVID-19 and the state of Tamil Nadu

With one of the largest automobile sectors in the country,  one of the largest knitting industries and a rampant construction sector, Tamil Nadu (TN) remains one of the primary locations for interstate migrations. Official estimates indicate that the state is home to more than ten lakh migrant workers (Ref. 1 & 2, though the actual numbers may even be higher). During the first decade of the 21stCentury, the biggest employer and exploiter of migrant workers was the construction sector. This “honour” has now switched to the manufacturing (especially, automobile sector) which employs the highest number of migrant workers in its web of vendor companies. Unlike in the bigger factories like Hyundai or Nissan where the migrant labourers are mainly used for unskilled work, in the ancillary companies, the migrant workers also work on the shop floor.  Kancheepuram, Chennai and Tirupur have the largest concentration of migrant workers in Tamil Nadu. Also, the lowest strata of the service sector (that is, housekeeping staff and security staff) is dominated by workers mainly from Bengal, Orissa, Assam, Jharkhand and Chattisgarh. 

Even before lockdown, conditions of migrant workers in all the sectors were abysmal, with a delay in payment of salaries, abuses by managers and forced overtime were everyday occurrences. Post lockdown their condition has worsened beyond imagination. A large percentage of the migrants (especially the ones in construction and textile sectors) were given little or no salary in March. Even in the organised sector, most of the migrant workers got only partial wages even for March when the factories were running for three weeks. With little to no money left, and with the state government taking well over a week to spring into action, starvation was rampant among workers. 

A large section of textile workers in Tirupur and Coimbatore are migrant women who have not been here too long. We spoke to many workers who were as young as seventeen years and had just arrived in Chennai in February or March. They had barely worked for a few weeks before everything closed. Many of them have not seen a single rupee in the form of wages. They also live in hostels provided by the company and so intimidation by HR managers is common. Even the movement of these workers outside the hostels was carefully restricted. Several of them were made to clean the hostel premises without wages. They have also been threatened that management will not allow them to return home, and they will have to continue with the work once production resumes. The psychological trauma experienced by these workers in particular and by migrant workers, in general, is beyond description. 

With the third phase of the lockdown, a majority of the migrant workers want to return home at any cost. Over the last few days, TamilNadu government has released several forms that workers need to fill to return home! There is no clear communication as to why more than one application form is released. Workers are filling any form they can find (either online or through local police stations) in their desperation to return home.  It remains unclear if these forms are just some futile bureaucratic exercise invented to quell the anger or if the government has any concrete plans to send lakhs of workers back home.  We are hearing reports of workers leaving the state on cycles or hiring buses out of their money to return to their respective states. Some of the workers had undertaken perilous journeys by boats to reach Andhra Pradesh or even Odisha. Their patience has run out.  

Irked by the absence of any concrete plan from the government, the workers have resorted to protests. Workers at the site in Pallavaram L&T construction work in Chennai and Koodankulam construction site at Tirunelveli district took part in these protests which continued for a few days starting from 2nd May. After government intervention,  these workers were assured of returning home soon with travel arrangements through railways. However, nothing has materialised so far.  This protest was the second instance of protest that TN witnessed after the announcement of lockdown. 

The first one was just after the lockdown was announced. Hundreds of workers, many of whom had come from Kerala to avail North-bound interstate trains, were stranded at two major stations ¾ Chennai and  Coimbatore.  They were caught unaware of the sudden decisions on cancellation of transports and with no way to go forward or return. With no shelters and facilities for food,  water and accommodation, they were restive and went on roads resulting in sudden pandemonium. Police had tried to disperse the crowd with lathi charges. Later they were accommodated in nearby halls due to the intervention of civil administration in both the cities. 

A large number of civil society groups sprung into action right from the beginning of the lockdown and tried to distribute food and ration to as many workers as possible.  In Chennai, a broad-based COVID-19 Support Group, comprising of civil society activists, have been working round the clock since the beginning of lockdown.  But the enormity of the task implied that a large section of the workers remained in an extremely precarious condition.  Tamil Nadu government has tried to distribute rations in many of the areas, but it has been extremely inadequate. With a minimal amount of rice and daal, even where the help reached, workers did not get enough to eat. In many places, we have witnessed that workers simply got dry rice and salt to eat. In other measures, the TamilNadu government has appointed area wise nodal officers. They, along with district surveillance officers, were entrusted with the task of distributing food, ration and making arrangements for accommodation for the migrants. However, the lack of awareness and accessibility of these officers and language barriers meant that a large section of migrants, especially those who had arrived recently or who were stranded at construction sites, suffered from delays in getting any assistance.  The affinity of the government with RSS-linked organisations was also on display as groups affiliated to RSS were allowed free movement in the initial phases of lockdown. At the same time, similar efforts by civil society members were questioned. However, these RSS-affiliated groups had a somewhat limited reach. 

A significant worry for these workers has been the lack of income due to which they are unable to send any money home. As the state government refused to take any pro-active action against the managements unwilling to pay, this has hit the workers hard, and it is a challenge that the civil society groups could not meet. The COVID-19 support group has been working round the clock not just in distributing food and rations but also talking to the labour departmentand management of various companies in ensuring that workers got paid in March. They had some successes such as in Hyundai factory, and several small vendor companies in Sriperumbadur area. This interaction with the management in ensuring payment of wages to the workers was a valuable initiative by this group. But in the absence of participation and intervention of trade unions, it had limited success.  

CPDR-TN stands in solidarity with the rights of the workers in general and the migrant workers in particular. Though the members of CPDR-TN felt the need to reach out to the stranded workers directly, this newly-formed organisation has its limitations. The members, with their individual ability, have coordinated with the migrant workers directly in a few instances and have also joined hands with the COVID-19 solidarity group.

So far, we have discussed the condition of workers and the response of the state. Now we take up the status of healthcare workers. Concerning the doctors, health workers or sanitary workers,  their safety was entirely compromised with no/sufficient PPE or masks allotted to them even though they have a higher probability of getting inflicted by corona due to direct contact with the Corona patients. Some doctors and nurses have already died, and many moreare inflicted by corona now. Even the one-day symbolic protest of Indian Medical Association has not yielded any result in attaining PPE though only a stringent punitive law for the attack on doctors is promulgated. Safety of the sanitary workers, most of whom are employed on a contractual basis, are not attended to by any state government and TamilNadu is no exception. 

Meanwhile, despite the extended period of lockdown, the Covid19 epidemic is spreading rapidly across the state, with different super-spreading events leading to subsequent large-scale infections at the community level, making Tamil Nadu the second-most affected state in the country. The largest concentration of these cases is in Chennai, and there the most number of affected people have been in the urban slums, as is the case in most other metro cities. In times of such an alarming and large-scale health crisis, it is the responsibility of the state to step in and provide the necessary testing and treatment infrastructure. The role of the state government in reaching out to the people must be in tune with World Health Organisation’s pledge of universal health coverage whereby “everyone, everywhere, should have access to essential healthcare services without facing financial hardship”.  While large-scale and perhaps targeted testing has happened in Tamil Nadu, it has not been able to stem the growth in cases in the densely populated areas, where norms of physical distancing are more difficult to maintain and hygienic conditions are genuinely challenging. More importantly, the testing process has been quite slow, often leading to quick deterioration of health and fatality after positive detection. And now, with the number of hospital beds running dry with cases exponentially surging, denial of proper treatment and care stares in the face of the citizens. People are confronted with this crisis despite the promise that the period of lockdown would be utilised to build adequate capacity, which has not happened. This inadequacy especially hits hard the poorer and vulnerable sections of the society who are entirely reliant on the public health care system, however fragile and ill-structured it might be. As in regular times, and maybe exponentially more during this pandemic, private vendors continue to fleece people merrily. With the system in crisis,  non-COVID medical emergency services have also been mostly inaccessible,  in the absence of a comprehensive plan, causing immense hardships to the people. Thus, the fundamental right to healthcare as enshrined within the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the right to life as guaranteed within the constitution have become more distant dreams in these troubled times.Hence, TamilNadu government must take over the responsibility for providing testing and hospital treatment, for free. TamilNadu boasts one of the most excellent networks of public health services and private corporate hospitals in the country. Hence, as the load on public health workers has intensified, and their wellbeing is increasingly at risk, the state government must ensure that there is total compulsory participation of all private clinics and hospitals in the frontline healthcare forces combating the epidemic. This step will provide the possibility of the people to avail proper treatment at the government hospital rate, as necessitated upon the govt. as per Public Epidemic
Act of 1896.

The current period of lockdown is utilised on the other hand by the government to incarcerate political activists who raise the voice of protest against government policy. Though some of whom were arrested, got bail soon, the gagging of democratic voice in the name lockdown is anti-democratic and needs to be condemned. 

A long spell of court closure in the name of lockdown affects the ordinary people trying to secure justice. With no court functioning, the legal professionals are also under high strain with limited means for survival as the Bar Association, courts and government have failed to address and mitigate their sufferings.

Overall, CPDR-TN condemns the hasty steps taken by the central and state governments in imposing lockdown without ensuring the safety, security and well being of the people and also for utilising the lockdown period in curbing the democratic rights of the people and arresting of the defenders of democratic rights.

Ref.

  1. https://tnlabour.in/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/A-Survey-on-Inter-State-Migrants.pdf
  2. https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/chennai/Tamil-Nadu-now-home-to-1-million-migrant-workers-Study/articleshow/50861647.cms

The Lessons of BhimaKoregaon: No Bail, Only Jail

Peoples Union for Democratic Rights

PRESS RELEASE / 01 June,2020

The Lessons of BhimaKoregaon: No Bail, Only Jail

With the surrenders of AnandTeltumbde and GautamNavlakha on April 14, 2020 in Mumbai and Delhi respectively, the NIA, the investigative agency, has ensured the arrest of all 11 prominent human rights activists in the infamous BhimaKoregaon case under the draconian UAPA. The recent rejection of the bail applications of Varavara Rao, AnandTeltumbde, Shoma Sen and SudhaBharadwaj, and the sudden transfer of GautamNavlakha by the NIA, raise significant questions about the rights of political prisoners amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. The institution of state-wise High Powered Committees with the mandate to ensure safety of prisoners and their recommendation to exclude temporary bail for those who are held under UAPA, and other serious laws and penal provisions, adds to these concerns.

·        The bail denials are patently callous. The accusations against these prisoners, serious or otherwise, have been used to not only deny them bail but also doubly penalize them by forcing them to live in overcrowded jails despite their age and health issues. The life and health of all prisoners, convicted or undertrial, is the responsibility of the state which must ensure that all prisoners are safe and protected. All five inmates suffer from a range of medical ailments. 81-year-old Varavara Rao was hospitalized on May 28, 2020 after his persistent health issues could not be treated in Taloja Jail. He is a patient of multiple ailments including coronary artery disease. 70- year-old AnandTeltumbde has respiratory problems; 67-year-old GautamNavlakha is a patient of colonic polyposis, chronic gastritis, and hypertension; 61-year-old Shoma Sen suffers from hypertension and arthritis; and 58-year-old SudhaBharadwaj has a medical condition of hypertension and diabetes.

·        What is disturbing is that when denying them bail, courts have not even passed orders to keep these prisoners in safe surroundings within the jail, given their advanced age and ailments. Though the NIA admitted before the Mumbai special court on April 25 that one of its officers, in the police station where Teltumbde was kept for interrogation, had tested positive, the court turned down Teltumbde’s bail application and sent him to judicial custody at Arthur Road Jail, a Covid-19 hotspot. SudhaBharadwaj had drawn the court’s attention to the fact that “social distancing” was impossible in the overcrowded wards of Byculla Women’s Jail, and that an inmate has recently tested positive for Covid-19. Yet, her bail application was turned down on May 29. And Taloja jail where Varavara Rao and GautamNavlakha are lodged, also has a confirmed COVID-19 death.

·        Ordinarily, reasons for denying bail rest on the possibility of a prisoner (a) absconding on release; (b) tampering with evidence or influencing witnesses; or (c) committing another offence. However, in the case of these UAPA accused, the prisoners are all public-minded individuals who have never attempted to abscond – two of them in fact surrendered for arrest on court orders. The case against them is based solely on electronic communication, all of which is in the NIA’s custody, and the charge sheet has been filed in court. None of them have ever been convicted of any previous offence. In addition to being subjected to a fierce prosecution cum media attack, they have also been victim to surreptitious state actions. On May 25, the NIA whisked GautamNavlakha from Delhi’s Tihar jail without informing his lawyer and family. This was done solely to make infructuous his pending bail matter before the High Court. In the process, Navlakha was exposed to the risk of being infected as he was taken on an overnight train journey.

·        Repeated rejections of interim bail petitions make clear that existing medical conditions of political prisoners are not regarded as reasonable grounds for bail, even in the context of a pandemic. These rejections are outcomes of mechanical decisions taken by High-Powered-Committees. The security considerations which prompt these Committees to exclude a section of prisoners based on their alleged offence, has in effect, condemned these elderly and vulnerable inmates to reside in abysmal prison conditions in COVID times. Such denial of bail are acts of persecution committed against those who have existing medical vulnerabilities. The fear of infection is extremely high in overcrowded jails, known for their insanitary and inhuman conditions. In COVID-19 times, especially when Maharashtra has emerged as the state with the highest number of cases (62,228 as of May 29), differentially treating bail petitions by political prisoners is gross injustice. The utter helplessness of the prisoner is evident from the hospitalization of Varavara Rao, and from the case of GautamNavlakha who was not produced before the court that granted permission for his transfer nor allowed to inform his family or lawyer.

The health and safety of political prisoners must be treated with the same urgency as that of other prisoners. Amidst this unprecedented pandemic, a uniform policy is needed to ensure the survival of inmates.

Radhika Chitkara and Vikas Kumar

Secretaries, PUDR

Telenipara Communal Incidents: APDR Fact-Fact Finding Report

Telenipara Communal Incidents: APDR  Fact-Fact Finding Report

Some communal incidents occurred on 10th and 12th   May, 2020 in Telenipara under the jurisdiction of Bhadraswar P.S, one of the known industrial areas of the Hooghly district. The   area has a mixed population comprising Bengali hindus residing there before the establishment of jute mills and non- bengalis, both hindus and muslims, mainly from Bihar, U.P and Andhra Pradesh ,started pouring in, brought there as labourers of jute mills around the western bank of river Ganga. There are   two jute mills, namely Victoria Jute Mill and Shyamnagar North Jute Mill in Telenipara with some other Jute mills in close vicinity.

While investigating the nature of communal incident in Teleniparan, one should keep in mind that Telenipara has a long history of Communal tension and occasional riots involving mainly the population of non-bengali origin.

A team from APDR Hooghly District Committee visited the Telinipara area on 14.05.2020 and 17.05.2020 to find the probable reasons behind the clashes, the nature of violence, the extent of loss in the violence, the perpetrators involved, the role of administration and incidents of right violation by both the state, and non-state players.

Fact-Finding: The APDR team visited Mokram Ali Lane, F.G Street by lane, F.G Street by Rajabazar lane, F.G Street by Neogi Bagan Lane, Garer Dhar,Segunbagan Lane,  Gobinddevi Lane, F.G Street, B.B Lane, Pikepara, Labour lines(9,10,11,12) of Shyamnagar North Jute Mill.

The team visited Mokram Ali Lane, a Muslim mohalla and talked with the residents. It was learnt from them that after the outbreak of COVID-19 virus, the movement of muslims in the neighbourhood area, their going to market, shops for purchase of groceries, daily necessities were gradually faced objection from the people of the Hindu communities on the ground that Muslims in general had been instrumental in spreading the said virus in India and so they should not roam around. They said that situation worsened with the news of a suspected COVID-19 Muslim patient in Mokram Ali Lane, though according to some sources, such as Indian Express report mentioned above, the number of such patients was more. However, residents of Mokram Ali Lane stressed that the only patient actually had asthma having serious respiratory problem but was eventually tested negative. And it was learnt that with spreading of news of COVID-19 patient/patients in Mokram Ali Lane, one Muslim woman was asked to refrain from fetching water from a Municipal tap placed in  Gobindadevi Lane on 10th May, 2020 morning and such incident occurred elsewhere also, Muslim residents of Pikepara Mill lines faced opposition from Hindu neighbours in using  community toilets, Muslim men were stopped from stepping into adjacent Hindu dominated area having the local market and finally entries to Muslim mohallas were barricaded. Altercations begun, tension grew.

On 10th May, Sunday, some Muslim miscreants ransacked Hindu shops and households at F.G Street and B.B Lane merely a stone’s throw from the Telinipara Police outpost (which had been infamous as killing-spot of Bhikhari Paswan) at F.G street. Retaliation in the form of terrorising and ransacking Muslim shops and household started soon. However, tension did not escalate further. Both the warring parties restrained themselves holding their forts without any police intervention.  At 10 P.M of 10th May, 2020, a resident of Telenipara informed a member of APDR that he had not seen a single police man in the disturbed area during the whole day, which was also corroborated by all the persons APDR met on 14th and 17th May, 2020. It was learnt that police visited disturbed area at the dead of the night.

On 11th May, 2020, Police patrolled the affected area and posted few police personnel at some places of Telenipara area. No untoward incident happened during the day. The local B.J.P M.P Smt. Locket Chatterjee was not allowed to enter Telenipara. It was alleged that her statement, after police stopped her at Chandannagar on 11th May, 2020, targeting the Muslims residing in Telinipara area on deliberately spreading Corona Virus and blaming that the State administration had been doing nothing to take action against those Muslims, which went viral in social media, instigated the violence against Muslims.

On 12th May, 2020, a concerted attack by the hindu miscreants on the Muslim households and shops on the periphery of Muslim mohallas adjacent to hindu areas started at around 12 noon. APDR Team has seen that several dwelling units and shops  belonging to minority  communities  in the Mokram Ali Lane, F.G Street by lane, F.G Street by Rajabazar lane, F.G Street Neogi Bagan by Lane ,Gorer Dhar have been destroyed by bombing and setting on fire. It was seen that all the belongings in the rooms were charred by fire. It was alleged in several cases before setting the rooms on fire, valuables were looted by miscreants. Totos (E-rickshaws), motorbikes, Small commercial vehicles known as ‘ Chhota Hati‘ etc., whatever found parked around those  dwelling units were set on fire. In some cases, evidences were found that gas cylinders were made to blast in the room, Petrol bombs were abundantly used and brick bats and broken pieces of alcohol bottles were laying everywhere. Cable lines were burnt in the area; Cows/buffalos were allegedly looted from cowshed. APDR team spotted one live bomb on the roof of the house of Abdus Salam, at Neogibagan By lane on 14th May, 2020. It is alleged that attack on muslim households and shops were done by outsiders, especially from Barrakpore, guided by local miscreants.

On 12th May, 2020, at Pikepara, Lines of 9,10,11,12 of Shyamnagar North Jute Mill were totally vandalised except a wing each of Line no, 10 and 11 inhabited by hindu mill workers. At JPN Street of Pikepara, a shop belonging to a hindu and an office of Bengal Chatkol Majdur Union were ransacked by hindu miscreants. Some houses belonging to muslims situated opposite to the community toilet on the way from Line No. 1 to Line No.9 were totally gutted by fire. Black fumes are still emerging from the gutted rooms on 17th may, 2020.

Two persons, namely Manjur Alam, 45 and Md. Ajad, 38, both the residents of Lines 9&10 were injured in the attack at the Pikepara Jute Mill Lines on 10th May Evening. They both were treated by the Bhadreswar Municipality.

One person name Md Abdus Salam (name changed) alleged that the management of Shyamnagar North Jute Mill is refusing work to the muslim labourers of that mill.

A well-respected Haji Baduriddin Saheb Majar  situated at Babubazar, G.T Road and another Majar situated at Hindustan Park, Bhadreswar as well as a Shitala Devi Mandir situated at F.G Street were ransacked.

On 12th May, 2020, at around 12 Noon, in retaliation to the hindu attack on muslims, Muslim miscreants set on fire some shops and houses belonging to hindus at B.B. Lane and F.G Street but muslim shops at the opposite sides of the Street/Lane remained unscathed without suffering any damage. None of hindu victims complained of involvement of miscreants from outside of Telenipara.

 Hindu Victims numbering 55-60 persons including children of F.G Street and B. B Lane have been sheltered at nearby Jubilee Primary School on 10th May, 2020 night, whereas muslim victims mumbering more than 600 persons including children of Line Nos. 9, 10, 11 and 12 of Pikepara have taken shelter at Haji Md. Mohsin Primary School and Md. Mohsin Primary School on 10th May, 2020 night. It was alleged that Bhadreswar Municipality, while rightly extended help for hindu victims sheltered in jubilee Primary School, did not do so for the Pikepara Muslim victims sheltered in two primary schools.

More areas of Telinipara such as the area around the road from Dinemardanga road to Gondalpara Jute Mill mostly inhabited by muslims also suffered from violence. The APDR team could not visit those places.

Sporadic arson of muslim properties were ransacked/looted/put to fire in different places far away from Telinipara under Bhadreswar PS such as Babur Bazar, Mankundu 

As per available report, police made 129 arrests of males and females both in Muslim and Hindu areas. In many cases, arrests were arbitrary and baseless such as follows:

  1. Shama Nazneen,W/o W. Ahmed, mother of four children, one of 3 months of age.
  2. Rabi Paswan,18, serious epileptic patient and will turn more serious if not medicated properly, repeatedly requested police not to arrest but police did not pay heed.
  3. Bipin Roy and two sons including one, namely Rohit Roy, 20, mentally challenged arrested leaving minor girl, Priya Roy, 13 in the camp.

 Several victims complained that Bhadraeswar P.S had refused to accept F.IRs/G.Ds in relation to loss of property. Highhandedness of RAF and police personnel with the local residents and arbitrary arrests instilled a fear psychosis in the area. As a result residents faced distress as Vegetables Vendors, Milk Van etc. could not enter the muslim area. Police and RAF personnel patrolling in the area and persons wounded from bomb splinters dares to go for treatment fearing that they might get arrested.

Observations:

1. The epicentre of 10th May, 2020 incident was in and around F.G Street. Muslims of in and around F.G Street including Mokram Ali Lane etc. area had been gradually cornered and stigmatised with regular blocking of them in their normal movements by neighbour Hindus alleging Muslims of spreading of Corona virus and in the fasting period humiliation on denying entry to community toilet or fetching water from tap had been the proverbial ‘straw on the Camel’s back’ and the first move in the direction of communal violence was made by the Muslims on 10th May, 2020.

2. Though Telenipara has long history of communal tension and riots, sometimes continued for a period, current violence has a unique feature of resurfacing again on the third day after a lull day with participation from outside elements with a clear strategic planning. From the nature of attack on 12th May ,2020 by hindu miscreants, it can be surmised that principle object of  said orchestrated attack was to cripple the minority community economically, rather than inflicting bodily injury.

3. There was no clear evidence of muslims involved in violence in areas other than F.G Street and adjacent areas.

4. As understood from the course of events by APDR Team, police has choosen to remain passive spectator in the drama of violence. Had the police been more active and alert after the 10th May, 2020 incident, the greater loss of properties could have been easily avoided. Transfer of Officer-in-charge, Bhadreswar P. S. to North Bengal confirmed this observation.

The silver linings: One aged muslim woman tryingto protect the shop of Sri Bijoy Show being ransacked and looted expired. An ex-councillor named Gabbar talked to the muslim  and hindu leaders of his area ,pacified them and no untoward  incident happened in Buro Dewantala. At Pikepara, the Khatal Owners (hindu goalas) successfully resisted the hindu miscreants from entering the line no. 1 and surrounding areas of Paik para  

We Demand:

  1. The matter should be properly investigated and persons found to be guilty must be brought to book.
  2. The roll of the Bhadreswar P S must be investigated and the findings be made public. Action should be taken against errant police personnel. People must see that justice is done.
  3. All victims should be properly compensated.
  4. FIR/GDE must not be refused. Victims of violence should be encouraged to file FIR.
  5. The allegation that the muslim workers are being denied job at Shyamnagar North Jute Mill should be looked into and remedial measures be taken forthwith. 
  6. Riot Victims sheltered in camps should be provided with proper food and required medication till they can be rehabilitated by the administration by taking reconciliation measures.

The Team: Amal Ray/ Bapi Dasgupta/ Kamal Datta with inputs from Satyabrata Mukhopadhyay/ Saktipada Bhattacharya(end)

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

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