Viral politics

Print edition : June 05, 2020

Health officials in Srinagar conducting swab tests for COVID-19 on May 16. Photo: S. Irfan/PTI

The administration’s focus seems to be on optics even as it flounders in its response to the pandemic as reflected in the increase in the number of cases with every passing day.

In violence-torn Kashmir, the absence of a civilian government is more acutely felt than ever before as the number of coronavirus infections continues to spiral. The rank and file of the National Conference (N.C.) and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) have questioned the Lieutenant Governor Girish Chandra Murmu-led regime’s response to the pandemic, alleging it lacks “specifics and direction” and relies largely on the creation of optics as is evident from the “relentless photo-up drives” of A-lister officials and the “self-congratulatory chatter” on social media. The number of infected people in Jammu and Kashmir stood at 1,183 on May 17; as many as 13 people have succumbed to the disease.

The N.C.’s provincial spokesperson Imran Nabi Dar, who spoke to Frontline, was dismayed by the government’s efforts to highlight relief distribution as its “major achievement”. “I don’t want to criticise the efforts of the administration at this time, but it is outrageous that a regular administrative exercise such as free distribution of rice is being touted on social media as a breakthrough. The bureaucracy and those who are managing the pandemic should refrain from capitalising on relief work to generate personal goodwill,” Dar said.

The administration recently announced that 5 kg of rations would be given per person per BPL (below poverty line) household for the next three months under the Prime Minister’s Garib Kalyan Ann Yojana. Political observers and political leaders converge in their criticism that there is no road map to upgrade Kashmir’s crumbling health care sector. Dar urged the government to be “more accommodating of criticism”. The general perception is that the Murmu administration is functioning with a select group of “regime favourites” and has walled itself off from suggestions and solutions that health care experts associated with past regimes would like to offer.

Waheed-ur-Rehman Para, youth president of the PDP, speaking to Frontline over phone from his house in Srinagar where he is under detention, said Srinagar was disproportionately burdened with handling the crisis as the health services in other districts were in dire straits. “The district hospital in Pulwama is dysfunctional. It has been relegated to [the status of] a quarantine centre. Currently, six coronavirus patients are being treated in that facility. But what about the over four lakh population of Pulwama? Does the administration expect them to run to Srinagar in the event of an emergency?” Para asked. The coronavirus is swiftly spreading across north and south Kashmir: Srinagar and Anantnag have emerged as the hotspots with 157 and 177 cases respectively as of May 17.

Sources in the N.C. and the PDP alleged that the Murmu regime had sidelined the best brains in the health sector. A PDP source alleged that the administration was obsessed with “screening officials and bureaucrats on the basis of perceived political allegiance”. The source claimed that at least 10 senior health care experts and bureaucrats who could have been instrumental in effective handling of the prevailing crisis had been undermined.

The administration has dismissed any notion of inaction on its part. It maintains it has significantly upgraded existing facilities, including testing facilities. According to officials, over 4,000 tests are being conducted every day now compared with the 1,000 a day in late April. On May 14 alone, 4,133 tests were conducted. Officials said that as of May 14, a total of 63,515 tests had been done, of which 983 returned positive and 62,532 were negative.

Jammu and Kashmir has also procured a sizeable number of viral transport medium (VTM) kits to ramp up testing. On May 15, Additional Resident Commissioner Niraj Kumar informed the media through his twitter handle that “30,000 VTMs land [on a military plane] in Srinagar. Outstanding job by our cargo team working round the clock.”

But the PDP and the N.C. allege that the situation on the ground is worrisome. Imran Dar pointed out the lack of a region-specific financial package. “There are genuine needs that are not being met. Many people in rural areas do not have food and other essential supplies. They have been out of work for over 60 days and are now acutely short of cash. A decent, J&K-specific financial package ought to be announced for them,” he said. Waheed-ur-Rehman Para pointed out that recently when 17 civilians were injured in Pulwama they had to be rushed to Srinagar for treatment. This, he said, was testimony to the administration’s callousness.

Since the lockdown was announced on March 24, hundreds of Kashmiris, mostly students, have been stranded in various parts of India. On May 8, the Jammu and Kashmir Home Department issued a statement: “Train services are being arranged for stranded persons of J&K, particularly from far-off places. The government has decided to bear the cost of tickets; the returnees will not need to make any payments for their return journey by train.”

In the next one week, the administration said it had evacuated 49,218 people by road via Lakhanpur and 7,264 by special trains running through Jammu and Udhampur. On May 14, a special train was arranged for Kashmiri students studying at Aligarh Muslim University. The AMU spokesperson Shafey Kidwai said: “The university requested authorities for a special train and the students were told to register themselves on the Jammu and Kashmir government portal a couple of days back and the permission came through on May 14 afternoon.”

However, the death of a young asymptomatic person on May 7 has left people apprehensive of the returnees. The 32-year-old victim was a resident of Alamgiri Bazar in Srinagar and had been attending to his father, who had been admitted to the oncology department of the super speciality hospital at Shireen Bagh, Srinagar. A 55-year-old woman who was a plastic surgery patient in that medical facility and her 19-year-old attendant had tested positive for coronavirus, and the deceased may have got infected through social contact.

On May 17, five doctors tested positive for the coronavirus: three of them are from the ENT department in Shri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital, one is a dentist at the Government Dental College, Srinagar, and one an orthopaedic surgeon from SKIMS Medical College, Bemina. So far 13 doctors, three nurses and five health care workers have got infected with the virus. On May 16, 13 pregnant women from South Kashmir’s Anantnag and Kulgam districts were found to be infected, according to the health department.

Meanwhile, the Kashmir Valley got no respite from the Supreme Court in the issue of restoration of high-speed Internet. The court showed its unwillingness to immediately mitigate the situation when it argued that national security and human rights interests must be balanced. It described the situation in the Kashmir Valley as not conducive to high-speed Internet restoration and said that as the Valley had been “plagued with militancy”.

As the Supreme Court heard a related petition on May 11, it ruled that a special committee led by the Union Home Secretary would consider pleas for restoring 4G Internet services in Jammu and Kashmir. A section of the media described the court’s decision as an abdication of judicial responsibility that empowered the executive to decide matters on its behalf. A bench comprising Justices N.V. Ramana, R. Subhash Reddy and B.R. Gavai said in their ruling: “...the fact that outside forces are trying to infiltrate the borders and destabilise the integrity of the nation, as well as cause incidents resulting in the death of innocent citizens and security forces every day cannot be ignored.”

The continuing lockdown has taken a heavy toll on the Union Territory’s economy, particularly its lucrative apple trade, which had already been affected following the abrogation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status on August 5 last year. As the situation in the Valley grew tense after August 5 and curfews exhausted the calendar year, several apple growers and businessmen stored the harvest in the hope that they would be able to sell it in spring at good prices and recover their losses. However, the coronavirus crisis has dashed their hopes. As per a rough estimation, there are 80,000 tonnes of apples lying in cold storage in the Kashmir Valley.

The cherry trade has also suffered a jolt. As per media reports, the cherry orchardists have tended over 2,713 hectares of crop, and the yield is expected to surpass the 11,000-tonne mark this year. The fruit traders have urged the government to allow all cart vendors in the Valley to sell their produce in open shops.