On June 26, Prime Minister Narendra Modi credited the Yogi Adityanath-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in Uttar Pradesh with saving the lives of approximately 85,000 people through its special initiatives to contain the spread of COVID-19. Modi based his claim on a comparison of demographies of four European nations—the United Kingdom (U.K.), France, Italy and Spain—and Uttar Pradesh. The total population of these European nations is about 24 crores, which is also the population of the State. Citing these numbers, Modi argued that cumulatively the four European nations had accounted for nearly 1.30 lakh COVID-19-related deaths while such deaths in the Indian State numbered only about 600. He went on to add that the Uttar Pradesh government had foreseen the situation and made quarantine and isolation facilities and that it was this that had resulted in the smaller number of fatalities. Making a direct political pitch on the basis of this contention, Modi claimed that the situation would have been different under previous governments as they would have only dished out excuses. He made comments while inaugurating, through a videoconference, the “Atma Nirbhar Uttar Pradesh Rojgar Yojna” (Uttar Pradesh self-reliant employment project), publicised by the State government as an initiative to promote local entrepreneurship.
Undoubtedly, the Prime Minister’s statistical comparison and related claims added up to an impressive presentation. It was widely circulated by the publicity apparatus of the Uttar Pradesh government and the propaganda wings of the BJP and other organisations in the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS)-led Sangh Parivar. Yet, the traction that the campaign received, even in the assessments of some sections of the Sangh Parivar, was limited. “Notwithstanding its strengths in terms of the comparative figures, the campaign based on this could not be termed a runaway hit,” remarked a senior RSS activist based in Lucknow. Mahendra Singh, a social activist belonging to Kanpur, the biggest city in Uttar Pradesh, told Frontline that the reason why the comparative advantage highlighted by the Prime Minister had not brought solace to the people at large was that the problems the pandemic caused were oppressive but those who suffered them on a day-to-day basis did not find adequate creative interventions from the State government. “On the contrary, the Yogi Adityanath government is seen to be constantly trying to cover up its mistakes and deficiencies in COVID-19 relief activities,” Mahendra Singh added.
In this background, he made a specific reference to the accidental discovery of COVID-19 infection in as many as 57 minor girls in a government-run children’s home in Kanpur. The revelation happened over four days in the third week of June. The medical perils of the discovery were complicated further by the fact that five of these girls were pregnant. Initial reports had it that one of these sexually exploited girls was HIV positive and another was infected with hepatitis C. A female staffer of the home was also found to be COVID-19 positive. While all of them were admitted to hospital, the remaining 114 girls and 37 employees were quarantined in a separate building. Residents of the shelter home, all between 10 and 18 years of age, hailed from different districts, including Agra, Etah, Kannauj, Firozabad and Kanpur. The disclosure of these cases with the added angle of sexual exploitation and pregnancy became a sensation across the State with political and social organisations taking it up in a big way. Taking suo motu cognisance of media reports, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) issued notices to the State’s Chief Secretary and Director General of Police (DGP). It called for a detailed report and asked the officials to address the health status of all the girls, including their medical treatment and counselling. The NHRC added that the Uttar Pradesh government was expected to order an inquiry into the matter by an independent agency. It also called for a report regarding registration of a first information report (FIR) in the matter and the status of the investigation.
However, what happened following these interventions was mind-boggling. Instead of engaging creatively with the alarming outbreak of COVID-19 and rampant sexual exploitation in the children’s home, the government turned vindictive against sections of the media and social media for reporting these. An FIR was lodged against unidentified people for allegedly circulating false information about the shelter home. The FIR contended that false news about the home was circulated on different platforms, including news channels and social media. The primary thrust of the FIR was on reports suggesting that one of the pregnant girls was HIV positive and another had hepatitis C. It also stated that some media and social media interventions had revealed the identities of the residents concerned.
Referring to these events, Mahendra Singh pointed out that while legal measures needed to be taken against those who revealed the names of the victims, the overall approach of the government was to punish anyone who had made bold to talk about the revelation. “The hasty filing of an FIR and the consequent targeting of media organisations and personnel had all the trappings of a cover-up operation. In fact, such instances of obfuscation in terms of testing and revealing COVID-19 positive cases abound across the State. Similarly, the larger infrastructural and administrative deficiencies and social maladies like child sexual exploitation and caste-based discrimination are all sought to be covered up. This context has also contributed to the lukewarm response to the Prime Minister’s comparative claims on Uttar Pradesh and the four countries in Europe,” he said. Mahendra Singh added that despite such efforts to under-report COVID-19 cases and related issues and actively dissuade the media and the people from discussing them, June 2020 had recorded the highest number of cases. In the process, he said, June had also turned out to be the worst month for Uttar Pradesh since the outbreak of the pandemic.
Uttar Pradesh has for several weeks ranked fifth among the States in the number of COVID-19 cases, with the mortality rate rising steadily. Of the15 districts in the country with the highest death rates, four are in the State: Jhansi, Meerut, Etah and Agra. The data for these districts, as pointed out by Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi, are disconcerting. One out of every 10 patients has died in Jhansi, while in Meerut it is one death per 11 patients. In Etah and Agra, one out of every 14 patients has died. Besides, the situation in the State capital, Lucknow, is turning from bad to worse. The steady rise of cases in the city has led to 100 areas being included on the containment zone list.
More worryingly, health and administrative officials point out that security personnel constitute a large part of new cases. The number of COVID-19 positive cases among the police and other security personnel was around 200 in Lucknow alone in the beginning of the last week of June. At least four policemen have died in the State since the beginning of the pandemic. Clearly, the situation on the ground is unnerving even to security personnel, not to speak of common people, even as leaders including the Prime Minister keep highlighting the “success story” of Uttar Pradesh.