In the wee hours of March 21, a day before t he “Janata curfew”, the Mumbai Police brutalised members of a denotified tribe sleeping outside a cinema hall and evicted them in order to “clean” the streets. Twenty families of the Pardhi community, who had lived and sold their wares on the pavement for decades, were displaced in the middle of a pandemic.
On March 26, a 32-year-old man who was out buying milk in Howrah district of West Bengal died after the police allegedly baton-charged him, a claim they denied.
News of police excesses poured in from across the country as the 21-day lockdown transformed India overnight into a “police state”. Governance took a back seat and the bureaucratic machinery was reduced to firefighting issues as and when they surfaced.
While arguments can be made in favour of the lockdown, the fact remains that it was announced with zero preparedness. The vast majority of vulnerable and socially excluded communities were provided with no means to cope with the deadly consequences of the lockdown.
The Prime Minister’s exhortation asking people to “stay at home” was meaningless to the more than 1.7 million “homeless” residents of India, who live in concrete pipes, places of worship and mandapas; under flyovers and staircases; or on roadsides, pavements and railway platforms (as per Census 2011). While the Central government’s “plan” protected to a certain extent the needs of the middle and upper classes, it completely overlooked the disempowered, who constitute a huge chunk of the population. The disabled, the homeless, nomads, beggars, Rohingya refugees, sex workers, prisoners and riot-affected people, to name just a few, faced the double whammy of marginalisation and a health hazard. Even as they worried about protecting themselves from the virus, their first priority remained to secure shelter and food.
Shambhu, who used to sell cucumbers on the railway platform and wash cars before he was rescued and rehabilitated by the New Delhi-based non-governmental organisation (NGO) Chetna, said: “There is immense fear among the people. Most street children have taken refuge at an employer’s or acquaintance’s place. But for how long will these people feed them? Rumours are flying thick and fast about the lockdown being extended. If something is not done soon for street-connected people, we will be in for a severe crisis.” Shambu now teaches other street children to become empowered like he is. His father makes chapattis at a local dhaba and is currently out of work because of the lockdown. While most people in the Sarai Kale Khan basti (slum cluster) in Delhi, where he lives, adhere to the lockdown, those without toilets have no choice but to venture out to the nearest community toilet. “They try to go at four in the morning before the cops become active and then sometime later in the evening,” he said. The slum dwellers have been cutting a bar of soap into two and using one half to keep their hands clean as none of them can afford sanitisers.
Despite the Prime Minister’s declarations that rural India is open defecation free, and a spurt in the construction of toilets by the authorities, the reality is that many people in rural areas have to go out of their homes to relieve themselves and those in urban spaces have to share toilets with dozens of others.
As the Housing and Land Rights Network (HLRN) says on its website (https://www.hlrn.org.in/homelessness): “According to the Census of India of 2011, India has more than 1.7 million homeless residents, of which 9,38,384 are located in urban areas. These figures, however, grossly underestimated the real numbers of the homeless. Civil society organisations estimate that at least one per cent of the population of urban India is homeless. Based on this, it can be extrapolated that the population of the urban homeless is at least 3 million. In the capital city of Delhi alone, at any given point, civil society estimates place the number of homeless at around 150,000-200,000, of which at least 10,000 are women. India also has the highest number of street children in the world but there is no official data on their numbers or adequate schemes to respond to their special needs and concerns.”
The HLRN has given a slew of suggestions for what the government can do to control the negative impact of the lockdown, including the use of Army vehicles to transport stranded people to their homes. It has also asked for protocols and facilities to be put in place across the country for the isolation and quarantining of homeless people and those living without adequate housing.
When the government announced its “stay at home” strategy, it did not consider the scores of disabled who are hawkers on trains, do petty jobs or otherwise earn their livelihood in the unorganised sector but are unemployed now and have no other source of income, said Muralidharan, general secretary, National Platform for the Rights of the Disabled.
The COVID-19-related guidelines of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare for the “protection and safety of persons with disabilities” state that “persons with disabilities should be given access to essential food, water, medicine and to the extent possible such items should be delivered at their residence or place where they have been quarantined”. Muralidharan worried that the rider “to the extent possible” was likely to be cited to deny the disabled such a service.
Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced a one-time ex gratia amount of Rs.1,000 for disabled persons through direct transfer. This is to be given in two instalments spread over three months, which averages to Rs.333.33 a month. Stating that this added insult to injury, Muralidharan said: “No less than 65 per cent of the disabled population is unemployed. The guidelines fail to suggest measures to address their concerns. The Rs.333.33 per month ex gratia is grossly inadequate. Social security measures have to take into account the extra expenditure that disability entails, more so in such situations.” The ex gratia amount should be increased to Rs.5,000 a month, he said.
Census 2011 identified 2.68 crore persons as having disabilities. As per data released by the Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities, the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, around half of them do not possess a disability certificate, which is mandatory for access to any government entitlement. Therefore, even this miserly amount is not available to a large number of disabled people identified in the census. In addition, the census enumerated only people with seven disabling conditions. Since then, the number of conditions recognised as disabling has increased to 21.
A day after the lockdown was imposed, Anjlee Agarwal, a disability rights activist and co-founder of Samarthyam, a disabled people organisation, wrote a distress post on social media: “We are three with muscular dystrophy (high support need) [and] can only manage with human assistance. Today we sent our attendant to get a ‘curfew pass’ [issued only by local police] so that he can come to our house to assist us.” The attendant was denied the pass despite Anjlee Agarwal ringing up the police and explaining that with all three members of the family affected, it was impossible for them to function without a trained assistant at least during the day. She had to reach out to higher authorities, and managed to obtain a pass after five hours.
“It is pertinent to mention that while ‘social distancing’ is the only way to fight against #COVID19, however there has to be a mechanism in place [for the] issue of special passes to ensure that people with disabilities and [the] elderly who are dependent… have access to their trusted/already hired/trained personal care attendants,” she said on social media.
Finally, after a lot of lobbying, the Disability Commissioner of Delhi sent an order to all District Magistrates: “Caregivers of person with disabilities (PwDs) should be allowed to reach PwDs by exempting them from restrictions during lockdown or providing passes in a simplified manner on priority.”
With the World Health Organisation saying that closed spaces such as prisons were susceptible zones for the spread of the virus, countries across the globe took steps to release prisoners. There were 4,66,084 prisoners in India in 2018, according to the National Crime Records Bureau. Even if a fraction of them were to get infected with the virus, the consequences would be devastating for the country.
On March 23, the Supreme Court took suo motu cognisance of the matter and directed each State and Union territory to constitute a high-powered committee (HPC), comprising the Chairman of the State Legal Services Committee, the Principal Secretary (Home/Prison) and the Director General of Prisons, to determine which prisoners could be released on parole or interim bail for an appropriate period of time.
Following the order, some States announced they would release prisoners. Madhya Pradesh planned to release 5,000 convicts on emergency parole for 60 days and 3,000 undertrials on interim bail for 45 days. Delhi’s Tihar jail promised to release 3,000 inmates who lived in Delhi, while Uttar Pradesh released 11,000 inmates from 71 jails.
Maharashtra promised to release 11,000 inmates serving or booked for jail terms for up to seven years but excluding foreign nationals, people from other States and people charged under the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act, the Prevention of Money Laundering Act, the Maharashtra Protection of Interest of Depositors (in Financial Establishments) Act, the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.
In a letter addressed to the Chief Minister, the Chief Justice of the Bombay High Court and others, a group of advocates from Maharashtra said: “This categorisation is shocking and unfair. By such exclusion, the Right to Life envisaged under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution of undertrials charged under the various Special Acts and/or undertrials who are from other States is under threat. To have such criteria also violates the principles laid under Article 14. Such an exclusion would mean that the rights are not equally guaranteed by the Constitution to all and those in the excluded categories are ‘unequal citizens’ in the eyes of law.”
They suggested that instead of putting a blanket restriction on releasing undertrials of foreign nationality and those from outside Maharashtra, provisions should be made to send them safely back to their place of residence so that the burden on the prison system is relieved. They requested that vulnerable people in the categories excluded by the HPC be considered for release. “Excluding them only on account of the nature of crime charged with is like giving the death sentence to them. Any restriction on the basis of the crime they are alleged to have committed is unfair and violates their fundamental rights,” the letter said.
For instance, this exclusion will not allow the release of Prof. G.N. Saibaba, a 90 per cent disabled convict despite the fact that his deteriorating health puts him at high risk for infection. His wife, Vasantha Kumari, is distraught as the jail authorities have not allowed her to talk to him via phone and refused to convey her messages to him. “After the lockdown, mulakat [meeting] with the lawyer has also been stopped. I don’t know how he is. Every week on Saturday, the advocates gave him medicines. Now this cannot reach him,” she said.
In unprecedented times, instead of showing compassion and magnanimity, the authorities are busy cracking the whip further on political prisoners. While the temporary bail applications of Shoma Sen (60) and R. Varavara Rao (80), both of whom face charges in the Elgaar Parishad case, were rejected, the Yogi Adityanath government in Uttar Pradesh invoked the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897, against the anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) protester Dr Ashish Mittal, general secretary of the All India Kisan Mazdoor Sabha (AIKMS). The provisions of the Act have no bearing on the case against Dr Mittal, the AIKMS said, implying that it was sheer political vendetta on the part of the Bharatiya Janata Party government to use all possible avenues to harass its political opponents. At a time when the government should be focussing on controlling the epidemic, it is trying to milk the epidemic to get back at political opponents.
Smita Chakravartty, an advocate of the open prison system, has a photograph that shows 74 inmates packed into a 17-person capacity barrack in Phaloudi jail, Rajasthan. She said that this was no time for knee-jerk reactions. “Prison overcrowding is endemic to the Indian prison system, the national average being 150 per cent. Overcrowding leads to complete systems failure in terms of health, hygiene and sanitation standards inside prisons.” She added that prisons had a large population of elderly inmates who were more vulnerable to catching an infection, and they should be released immediately as they posed no threat to society.
While vulnerable Indians do have avenues they can pursue to get a better deal for themselves, the ordeal of Rohingyas seems endless. In the Bari Brahmana area of Samba district of Jammu and Kashmir, members of the Rohingya community earn their livelihood by working in factories, doing construction work or rag-picking. As all these livelihood options have now been suspended, there are fears that there will be starvation deaths among the many single mothers and children in the community.
In Khajuri Khas, Delhi, home to 67 Rohingya families, the situation has been worsening since the anti-CAA protests began in January even though they had nothing to do with the protests or protesters. Most of them were evicted from their rented accommodations. The Rohingya refugees in Madanpur Khadar and Badarpur (in Delhi) and Nuh (in Haryana) are facing a similar fate. Nearly 6,000 refugees, including old men, women and children, were at risk of being put out on the streets and dying of starvation, said Sabber Kyaw Min, founder and director of the Rohingya Human Rights Initiative. No international organisation has stepped in to rescue them, he added. There are 40,000 Rohingya refugees in India as per the official count. The ramifications of getting infected would be disastrous for an already tormented people.
Riot affected in Delhi
The displaced Muslims of North East Delhi who fled marauding mobs in February now face the danger of starvation. With the memory of the communal violence that engulfed their neighbourhoods fresh in their minds and with rehabilitation not even begun, they struggle to deal with this new threat to their existence. The Eidgah that was providing relief to some of those still trying to pick up the pieces of their broken lives was forced to halt work because of the coronavirus. Hundreds of riot-affected Muslims of Delhi are displaced once again.
Volunteers working with the community told Frontline that many families had moved to the homes of relatives or friends. Those who could had resettled in rented accommodations around Mustafabad. Food and rations needed to be arranged for 5,000 families. Individuals and NGOs were giving what they could, but transporting people and material under the lockdown was proving to be a great challenge. Given the situation, they had asked for monetary donations and decided to procure rations locally, but the prices of essential commodities were spiralling in the area, and they wondered how long they would be able to sustain their efforts. “ Peechhe se hi maal mehenga aa raha hai [prices have been increased from wholesaler’s end]. Besides, the retailers know that this is a riot-affected area, and we are at their mercy, so they are demanding mooh-maange daam [highest prices],” said a local resident on condition of anonymity. The previous day, right-wing goons had threatened him and told him to stop distributing relief, and he wanted to remain as inconspicuous as possible to avoid being targeted. “We are getting SOS calls from Gokulpuri, Chand Bagh, Khajuri Khas, Brijpuri and Mustafabad. The scale is too large,” he said.
The food relief centres set up by the Delhi government are proving to be grossly inadequate. “In some places the quantity of food served to each family is a joke; in some other place, they served only poori bhaji . In yet another centre, people had to go hungry after standing in long queues as the food got over,” said an activist.
As the Central government and its right-wing leaders remained silent on the plight of the riot affected, Human Rights Watch said: “Muslims displaced by the communal violence in February urgently need relief, compensation and shelter.” HRW also expressed its increasing concern about stigmatisation of individuals and a rise in vigilante violence.
HRW said on its website: “Despite rising mob violence in India, the governments of Rajasthan and Karnataka made the names and addresses of people affected by COVID-19 public, putting them at risk of assault. In Delhi, Chandigarh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh, officials marked homes where people were under quarantine, in some cases displaying their names. The Election Commission allowed the use of indelible ink to stamp on people a message stating that they have to be in home quarantine and for what duration, and the Maharashtra government said it would stamp the left hand of all those sent to home quarantine, heightening the risk of abuse.”
While a lockdown is imperative to stem the spread of the virus and reduce the number of deaths that might occur, it is equally important to ensure that people do not suffer because of it.