Lal Swami from Howrah stepped out from his house to fetch some milk, one of the basic necessities of a normal household. He was stopped by some policemen, on guard for enforcement of the lockdown, and was thrashed brutally for venturing out in the streets. Swami was beaten so badly that he succumbed to the severe injuries he suffered even before reaching the hospital.
Bhairon Lal Lohar, from Thane, received the tragic news of the death of his mother. As he was the only son and had to perform the last rites, he obtained permission from the local police station to travel to his home town in Rajasthan. However, the ambulance in which he was travelling along with his family was blocked at Gujarat border by the Police, who were adamant to prevent him from crossing the border. Bhairon Lal produced the permission letter, printout of the death certificate, even a video showing the dead body of his mother to persuade the police to allow him to get to his home, but all in vain. The police paid no heed to any of the documentary proof justifying the urgency of his travel and on further persuasion, started thrashing him and his brother, inflicting serious injuries.
These are just a couple of examples. A number of similar incidents have occurred and many videos demonstrating the indiscriminate violence inflicted by the police on persons found on roads have surfaced in news channels and social media in the last few days following the announcement of 21 days lockdown by Prime Minister Modi in a bid to contain the spread of infections caused due to coronavirus.
India’s slide into the world’s largest lockdown was both extremely essential and so far has been satisfactorily implemented. People have largely been responsible to not leave their houses except for vital supplies or services. It is commendable that government has acted proactively to take all the necessary steps, however challenging those may be, to restrict the outbreak. The execution also has been swift with the administration on its toes to smoothen this process of isolation and to prevent chaos as far as possible. Police has been deployed extensively to ensure strict compliance.
However, some policemen seem to hold the opinion that people have to be locked up inside their houses unconditionally, with no permission whatsoever to come out, and that violence is the best and most efficient method to ensure that. It was explicitly mentioned in Prime Minister’s speech and the order issued subsequently that stores and outlets providing essential commodities including food, medicine etc. and those providing essential services shall be exempted from the lockdown and shall cater to the indispensable needs of public. But some of those in khaki uniforms, either out of their unawareness or sheer ignorance, view all those found in streets through the same lens and resort to indiscriminate lathicharge. Videos have emerged in which policemen are found to shower lathis on people carrying bags full of groceries, vegetables or other essential commodities. This unwarranted use of lathis cannot be brushed aside as a means just to threaten the violators of lockdown, as some cases have turned out to be fatal and in some cases there have been serious injuries. This is not only tragic for anxiety-ridden populace locked up inside the houses struggling to come to terms with the changed scenario, but also against the government order issued in regard to current circumstances and the other laws in general. Even the section 144 of CrPC invoked in certain states to prevent the assembly of 4 or more people outside their houses does not give license to the police to rain down lathis on violators.
It is not that all policemen unleash such acts of fanaticism on innocent people. Most of them have been very earnest and responsible and serving long hours in duty in the present hour of crisis. Also, many cases have come up where more generous and innovative ways have been adopted by police, e.g. distribution of food, masks etc., to make people conscious about the gravity of situation, help them, and get them to comply with the social distancing guidelines. In some places, policemen were found helping people by bringing them essential items of household to lessen the need to go out. It is the result of these diligent policemen serving the cause dutifully and responsibly that till now the lockdown measures have been implemented smoothly. It is just those few of them, who lack the adequate administrative acumen and indulge in such insane acts to satisfy their long-suppressed desire to flaunt the power of their batons, uniforms or guns, who bring disrepute to the entire set up.
The announcement of the 21-day lockdown spared people just about 4 hours, that too extending up to midnight, to stock up on their essential supplies. Thus it becomes inevitable for them to go out for vital commodities and services. If they are harassed and assaulted in their effort for securing the bare minimum, it just adds to the hardships faced by them in these difficult times. It is the responsibility of government to ensure that each and every person residing in the country, forced inside closed doors, must get the minimum items for subsistence. Nobody can say how long this uncertainty will last; cases keep on increasing day after day indicating that the lockdown period may extend well beyond 21 days. But even in those prolonged and strained circumstances, the state must find innovative solutions to provide essential supplies vital for sustenance. Otherwise, the delicate situation can easily slip out of hands leading to chaos and panic which may result in a bigger catastrophe than the virus itself.
Some state governments have announced door to door delivery of groceries, vegetables and medicines so as to restrict movement even for procuring essentials. This may prove to be useful in achieving its stated aims, provided, the center and states collaborate in setting up a nationwide network for efficient delivery of essentials to every household. However, so far, no significant effort in this direction has been materialized.
Another urgent step which needs to be taken is to enable the e-commerce players, such as those involved in the supply of food, drugs, other household items of importance, to cater their services effectively. Many of them have voiced concerns regarding the problems faced to obtain different permits for different states, which is both tedious and time-consuming and demanded a uniform pass for the entire country as a whole. They have also expressed apprehension regarding the safety of their delivery persons who may have to encounter the arbitrary harassment by the lathi wielding policemen. The government(s) would do well to address these issues at the earliest.
This once in a century type crisis, when the pandemic has engulfed the major portion of the continental landmass, in order to put up a durable fight, a determined and collaborative effort is required from all the organs of our political and social structure. This can only be achieved when the government, the administrative machinery, the civil society groups and the common citizenry discharge their duties meticulously and cooperatively. The common resident has done his bit by arresting himself inside four walls, it is now incumbent on government and administration to facilitate this inevitable confinement, and certainly avoid actions which augment their adversities.