Police’s flawed reading of lockdown cripples Ranchi; irregular 'curfew' timings, random checks add to confusion
For the police, understanding the spirit of the guidelines rather than the letter would ensure a more sensible and smoother lockdown.
Ajay Kumar has been stranded near Uttar Pradesh’s Meerut area since before 24 March. But getting back to his family in Jharkhand’s Latehar district is a secondary worry. “I was speaking to my wife. She said the ration at home is over. I am well taken care of here, but there is no one to help at home. I don’t know what they will eat.” When told that essential services like shops selling ration and grocery items are supposed to be open, Ajay said, “My nephew stepped out to buy ration for my family. But the police gave him the stick and he had to come back. They said we can’t go out unless it’s an emergency.”
According to many locals, migrant workers and volunteers in the capital city of Ranchi with families across the state, it appears that the police have not understood the Union government’s directive. According to the MHA guidelines, “Shops, including ration shops (under PDS), dealing with food, groceries, fruits and vegetables, dairy and milk booths, meat and fish, animal fodder, fertilizers, seeds and pesticides. However, district authorities may encourage and facilitate home delivery to minimize the movement of individuals outside their homes.”
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Nitin Kulkarni, secretary of Health, Family Welfare and Medical Education department with the Government of Jharkhand, told Firstpost, that every state is following the same guidelines issued by the MHA. “Essential services, as listed in the order, are all working. Medical emergencies are being allowed. Cars and patients with e-passes are being allowed, as well. Medicines, vegetable shops, grocery shops, everything enlisted under essential services are exempted under the lockdown.”
The implementation and enforcement of this lockdown on the ground, however, follows a different script in Ranchi and parts of Jharkhand. Balwant (name changed on request), a 66-year-old man, had to walk three kilometers through an empty street to reach the hospital in Ranchi for his dialysis. He has two failed kidneys and has been visiting the same dialysis centre for almost a year now. Upon reaching the centre, he told the manager that the police stopped him when he was on his way. “Parchi nahi tha, toh chalne bolein. Bolein bas medical emergency mein ja sakte hain. Kya karenge (I did not have the pass, so they told me to walk. They said only medical emergencies can be on the road. What choice did I have?),” he said while gathering his breath.
But Leela (name changed) had a different experience. When the police stopped her and asked for the certificate, her driver turned the car around and found another route. “Not all cops are asking for parchi,” she said. Not just medical patients, but those providing essential services are facing consequences of the state’s inability to explain the orders to those enforcing them.
Suresh (name changed), who didn’t want to reveal his age, is a milkman and has been delivering milk in Ranchi for several years. His work usually begins at 8 am everyday, but since the lockdown, he has started leaving home as early as 6 am. “I still couldn’t deliver milk today (2 April) because the police showed me the stick and told me to return. So I came back on a bicycle and they did not stop me,” said Suresh. The essential service providers, therefore, appear to be at the mercy of the police.
Israt Asrani, a 50-year-old vegetable vendor, said the cops usually allow us to sit from 6 am- 10 am and in the evening it is from 4 pm - 6 pm. “But it depends. yesterday (1 April), we were told to wrap it up by 5 pm,” he said, adding that the area of Kadru Basti, where he sits with his cart, is usually swarming with uniformed and masked men. “Today, there is not a single cop in the vicinity,” he said.
The official Union Ministry’s guidelines, however, do not mention any specific timings that have to be followed during the lockdown. When told that the police in Ranchi are enforcing lockdown by forcefully closing shops and imposing a curfew-like timing without giving the vendors and the shopkeepers a proper notice, Kulkarni clearly said that’s not what the state has ordered. “I don’t know if something has changed in the last 24 hours, but those are not Jharkhand government’s orders,” he said.
The policemen, meanwhile, entrusted to enforce the lockdown on the streets, speak of a very different set of guidelines. Patrolling one of the arterial thoroughfares of the city, policemen from the nearby Argora police station were following up on a local who recently returned from Delhi. Ashok Kumar Singh, the assistant sub inspector from Argora police station, with an exasperated look on his face, asked, “What is the meaning of a lockdown, tell me… It is the police’s duty to make sure everyone is safe. If you open the shops round the clock, everyone will come out of their homes and what is the point of a lockdown then?” When asked why there is a curfew timing for the shops selling essential services, which is not a government order, Singh said, “People get enough time to come and buy what they need. And then you go back home. That is what we have been told to do. We have been told to ensure no one comes out on the streets.”
When questioned further, it becomes evident that the police are literally doing whatever it takes to keep people inside their homes. “We have requested and urged citizens to stay inside their homes. We are not using force. There has been no law and order situation. We urge them - don’t come out. Our only objective is to ensure this disease, which is very serious, should be contained and people be safe,” said Binod Kumar, Station Head Officer, Argora police station.
Kumar is right and also wrong. While the attempts made by the police have kept people inside their homes, the arrangement has created tremendous confusion among citizens. For example, police patrolling the streets do not realise that a dialysis or a chemo patient is also a medical emergency. Since there is no ambulance taking the patient, the policeman on duty tells the patient to return, or in some cases, asks them to walk. The issue of police’s lack of understanding of a medical emergency and essential services has been an issue in various other states, as well.
If one skims through newspapers in past few days, incidents of citizens complaining of police high-handedness in various parts of the country have been on the rise. It is evident that for the cops on the streets, a lockdown equates to empty streets.
Founder of Thyrocare Technologies Limited, a chain of diagnostic and preventive care laboratories based in Navi Mumbai, Arokiaswamy Velumani said that their all-India operations are currently suspended due to the airline shutdown. “We are operating in the 100-kilometre radius of Navi Mumbai area. And our medical workers are facing problems on the street,” he said. At least, 40 percent of the policemen currently patrolling the streets have no idea of what a medical emergency means, Velumani added. “It is the lack of training and miscommunication. The Centre is giving one set of directions and their superiors are giving other guidelines. Most beat cops are not even that educated. It compounds the problem,” he said.
In Jharkhand, the problem is similar. From the villages in Latehar to the capital city Ranchi, citizens have no clarity about what the terms of the lockdown are. While some say that every state is keeping the essential service shops open round the clock, the police dictates that they be shut. Their interpretation of the current guidelines is dogmatic in which they see them simply as a directive for a curfew. To clarify, Firstpost went over the MHA guidelines. The Union ministry mentions no time constraints anywhere in the document Consolidated Guidelines of MHA on Lockdown measures on containment of COVID-19
The 21-day lockdown in India is not supposed to be a hardened curfew situation. The Union Government’s national lockdown order makes it evident that the lockdown is imposed to maintain social distance and that this is its foremost intent. The order even notes: “All enforcing authorities note that these strict restrictions fundamentally relate to movement of people, but not to that of essential goods.”
When asked why there was so much confusion on the ground, health secretary Kulkarni said that the information is being distributed among hundreds of senior IPS and IAS officers who then circulate it among hundreds of senior policemen, who in turn, explain it to their subordinates. constables and beat cops. “Instructions are very clear. But there are also thousands at the receiving end of these instructions. It depends how each policeman interprets the orders.”
A policeman, requesting anonymity, reiterated what the other cops understood of the lockdown: it was pointless to have shops and establishments running if people aren’t allowed outside. “Who will they open the shops for then?” he asked. “If he (Israt) sits here all day, won’t people make a crowd around his shop during a lockdown?”
To implement a lockdown in a country as expansive as India — with the billion-plus population and the added burden of a tottering healthcare system — is already difficult for officials and governments (states and Centre). Enforcement of rules on the ground as imagined is clearly a challenge.
Overarching police action makes the situation more complex for authorities who are already bogged down in a pandemic. For the police, understanding the spirit of the guidelines rather than the letter would ensure a more sensible and smoother lockdown.
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