Close your eyes and those of your children, order personnel in protective gear, as a group of men, women and children squat on the road. Next comes a spray of bleach and many cry out as their eyes sting. The shocking video of migrants being “disinfected” has emerged from Uttar Pradesh on a day the Supreme Court took up a petition seeking relief for the thousands walking to their home states amid the 21-day lockdown.
The video was filmed in Bareilly district – about 270 km from Lucknow. The batch of migrants in the video had returned to UP over the weekend after special buses were arranged for them. Among those watching the “disinfecting” are some policemen.
A man can be heard saying in the clip: “Apni aankhen band kar lo. Bacchon ki aankhen band kar lo (please shut your eyes, also close eyes of the kids).”
After the clip led to criticism of the district administration, an official said: “The migrants were sprayed with a mix of chlorine and water… No chemical solution was used. We asked them to keep their eyes shut.”
He added: “We did not mean to be inhuman… It was important to sanitise everyone and there was a huge rush as large number of people had returned. So we did what we thought was best.”
While they deny dehumanising the migrants and their children, the video gives an impression that batches are being mass-sprayed.
The clip is being investigated, Bareilly District Magistrate said in a tweet. “Under Chief Minister’s Office’s supervision, those affected are being treated. The civic body and fire brigade team were asked to sanitise buses… but they did this because they were overzealous. Action has been initiated against officials concerned,” he wrote.
Bareilly’s Chief Fire Officer Chandra Mohan Sharma also told reporters that the disinfectants were not meant to be used on humans. “The disinfectants have chemicals. These should not be used on humans… should not come in contact with eyes. This video is being investigated. A report has been sought by the seniors. There was fogging going on in the area and some people – possibly waiting for the buses – came and sat there. We don’t know if the disinfectants were directly sprayed on them.”
He confirmed that the chemical used was Sodium Hypochlorite or bleach. “The sanitsation is being done by officials of the municipal corportation. They are using a sodium hypochlorite.”
Opposition leaders have attacked the district administration over the clip, calling the action “inhuman”. “I appeal to the government in UP… all of us are fighting together against this crisis (coronavirus). Please don’t indulge in such inhuman actions. The labourers have already suffered a lot. Don’t spray chemicals on them. This won’t protect them… rather it would harm their health,” Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi Vadra tweeted in Hindi this afternoon.
In a series of tweets, former UP chief minister and BSP chief Mayawati wrote: “During this stringent nationwide lockdown, numerous pictures have emerged of injustice from across the country… but spraying of disinfectants on migrants in Bareilly is an example of sheer cruelty, injustice. The government should pay attention immediately.”
“It would have been better if the centre, instead of leaving these laborers stranded, without food and shelter, ran some special trains for them to make things easy for them,” she added.
Meanwhile, another video – from March 23 – is being widely shared that shows a Kerala Fire Force team spraying disinfectant on a group of men. The incident took place at the Kerala-Karnataka’s border’s Muthanga check-post, when a group of 40 motorcyclists were sprayed upon. The Fire Force department says it was a combination of soap and water. According to a senior police official, this was being done as a strong precautionary measure, since Wayanad, at that time, did not have even one coronavirus positive case.
The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights has asked the Bareilly District Magistrate to submit a report in the matter within three days.
“NCPCR has expressed serious view on this inhuman act. In view of the above incident, you are requested to get the matter inquired into urgently and issue necessary directions for immediate action thereby; ensuring adequate arrangements of basic essentials to the family members viz. provision of food, shelter and safety and wellbeing of these children of migrant workers during lockdown period,” according to the letter issued by the NCPCR.
The body also demanded appropriate disciplinary and penal action against the officials who carried out the sanitising exercise.
There have been reports of a large number of migrant workers leaving their work places in different parts of the country and walking down to their native places, hundreds of kilometres away facing several hardships on the way.
Lakhs of migrants were left stranded in different parts of the country after a 21-day nationwide lockdown was announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi last week to fight coronavirus or COVID-19, which has infected over 1,000 in the country, killed at least 29.
The migrants crowded at the borders and at inter-state bus stations, presenting a frightening picture at a time social distancing is crucial to prevent the rapid spread of coronavirus.
Heartbreaking visuals showed many of them trying to cover hundreds of kilometres of journey on foot. A 38-year-old man died on Saturday on a highway in UP after he had walked 200 km from Delhi.
Over the weekend, the state governments in UP and Delhi arranged special buses to facilitate their journey to their hometowns. However, a 14-day quarantine in state-run camps is mandatory for the labourers returning to UP and Bihar.
On Sunday, the centre asked states to seal borders and prevent migrant exodus amid repeated appeals by PM Modi to ensure social distancing.