Coronavirus in Kashmir: Lies & Reluctance in Times of Pandemic

Invoking provisions of the harsh Disaster Management Act (DMA) 2005, Srinagar District Magistrate Shahid Choudhary had a tough time arranging for isolation of around 1,200 COVID-19 suspects, mostly the medical students returning from Bangladesh on Friday and Saturday. There were chaotic scenes at Srinagar airport as many of the incoming passengers resisted the authorities’ action of lodging them at different hotels and hostels. They wanted “either home quarantine or better lodging”.

By the evening on Saturday, 21 March, much of the tension had receded as the DM used force to takeover 64 hotels and hostels to provide to the students what they called “the best possible accommodation”. “We are now fully satisfied that all of us have got the best facilities, clean and well-equipped hotel rooms”, Zahid Altaf, the MBBS student who returned with a group from Dhaka, told The Quint, conveying his “bahut bahut shukriya” to Choudhary and others on the job.

Quarantined Students Want Better Facilities But Administration Getting Little Help From Society

As the students found themselves being whisked away in buses and crammed in tens and fifteens a room at some ill-equipped dirty hotels on Friday, they protested. Police baton-charged them and their parents. Among the protesters was the retired judge of the Jammu and Kashmir High Court Rashid Ali Dar whose daughter studies medicine in Dhaka. “Students were boarded on buses like cattle. Ten to fifteen of them were put in a single room. That’s just reverse of the quarantine. We fear all those who returned negative from abroad will now contract the infection”, Mr Dar said.

Beseeching the hoteliers to hand over their empty rooms to the government against rentals, Choudhary found most of them reluctant.

Some had apprehensions that the neighbours could get panicky and attack them. Some feared the ‘unruly guests’ could damage interiors and the government would not release their payments.

Choudhary sealed the hotel of an influential businessman in Rajbagh area and announced his action through his official Twitter handle. It disappeared in minutes as the hotelier mobilised his contacts including a former Minister of Tourism who is now in Altaf Bukhari’s Jammu Kashmir Apni Party.

Within next few minutes the top corridors of power got involved. Choudhary withdrew his action but convinced the businessman to spare his hotel for the crisis management. Around 1,100 in the queue were accommodated in 64 hotels and hostels. About a hundred were driven away to a famous tourist resort.

Hurdles in Making Quarantine Arrangements

Even a journalist-turned-politician appears to have obstructed the DM’s efforts of taking over a guest-house. On Sunday, Choudhary posted pictures of the exterior and the interior, announcing on Twitter that the politician’s friend had now handed over the keys of the 48-bedded luxurious hotel.

J&K government’s own officers were not cooperative either. In response to the requisition from the District Magistrate, Registrar of National Institute of Technology (NIT) stated in writing that his hostels were already occupied by “1,000 students”. NIT officials later obstructed the team sent for verification.

The team reported that the Registrar’s response was false as all the students had already gone back to their homes.

Choudhary wasted no time to slap a notice on Director NIT. A copy of the notice in possession of The Quint has asked the Director to explain within 24 hours as to why “prosecution may not be initiated against you, being head of NIT, under Section 51 of The Disaster Management Act”. Sensing trouble, Director NIT lost no further time to hand over his hostels to the district authority. His explanation, though, is still awaited in DM’s office.

Why J&K Administration Has Invoked Disaster Management Act

“These are extraordinary times and we need extraordinary measures to deal with this corona catastrophe. We are proceeding with our job in a no-sense manner, even as sometimes there are pulls and pressures from several quarters”, said an official, seeking cooperation from regular and social media in the UT where politics has been in suspension since the abrogation of Article 370 in August 2019.

“This student-related crisis will be over in next two days. It’s not a big issue for us”, said a top official in Lieutenant Governor GC Murmu’s administration, “but we are apprehensive of a situation that arose in Pune and some other cities in the second and the third week of this outbreak”.

He revealed to The Quint that J&K was now readying for “Stage-3” of the outbreak in which hundreds, or may be thousands, of the local infected residents could report with symptoms.

“LG has directed us to arrange for 10,000 rooms in Jammu and 15,000 in Kashmir. We need 10,000 rooms in Srinagar alone where currently we have only 3,500 rooms available. We have to keep everything ready. We will have to accommodate 500 each at the other district headquarters where the hospitals are ill-equipped. That’s why we are invoking Disaster Management Act and taking into possession almost all the hotels, hostels, guesthouses including those of EDI (Entrepreneurship Development Institute), NIT and IMPA (Institute of Management, Public Administration and Rural Development)”, said the official. He also asserted that for the time being money was not a problem with the Government as “sufficient resources” had been released from Disaster Management Fund.

Srinagar DC is Exasperated With People’s Lies

Srinagar DC Shahid Choudhary said that the residents were not conscious of the catastrophic proportions of the pandemic that had already infected over 3,00,000 across the world and killed 13,000 people in the last two months. Even the well-educated people returning from the Gulf countries and the USA tend to hide their travel history, risking their own and other people’s lives. He expressed his dismay at people’s deceitful ways to hide their travel history and evade quarantine.

Pilgrims Returning from Saudi Arabia and Iran

Those who have returned from pilgrimages in Saudi Arabia and Iran include the mother-in-law of an Indian Police Service (IPS) officer. She is among the four patients who have been detected as affected with COVID-19. According to her relatives, she reached Mumbai from Jeddah on 25 February, visited a number of her relatives and friends in Mumbai, Kochi, Hyderabad, Delhi and Chandigarh and finally reached her home in Srinagar on 16 March.

“We were expecting her back on 17 March. She arrived on 16 March and within hours of her arrival she showed symptoms and was taken to SKIMS (Sher-e-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences) where she was isolated. Her swab tests confirmed her positive. All of her relatives and neighbours, suspected to have come into contact with her, have been placed in quarantine. The IPS officer declared on Twitter to have gone into ‘self-quarantine”, claiming that he had not met with her. Luckily her husband and daughter-in-law, herself a doctor, have tested negative.

(The writer is a Srinagar-based journalist. He can be reached @ahmedalifayyaz.)

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