Fighting COVID-19 in Dharavi with just a face mask, Mumbai police gets a raw deal

Over 2000 cops in Mumbai have tested positive and 20 have succumbed to the disease. This could have been minimised had the 50000 strong force been better trained and equipped.

They have been among the frontline corona virus warriors since March 25th. And also among those badly hit by the virus. With Mumbai in particular showing record daily jumps in positive cases, its policemen have suffered too. Take just one day, March 26th. According to the state health department, Maharashtra had a total of 3,041 new coronavirus patients on that day, of which 1889 were police personnel (207 officers and 1682 other ranks). Also, 20 policemen have died so far from the infection.

Yet, they remain on the frontlines, manning high risk spots like containment centres and railway stations. And their reward for the risk and hardships they are facing: The state government decided to cut their March salaries, ranging from 25-50%.

A group of lawyers have filed a PIL against the salary cut. “The hearing is in June,” said lawyer Tosif Shaikh. “Meanwhile, the revenue department filed an affidavit that the salaries would not be deducted from April and the already deducted salaries for March will be credited in October.”

Ill-equipped and ill-trained to handle a biological crisis, Mumbai’s policemen were tasked with not just sealing the district and state’s borders but also preventing the movement of people in Mumbai besides maintaining law and order. With the police leadership doing little to brief, train and sensitise the 50,000 strong Mumbai police force on various aspects of the virus and containment procedures, the cops themselves became vulnerable to infection, having to enforce the lockdown with minimal safety and protective equipment.

Underpaid, overworked, ill equipped

Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray in a televised message admitted that police personnel are overworked as they strive to contain the spread of COVID-19 during lockdown. Infections among police personnel inevitably led to many others being put under quarantine, forcing the state home ministry to ask the Centre for 20 companies of Central Armed Police Force (CAPF) to assist the state police. The first batch of five companies was deployed a few weeks back to assist Mumbai police.

“The policemen should have been guided well to tackle the situation in a better way,” admitted Dr P S Pasricha, former Director General of Police (DGP) of Maharashtra. “Sadly, nobody taught them how to face the pandemic. They are warriors with limited resources; thus they are more vulnerable.” Added Sanjeev Saxena, Additional Director General (Training ): “This situation is out of syllabus for them.”

Senior police officers agree that there were lapses in the system. Basic needs like mask, hand-gloves and face-shields should have been provided immediately with proper sanitisation guidance, but were not given till the first week of April. “Face-shields were not given for a long time. It was needed immediately as they were exposed to people who had tested positive,” said a senior officer. 

“They are in constant contact with people who can be asymptomatic to COVID-19,” said Pranaya Ashok, Deputy Commissioner of Police (Operations) and Spokesperson, Mumbai Police. “Their duties include accompanying COVID-19 patients to hospital. Thus, they are at high risk. Under the circumstances, it is next to impossible not to get infected. In fact, they have been walking that extra mile for people, endangering their own lives”.

“Sadly, nobody taught them how to face the pandemic. They are warriors with limited resources; thus they are more vulnerable.”

Dr P S Pasricha, former DGP of Maharashtra

Duty at risk of death

Police personnel’s vulnerability to infection worsened after the COVID-19 outbreak reached the city’s slums, especially Dharavi, which is presently being patrolled by CAPF officers and men. As deaths among policemen started to rise, guidelines were issued in which policemen above the age of 52 and having medical conditions like diabetes, hypertension etc. were asked to stay at home.

Dealing with migrant labour at Dharavi, where corona cases have surged. Pic Vijay Bate

“I will be retiring next year, but am still on duty,” said Sridhar Sawant*, a head constable attached with a red zone police station. “As I do not have any medical issue I am risking my life and working here. It is difficult to control people as they live in unending stretches of narrow, dirty lanes, open sewers and cramped huts.”

“People don’t follow police orders. Initially when cases started rising in Dharavi, police entered deep inside slum pockets to explain the importance of the lockdown and maintaining social distancing. They were wearing only a mask.”

Sukumar, a Dharavi Resident

 No transport was provided either for the policemen on duty. Prabhat Kharat* a constable with Vikhroli Police station travels from Kalyan and his building lies in a containment zone. “I borrowed a motorcycle from a friend to reach to the police station,” said Kharat. “The daily commute and over 12 hours on duty drains me. I reach home with the fear of carrying the coronavirus with me. I live in fear. I do not eat with any subordinate as he may be be a virus carrier. While returning home I sometimes feel feverish. I keep drinking water with glucose.” 

“It was mission impossible, given to police usually trained to handle criminals and investigate crimes,” said Inspector Chinmay Kulkarni. “It was headless management. Every police officer developed his own technique to fight against corona and manage law and order. That gloves need to be sanitised regularly and face-shield is a must was learnt on field. Home Minister Anil Deshmukh distributed face-shields only in April. Imagine the vulnerability to infection policemen have gone through.” 10 policemen under Kulkarni’s command have tested positive.

Apart from the compensation of Rs 50 lakh and a government job for a member of families of police personnel who have died of Covid-19, they are entitled to receive Rs 10 lakh from the Mumbai Police Welfare Fund. 

Need for counselling

“The policemen have fulfilled their duties to society and some have even died doing so. In this situation they, their families and subordinates still doing their duty need counselling and healing,” said Dr Shubhangi Parkar former Dean of KEM hospital and a psychiatrist. “This is an endless fight. What affects one’s mind also affects the body, thus many more may fall prey to this virus. Counselling for police personnel and their families is a must during this long pandemic period.”

Mumbai Police Commissioner Parambir Singh and Director General of Police ( Maharashtra) Subodh Kumar Jaiswal did not respond to repeated calls from us.

*Names are changed on request as they are not authorized to speak to media. 

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