Misinformation Epidemic: Conspiracy theories, social media hoaxes keep suspcted COVID19 patients in Parbhani away from doctors

District case count has reached 1200 this week. Doctors worry the case load could be manifold higher as residents are not approaching the doctors owing to some unfounded allegations of ‘misdiagnosis’, ‘stealing of organs’ and some real fear of family members getting ‘picked-up’ for quarantine.

ATIKH RASHID

In Maharashtra’s Parbhani district, rumours and conspiracy theories linked to COVID19 being spread of social media is keeping potential patients away from clinics, making invisible transmission of the coronavirus difficult to detect and control. The problem is turning severe by the day with no concerted efforts from the administration to tackle the issue of misinformation.

As per doctors and local residents, citizens with COVID19 linked symptoms are preferring to stay at home and suffer than to seek medical attention owing to fear of doctors misdiagnosing the illnesses as COVID19 “to claim subsidy funds” or “are killing the patients and stealing the organs” – as claimed in viral social media messages. The fear is so strong that those suffering from other, unrelated illnesses too are reportedly preferring to stay back and suffer at home rather than see a doctor.

As the detections were very few in the district in the first few months of the pandemic (until end of June, Parbhani had about 100 confirmed infections), the prevailing feeling among the locals was that the stringent measures of the government were ‘much trouble for nothing’. With now rise in the detections – with the district clocking 1200 cases by August 12 – the narrative has shifted to “deliberately misdiagnosis”. (false) posts on social media are fuelling such feelings further.

“It’s true that residents who have Covid-19 related symptoms are not approaching the health system. They come out to us only after the trouble becomes severe and too much to hold back,” says Dr Ravi Shinde of Varad Hospital, the most popular private hospital in the town. “People here -especially Muslims – are believing all kinds of conspiracy theories against the health system. At present about two potential Covid-19 patients come to me per day. I suspect there could be about 250-300 symptomatic patients in the town but they are not approaching us. This is a potentially dangerous situation,” said Dr Shinde.

Misinformation epidemic

Viral social media messages terming Covid-19 pandemic as a hoax created by doctors and the government for nefarious purposes; that hospitals are interested in increasing Covid count as they are getting Rs 1.50 lakh cash subsidy per patient from the government; messages urging the citizens not to visit doctors as Covid-19 is “just a flu” or those listing medicines for home treatment of Covid-19 infections are being shared widely and very little is being done by the administration to debunk them.

Misinformation and rumours propagated through social media is proving to be a big headache for health workers in the interiors. (Photo: Atikh Rashid)

“Is Corona real? I don’t believe it is,” Bajirao Jadhav, an auto-rickshaw driver who ferries dozens of passengers between Pathri and Rampuri every day. “I am having cough for two-three days but I’m not going to a doctor because doctors are diagnosing each and everyone with corona,” he says.

“The disease must have been a reality in China or America, but it doesn’t exist here. We are tough people. Even those who were taken to the hospital as Covid patients were hale and hearty. They didn’t have so much as a fever or cough,” said Akbar Khan, another resident of Pathri.

As per Dr Shinde, many of his patients were afraid to go for a Covid-19 test for fear of their relatives being taken away for quarantine or that the dead body would not be returned to them for honourable last rites.

Dr Syed Jubair, who has a clinic in Parbhani town, that the novelty of the disease and the fact that the treatment protocol for patients and potential patients and “systematic targeting of a certain community in the initial period of the pandemic” has created fertile ground for the spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories.

“Every day I receive dozens of calls of patients who say they have Covid-19 symptoms but are self-treating themselves. They are too afraid to go to a hospital because of fear created by social media that they will be injected with poison or their organs will be stolen. Most of the patients approach doctors when their blood saturation goes down considerably – say below 70 per cent. This is pushing up the morality rate,” said Dr Jubair.

Of the 1255 residents of Parbhani district who were diagnosed with Covid-19, 63 have lost their lives. The mortality rate of 5 per cent in Parbhani is much higher than the national rate of 2 per cent and state rate of 3.5 per cent.

District Collector Deepak Muglikar, however, rubbishes these “observations” that citizens are afraid to reach out to health authorities

“There’s absolutely no truth in these claims. They are not hiding it. They are coming straight away to doctors. Apart from this, we are surveying various groups and localities and haven’t found such an indication. To reduce the fear -if any – of forced quarantine, we have adopted a policy of allowing home isolation of asymptomatic patients. We will publicise this,” said Muglikar. He said that to detect unreported infection, the district administration has launched a ‘antigen testing’ programme under which hundreds of traders, shopkeepers and others are being checked randomly. “We have checked 9500 persons in last 15 days,” said Muglikar.

This boy walked 11 kms to school every day and scored 82% in Class X.

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Ananta Doiphode (16) outside his house in village Varghad.

ATIKH RASHID

WALKING 10 kilomtres to school and back is the kind of a thing that one has heard one’s parents and grand-parents complain about. Millennials, by and large, have had much easier with the opening of schools closer to homes and availability of school buses and other means of transport to reach school.

Ananta Doiphode, a 16-year-old boy from Velha taluka of Pune District, doesn’t belong to the lucky lot.

For the last three years, Ananta had to walk for four hours per day to access secondary education. He walked to school 11 km away from his home on foot and back, thus clocking 22 km six days a week. Most would find this routine tiring, Ananta did too. But he tried not to let the fatigue affect his studies.

He scored 82.80 per cent in Class X in the Maharashtra State Board results announced on Thursday.

“I would wake up at 4 am and study till 6. Then sleep for an hour before waking up and leaving on foot to the school,” says Ananta. After returning from school, he studied late into the night every day.  “I knew it was an important year for me,” he says. Ananta is oldest among three siblings who reside with their mother in old, dwarfish mud-house. His father works as a waiter in a canteen in Pune and visits them once in a few month. The house is dark even during the day. There’s no fan in the house.

“I will go to Pune for junior college. I want to prepare for UPSC to become a civil servant,” said Ananta who is not happy with his performance. “I was hoping to score 90 per cent. I may have achieved that had I stayed at the hostel near my school. But we didn’t have money. Walking four hours a day tired me out,” he said.

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Ananta at his school in July 2019.

The family stays in village Varghad in Velha tehsil of Pune District. The village is barely 60 km from Pune city but is located in the hilly part of the district that is topographically closer to coastal Konkan than plains of rest of the state. The village has a population of over a thousand but barely 50 families have stayed back, rest of chosen to migrate to cities to earn a living and have a better life. Children can study until Class VII at a Zilla Parishad run primary school located within the village. The closest high school where Class 8 to 10 education is available is in Panshet, 11 kms away. Ananta studied at this school.

He is one of the three students from the village – which has about 50 households – who walk to school every day. There’s a bus that connects Varghad and other villages on this route with Pune and can be used by children to go to the high school in Panshet, but the timings that are not suitable. In the mornings, the bus from Tekpol to Swargate (in Pune) starts at 5 am and reaches Warghad at 6.

“The bus service is not reliable. In the morning, the bus reaches Panshet very early and in the evening there’s no fixed time as it may arrive at 6 pm or 10 pm. Hence, students and others often choose to walk than to wait for the bus,” said Ananta’s mother. The students say that a lot of them can’t afford the monthly fee for the concessional pass for the bus. “The bus pass for boys is expensive about Rs 660 per month. For girls, it’s just Rs 30. Also, we need to go to Swargate (in Pune city) to make the pass, making it inconvenient and more expensive,” said Avishkar Pasalkar, Ananta’s classmate. Some days when the kids have money and if the bus turns up on time, they take the bus ride by paying cash. But that’s rare, they say.

As per Swargate Depot Manager of Maharashtra State Road Transport Corporation (MSRTC), the reason they don’t run more services with convenient timings is due to lack of ‘demand’. “The buses in this area get very few passengers. The only service we run to Tekpol is suffering losses,” said D M Shinde.

MIGRATION WOES

Every other village in the area has the same story. Emigration to Pune or Mumbai has thinned out most of the villages in Velha as has been the case with other hilly tehsils in Mulshi, Bhor, Maval and Purandar. As families chose to move out of villages due to lack of livelihood opportunities as well as that of basic facilities, those who chose to stay behind face worse. Empty villages mean that government machinery finds providing them services, for example, a bus connection, more and more unaffordable. “The power supply is poor. It’s difficult to find a doctor. We have to struggle to get even the most basic amenities,” said Ananta’s mother.

The worst effect of the emigration has been on education of children in families which have stayed back in the area. Due to emigration, the number of students enrolled per school has gone down very every passing year. As per data obtained from Pune Zilla Parishad’s Primary Education Department as many as 60 primary schools run by ZP have been closed down in the district due to lack of students. Of the 3652 primary schools that were operational in the district in the academic year 2018-19, as many as 379 schools – mostly in the hilly talukas mentioned above – had less than 10 students; 143 schools had less than 5 students and as many as 14 schools had just one student.

“This obviously affects the quality of education imparted in these schools as most of these school are now run by a single teacher,” said an official with Pune ZP’s education department. The Zilla Parishad is mulling the idea of starting clusture schools – schools for a group of villages instead of running one in each – and making transport arrangements to enable the students to reach the school. “This idea faces some resistance from villagers as they do not want the village schools to close down, even if there are hardly any students to study there,” said the official.

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Priyanka Dhebe is the only student at her school in village Tekpole about 10 kms from Ananta’s home in Varghad.

At Shri Shivaji Vir Baji Pasalkar High School, Panshet – where Ananta is a student – there are many like him who walk several kilometres to school in absence of transport facility. “We have students who walk 10 kms to 22 kms every day. These are very poor people who can’t even afford the concession students passes. There are many villages which have no bus connection,” said Asha Kutwal, a teacher at the school.

Ananta’s teachers are hopeful of his future. They say – “He is the brightest student in class”. “He is an excellent orator.” And yes, he does all this despite walking 22 kms every day.

 

Amid Mission Begin Again, Marathwada feels the lockdown heat as cases surge

Various district administrations have imposed blanket curfews, at a time when cities and towns with much larger case counts are opening up. As reported by The Indian Express earlier, over a million migrants have returned to Marathwada between March and June.

First Covid-19 positive case was detected in Pathri, a town of about 40,000 in Parbhani District, on Saturday following which civic employees sealed the locality. (Credit: Shaikh Haseeb)

ATIKH RASHID

Despite a large number of migrants returning from metro cities since March, the number of Covid-19 cases in several districts of Marathwada has remained comparatively lower than other parts of the state. This also meant that residents of towns and villages in the hinterland had an easier life owing to a few restrictions on their movement and functioning of markets.

However, since last one week, there has been a surge in Covid-19 cases in almost all districts in the region. Various district administrations have imposed blanket curfews, at a time when cities and towns with much larger case counts are opening up. As reported by The Indian Express earlier, over a million migrants have returned to Marathwada between March and June.

Barring Aurangabad, which is among the worst affected districts with 6,568 cases (294 deaths), no other district in Marathwada has gone past the three-digit mark. So far, Parbhani has recorded 142 cases (four deaths), Beed 142 (three deaths), Nanded 394 (14 deaths), Latur 425 (22 deaths), Osmanabad 264 (12 deaths), Jalna 719 (24) and Hingoli 288 cases (1 death).

In Parbhani district, where the case load is among the lowest in the state, Collector Deepak Muglikar has imposed a blanket curfew in urban areas instead of relying on notification and management of micro-containment areas, as being done in bigger cities in western Maharashtra with much larger Covid-19 counts.

The move is not going down well with the residents. In Pathri town, which saw its first Covid-19 case on Saturday, residents have gone weary of restrictions.

“There was a not single case detected in Pathri until Saturday, but due to the lockdown and restrictions I couldn’t do any business. I have exhausted all my savings and I’m not sure what will happen in future as the administration is taking more stringent measures now,” said Syed Musa (34), who earns a living by selling fried chicken at a roadside stall in Pathri.

However, the Parbhani collector agreed that imposition of curfew was a strict policy, but he said that “on and off curfews” are required to control the pandemic. He added that local residents were welcoming the measures being taken to control the spread of coronavirus.

“Curfew has been imposed only in urban areas of the district after number of cases has gone up significantly. This is a measure required to control the spread of Covid-19… The aim is not to harass people, but to avoid the spread on a mass scale,” Muglikar said, adding that many migrants coming from Pune and Mumbai and staying without informing the authorities was adding to the troubles.

He said the administration was mulling the possibility of relaxing the curfews between 7 am and 3 pm everyday while keeping a complete closure on weekends.

Similar restrictions have been imposed in Jalna city, where a 10-day curfew has been imposed under Section 144 (1) (3) of Criminal Procedure Code. In Beed city, an eight-day curfew has been imposed. In Parali, after five staffers of State Bank of India tested positive on Saturday, an eight day curfew was imposed. In Hingoli city, a five-day curfew was imposed on Sunday evening. In Kalamnuri town in the district that had recorded seven Covid-19 cases, a five-day curfew has been imposed.

In Latur, the district administration has taken a stance that curfew and continued lockdown were not essential to tackle the pandemic. Collector G Shreekanth said he believes curfew only grants a break to the administration rather than breaking the chain of coronavirus transmission.

“It’s very easy for a collector to impose curfew but we all know by now that it’s not the way to tackle the spread of the virus and is very taxing on the poor. Hence, we are not imposing lockdown in the district. We are defining micro-containment zones and focusing on their management and penalising those who are not following rules. This approach requires the administration to work more, but it does not put the entire population through suffering,” said Shreekanth.

Migrant workers gone, Pune Metro grapples with shortage of labourers; work speed down to 20 %

While the project employed over 4500 workers at its numerous sites, now only 1040 workers have stayed back; contractors are desperately trying to rope in fresh lots of labourers from north India. But will they come, and when?

Like at all other sites, work at Swargate site of Pune Metro work has slowed down with the departure of migrant workers. Credit: Ashish Kale. (Express photo: Ashish Kale)

As the city comes to terms with the impact of the migrant exodus, one of the worst-hit projects is the city’s largest: the construction of Pune Metro. With little activity, most of the construction sites wear a desolate look, but MahaMetro cannot be sure as to when the full workforce will return.

The departure of migrant workers in the last two months has depleted 75 per cent workforce employed at different construction sites of Pune Metro and has slowed the progress to just about 20 to 25 per cent of the usual capacity, as per MahaMetro officials.

Before the Covid-19 crisis began, various contractors had employed 4,500 workers at numerous sites, where work was going on at full speed to complete the project in time. However, as of Sunday, MahaMetro said it has only 1,040 workers left. Most of the workers who left were manual labourers and majority, who have stayed back, are technical and machine operating staff.

While a chunk of workers left immediately after the outbreak of Covid-19 and the announcement of a lockdown, others left in Shramik Special trains or by making their own arrangements in the last few weeks. Earlier, Pune Metro had asked contractors to look after workers housed at 10 camps in different parts of the city during the lockdown period.

The work resumed only in the last week of April after over a month since March 24, when the lockdown was announced. When the work restarted, there were 2,843 workers but most of them have since left for their home states.

At the Shivajinagar station site, barely 15 to 20 workers are on the job; at Agriculture College field, where underground tunnelling work commenced in December 2019 and a maintenance depot is coming up, a majority of workers have left; at Swargate, where work on a station and a tunnel is underway, the situation is no different; and near Kothrud Kachra depot, where Hill View car depot is being built, barely 20 machine operators have stayed back. The viaduct work has also suffered from residual staff taking up only minor works in the absence of workers. Labour camps also wear a deserted look with barely a few compartments of massive settlements occupied.

Pune Metro workers from College of Agriculture site had made applications to go home by queuing up at Shivajinagar Police Station in the first week of May 2020. (Express photo by Pavan Khengre)

Hemant Sonawane, General Manager (Public Relations), Pune Metro, said, “At the moment, we have 1,040 workers with various contractors. As workers have left due to the fear of Covid-19, the works allotted to various contractors are progressing at an average capacity of 20 to 25 per cent. The Metro does not directly employ workers. They are employed by contractors through labour suppliers who, now, have activated their channels and are making an effort to bring back some workers in the first week of June.”

The Indian Express spoke to a number of workers before they left for their home states, as they lined up to register for interstate transport facilities at police stations; coughed up large sums of money to obtain medical certificates; or when they left in groups to go to the station to board Shramik Special trains back home. Most of them said they were being looked after by contractors during the lockdown, but they wished to return home due to fear of the disease and owing to anxiety among family members. Those who were not lucky enough to get a seat on Shramik Special trains paid thousands of rupees to return home in trucks to Uttar Pradesh, Bihar or Jharkhand.

Sumit Prasad, who worked at the site in College of Agriculture, said on May 4, he queued up at Shivajinagar police station to submit an application to return home. “I have no complaints against the Metro as they are giving us food and shelter. The work has also started. But we are feeling anxious now and want to return home. Many of us speak to our families back home through video calls. Every day, the scene is the same. We cry on this side, they on the other,” said Prasad, who is from Siwan district in Bihar.

Pune Metro workers from College of Agriculture site had made applications to go home by queuing up at Shivajinagar Police Station in the first week of May 2020. (Express photo by Pavan Khengre)
Efforts on to call labourers back

Contractors are making an effort to get workers from within the state and outside. “Most of my employees were from Bihar and Jharkhand. Only some of them have stayed back as I was able to convince them. Getting workers from the state to replace those who have left is impossible. First, they too fear for their lives, and second, boys from even the poorest parts of the state are not ready to do manual labour,” said another sub-contractor.

A labour contractor said he had spoken to three labour suppliers in West Bengal, who have promised to send 50 workers each, by June 10.

According to Sonawane, a group of about 25 workers from Madhya Pradesh had conveyed to contractors, a week ago, that they are willing to return. Since there are transport restrictions, Pune Metro wrote to the administration of these districts requesting travel facilitation for these workers.

Salaries deducted, delayed

According to Pune Metro officials, it has issued instructions to all contractors to pay engaged workers full salaries for the lockdown period. Workers, who have stayed back, however, have complained that contractors have deducted a portion of the salaries and have also delayed the payment.

A number of technicians and operators said the only reason that kept them from leaving Pune was the pending salary. “If my pending salary is given to me, I will leave for home immediately,” a crane operator said, adding that the NCC, which is building viaducts on Paud Road, released salary for April only in the last week of May and, that too, was heavily deducted.

“I don’t want to return home empty-handed. If they clear my past dues, I can go home and provide for my family. If I leave now, without collecting my dues, I will have to forget about the pending money,” said the operator, who did not want to be named.

For over 10 lakh workers who returned to Marathwada, scheme for migrants offers little help

The scheme for migrant workers’ welfare, however, leaves inter-district migrants completely out of its purview, focusing only on 116 districts across six states which see high inter-state migration.

ATIKH RASHID

On Saturday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the Garib Kalyan Rozgar Abhiyan (GKRA), a scheme to boost livelihood and employment opportunities for migrant workers who have returned to villages from metro cities due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the ensuing lockdown. The scheme for migrant workers’ welfare, however, leaves inter-district migrants completely out of its purview, focusing only on 116 districts across six states which see high inter-state migration.

GKRA is a programme to provide livelihood opportunities to returning migrant workers by employing them under 25 government schemes. The works include laying of gas pipelines, water supply, internet set up, building housing for the rural poor, waste management infrastructure, rural roads and work on Anganwadis, among others, under 12 different Union ministries.

According to the Prime Minister’s Office, the districts chosen for the scheme are those where more than 25,000 migrant workers have returned in the last few months. These districts are estimated to cover about 66 per cent of such migrant workers.

The lack of a plan to provide employment to returning inter-district migrants – especially skilled workers – is most apparent in Maharashtra’s Marathwada region where more than a million migrants have returned from Pune, Mumbai and other major cities in the state after the lockdown. In most of the eight districts, the administration is counting on the returning migrants to go back to the cities after the pandemic subsides. “Some are already returning,” said an administration official, with a whiff of relief.

Each of the eight districts of Marathwada – a region known for low socio-economic development and migration of rural population – has seen a much higher number of returning migrants than the 25,000 eligibility mark for GKRA since March 2020, when the pandemic started affecting life and livelihoods in Mumbai, Pune and other big cities in comparatively wealthier western Maharashtra.

Numbers obtained by The Indian Express from district authorities show that about 10.8 lakh migrants have returned to the eight districts in the region with each seeing anywhere between 60,000 to 2.5 lakh returnees from cities in the last three months. The highest count of 2.5 lakh is in Beed district, which sees very high seasonal migration of sugarcane harvest labourers to various sugar factories in western Maharashtra, in addition to other skilled and semi-skilled migrants who move to cities such as Mumbai and Pune in search of better wages.

Other districts in the region — Aurangabad (about 2 lakh), Latur (1.43 lakh), Nanded (1.5 lakh), Osmanabad (1.1 lakh) Parbhani (1 lakh), Hingoli (65,000) and Jalna (60,000) — have also received migrants in numbers that are many times higher than the 25,000 threshold fixed by the central government for inclusion in GKRA scheme for inter-state migrants in six states.

Most districts counting on return of migrants, work under MGNREGA

While those looking for manual work back home can, possibly, be accommodated via MGNERGA works, for skilled workers there is very little to do in these districts. In most districts, the only possible solution is going back to the big cities, again, to look for work.

“In the last few months, we have issued thousands of fresh job cards under MGNERGA, of which about 2,000 would be returned migrants. For skilled workers who were working in industrial units in the city, we have very little capacity to accommodate them as there are almost no industries here. We are in talks with a few units, which had earlier employed north Indian workers who have now left, to employ the locals who have returned,” said Hingoli Collector Ruchesh Jaywanshi.

When asked about the district administration’s plan for the migrants, Collector of neighbouring Parbhani, Deepak Mugalikar, said the migrants have returned to their native places, but only temporarily. “They will be going back. In fact, some have already started,” said Muglikar.

“The first priority for us in connection with the returning migrants is to ensure that they do not spread coronavirus. We are keeping them in 14-day institutional quarantine followed by another 14 days of home quarantine. If they seek jobs under MGNREGA, we have ample work…,” he said.

But the Rs 202 per day wage under MGNREGA is nowhere enough for a skilled worker like Pramod Harkal (24), who used to earn over Rs 600 a day as a helper in an automobile assembly unit in Alandi, Pune.

Harkal, who hails from Gunj Khurd village in Parbhani district, said he returned to his village two months ago and has been unemployed since. “I can’t get any suitable work in the village. I tried to find some in Pathri (the tehsil headquarters) but to no avail. I am now looking to go back to Pune once transport opens,” said Harkal.

Pankaj Gajmal at his hometown Pathri, waiting to return to Mumbai for Work. (Credit: Haseeb Shaikh)

Pankaj Gajmal, a 30-year-old from Pathri town in the same district, had returned in April from Mumbai, where he worked as a support staff in a data centre of a nationalised bank via a third-party contract. “Although my office was open, I couldn’t go as the local train service had sopped in Mumbai. I returned home in April. I tried to find some work online but there isn’t any,” said Gajmal, who plans to return to his earlier job in Mumbai, or get a new one in the city, as soon as the local train service resumes.

Experts believe that schemes like GKRA may help migrants survive the pandemic period by providing them minimum income. But GKRA, like MGNREGA, can’t keep the population of migrant workers back home, who leave their homes looking for better wages.

“A scheme like GKRA will temporarily discontinue the inter-district migration during the ongoing pandemic. Most of the migrants – especially in districts such as Beed – migrate to western Maharashtra looking for better wages and advance amounts from muqadams (contractor) to undertake major expenditure, such as on marriages or tackling an emergency. The government schemes have limitations to provide these benefits and… these schemes may not help them stay back in the native districts,” said Nishikant Warbhuvan, assistant professor at the School of Management Sciences, Swami Ramandand Teerth Marathwada University (SRTMU), sub-centre, Latur.

(This story was published in The Indian Express on June 23 2020)

When Colour Queen of India said ‘Hullo’

Telephone appeared in movies as an instrument that provided a multitude of narrative possibilities and also benefitted, in the initial days, from the portrayal in cinema as a desirable, aspirational commodity.

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ATIKH RASHID

Both cinema and the telephone are modern inventions – the former about 45 years younger than the latter. During the early decades of the 20th century, the two tools interacted with and complemented each other as symbols of modernity.

Telephone appears in movies as an instrument that provides a multitude of narrative possibilities – as a herald of a plot twist, a conduit of the feeling of love, or as a device whose incessant ringing leads to tension-building.

Hindi films have had numerous songs featuring the phone as a tool connecting two lovelorn beings, crooning at each end (Recall: “Jalte hai jiske liye” from Sujata). In many crime thrillers of the 1950s, telephone lines unravel the tangled plots and help the film reach a happy ending.

The telephone, on the other hand, also benefited from such a portrayal in cinema – a mass medium with great influence –  as a desirable, aspirational commodity providing a plethora of possibilities.

Hence, it is no surprise that telephone companies were among the most prominent advertisers in film magazines of the late 1930s and 1940s. The Bombay Telephone Company, which was established in 1925, issued regular advertisements to filmindia, the most prominent film magazine of the time, in its attempt to expand its subscriber base in Bombay, Karachi and Ahmedabad.

These advertisements had stars and starlets of Hindi film industry seductively holding the receiver to their ears, anticipating a conversation from the other end.

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An ad issued by Bombay Telephone Company, Ltd in December 1937 edition of filmindia.

“Have you a telephone in your home?” asks this advertisement issued by the Bombay Telephone Company in the December 1938 issue of filmindia magazine. “If not you are denying the pleasure of communicating with your FRIENDS and running the risk of being unable to call the DOCTOR or FIRE BRIGADE in the time of need,” it says. The young model, lazily lying on the sofa, is holding the receiver in one hand and a glamour magazine in the other. The target audience here, clearly,  is English-speaking, educated, urban and affluent Indians.

The context to this marketing strategy adopted by Bombay Telephone Company to prominently highlight the social use – the pleasure of communicating with friends – of the telephone along with the more obvious logistical function, is provided by a letter sent by Lord Willingdon in September 1934 to London. In this communication, Willingdon laments that a lack of demand for telephone service in India was slowing down the expansion of the service in the country, largely owing to high cost and inability of a large section of the society to bear it. Indians are making comparatively little ‘social use’ of the technology, says he.

BUT WHO IS THE GIRL?

The full-page advertisement, it appears, not only worked for the advantage of the telephone firm but for the young model too.

“Who is the girl whose photo we find in the advertisement of the Bombay Telephone Co.? Is she a film star?” asks a curious reader of filmindia R S Mudaliar, a Madurai resident, in the ‘Editor’s Mail’ section of the magazine two months later.

The response to Mr Mudaliar by filmindia editor Baburao Patel informs us that the girl is the new Wadia Movietone starlet Pramilla who was previously attached with Imperial Studio. Elsewhere, the magazine fills in that Pramilla is busy shooting for Wadia’s Jungle King, co-starring John Cavas and Maheru – the monkey. Pramilla, born Esther Victoria Abraham in a Baghdadi -Jewish family of Kolkata, would go on to bag the Miss India title when the inaugural pageant was held in 1947.

COLOUR QUEEN OF INDIA SAYS ‘HULLO’

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Before starlet Pramilla, the telephone was being marketed – in similar full-page ads in filmindia – by Padmadevi, the silent film star. She had appeared in JBH Wadia’s stunt films, most notably Dilruba Daku (The Amazon, 1933) fighting with goons as a masked daredevil. Later on, in 1937, she was the heroine of the first indigenously produced colour film Kisan Kanya directed by Moti Gidwani and briefly earned the moniker of ‘Colour Queen of India’.

One of the advertisements featuring Padmadevi has an interesting warning: Never tap or touch the receiver rest. You will get a wrong number.

In the garb of the warning, it’s a tip – and an allure – to the prospective owners of the telephone, that taking home the device will afford them a hitherto unavailable possibility of making an unexpected contact with an unknown stranger – who could be as pretty as Padmadevi – whom the device may ‘accidentally’ connect you with.

While reliable statistics are not available on the number of telephone subscribers in India, as per a US Department of Commerce report, by March 1945, British India had 1,25,400 telephone lines, most of these operated by Indian Posts and Telegraphs Department, Government of India. In 1933, an international line between Bombay and London was also inaugurated, which was later suspended between 1939 and 1945, owing to security concerns during World War II.

(This write-up appeared on the indianexpress.com on June 10. Find it here.)

Why was British officer who controlled spread of plague in Poona killed by locals?

In 1897, 34-year-old Indian Civil Service officer Charles Walter Rand felt the need for strong segregation and containment measures to “stamp out plague from Poona” and deployed the military to search infected persons. Soon, reports and rumours of harassment of locals – especially of native women – at the hands of British soldiers started emerging from the city.

 ATIKH RASHID
Image 2 Credit George Lambert
Dead bodies of Pune residents who died from plague being cremated at a city crematorium. Pic Credit: George Lambert’s India, The Horror Stricken Empire.

THE FIRST recorded case of bubonic plague in Pune – then Poona – was discovered on October 2 1896 when two passengers from Mumbai alighted at the railway station. By December that year, the city was showing signs of local transmission and the disease had started to spread rapidly – especially in the densely populated Peth areas. Earlier, soon after the reports of plague came in from Mumbai in September 1896, the municipal corporation had appointed a medical officer at Pune Railway Station to watch out for persons with Plague symptoms and send them to special sheds erected at Sassoon General Hospital.

The plague wave that had reached Pune was part of the ‘Third Plague Pandemic’ which had started in Yunnan, China in 1855 and entered India through the port city of Mumbai via Hong Kong. The epidemic would last for well over two decades and would kill about 10 million Indians by between 1896 and 1918, as it ravaged one city after the other.

However, none of the scores of cities that were afflicted by the pestilence would cause as much political uproar as the Poona Plague did.

‘A DANGEROUS PLAGUE CENTRE’

By the end of February, Pune had recorded 308 cases of plague with 271 deaths. The dread of the disease which such a high mortality rate had caused the locals to flee the city. The municipal officials estimated that about 15,000 to 20,000 locals had left the city to escape the pandemic and had settled in villages in the outskirts. At this was happening, locals, as well as Englishmen, were asking for the appointment of a ‘strong officer’ who would improve the sanitary and health situation in the city, failing which, they feared, “the matters will never mend and go down form bad to worse.”

The strongman that the Bombay Presidency Governor William Mansfield Sandhurst decided to appoint was 34-year-old Walter Charles Rand, an Oxford-educated officer of the Indian Civil Service, who was then serving in Satara. Rand was appointed on February 10 1987 as an Assistant Collector for Pune and Chairman of the Poona Plague Committee.

“My first duty was to ascertain the extent to which the disease had already spread in Poona,” Rand wrote in the plague report that he drafted but was killed before he could submit it to the Governor. “After examining the current death register of Poona Municipal Corporation and mortality returns for previous years I discovered that … the morality in the city was growing at an alarming rate since the beginning of January…On the same day I also informed the Collector that Poona had become a very dangerous plague centre,” Rand wrote.

WHY MILITARY HELP WAS TAKEN?

As per Rand, Surgeon Captain Beveridge arrived in Pune to assist in fighting the epidemic in the city with the idea of using military men in the plague operations. “Up to the time of Surgeon Captain Beveridge’s arrival, the use of anything but civil agency for dealing with the epidemic had not been considered. That officer, however, who had had considerable experience of the Plague in Hong Kong and methods adopted there for stamping it out, formed a decided opinion that the help of soldiers would be desirable in Poona, especially to search for sufferers from plague, their removal to suitable hospitals, and the disinfection of plague-infected houses,” Rand says in the report.

Image 1 Credit George Lambert

Following this, Poona Collector RA Lamb sent out a formal request to the government of Bombay Presidency for this purpose. “The aid of the soldiers is needed because the men are available, they are disciplined, they can be relied upon to be thorough and honest in their inspection, while no native agency is available, or could be relief on if it were,” he said.

At this time the population of Pune – including those residing in municipal limits, cantonments and suburbs – was 1.61 lakh. The plan prepared by Rand attached the greatest importance to house-to-house search for infected patients and suspects …. There was intense aversion among the townsfolk for taking out the plague-infected family members to the hospital. The families resorted to “incredible shifts” in order to prevent authorities from detecting a plague patient. Such patients were hidden in lofts, cupboards and gardens or “anywhere where their presence was least likely suspected”. This, the administration argued, would leave no option but to resort to “compulsory methods” to ensure isolation of the infected patients.

Five special plague hospitals were erected in various parts of the city, each for Hindu, Muslim, Parsi communities in addition to one general hospital and Sassoon Hospital where Europeans were treated. On the same line, four segregation camps were set up where family members and other contacts of the plague patients were kept under observation.

Plague 4

“There was, it is true, no Indian example of the suppression by strong measures of an epidemic of plague which had established itself in a large town, but the possibility of so suppressing the disease had been demonstrated at Hongkong in 1894. It was certain that if the plague was not to be allowed to run its course but was to be stamped out of Poona, stringent measures would have to be taken,” Rand observed in the report.

The containment policy adopted by Rand and his team was to actively search the localities in the city with the help of the soldiers accompanied by natives for plague-infected patients (or their dead bodies) and take them to the hospitalS (or cremate the bodies under medical supervision). The houses where patients were found were cleaned, fumigated, dug up (to destroy rats) and lime washed.

The work of search parties was carried out between March 13 and May 19 1987. About 20 search parties (later increased to 60) each consisting three British soldiers and one native gentleman were formed for his purpose. A division of 10 search parties had one medical officer and a lady searcher to inspect women in purdah.

“In order that plague patients might not be removed before the arrival of the troops, no intimation as to what area was to be searched was given to the public. The streets in which the search took place were patrolled by Cavalry. The only important complaint about the first day’s work was that doors forced open by the troops were not reclosed. This difficulty was got over on subsequent occasions by attaching to each search division a few Native troops with hammers and staples to fasten up doors after the searchers

As per Rand’s report, the attitude of the residents was “friendly” to the search parties except that of the Brahmin community which was unfriendly and tried to obstruct the searches. The medical officers were supplied with cash advances and had instructions to pay compensation for any articles belonging to plague patients that might be destroyed.

“It was found at the beginning of the operations that rather too many articles were at times destroyed as rubbish. Orders were accordingly issued on March 26th to Officers commanding limewashing divisions to visit, if possible, all houses to be limewashed and to decide what should be destroyed in each. It was also laid down that when a property of any value to the owners was destroyed by limewashing party, the Officer commanding the division should note the approximate cost of replacing what had been destroyed in order that compensation might afterwards be paid. In practice nothing was destroyed after the first fortnight of the operations except in the presence of an officer,” reads the report.

Image 3 Credit George Lambert

The searches, the Committee claimed, bore results. Between March 13 and May 19 1987, it searched 2,18,214 houses and found 338 plague cases and 64 corpses.

The Committee also claimed that it had given instructions to the limewashing parties to limewash all articles in the house, in case a plague patient or dead body was found, all rubbish found in the house should then be burnt, but no property of any value to the inmates should be destroyed, the whole interior of the house should then be limewashed. If the floor is of earth it should be dug up to a depth of 4 inches and disinfected with liquid chloride of lime.

All entry and exit points to the city were manned by British soldiers to ensure that no one from infected area enters Pune or plague suspects flee the city or smuggle out the dead bodies to escape testing by the authorities.

As per the British, there were very few complaints about the conduct of the soldiers – both British and Native – and whenever any complaint was made action was taken against the violators. In a letter written to Rand on May 20 1987, Major A Deb V Paget who was commanding the operations lists six cases which were found to be true involving stealing of money while conducting house searches, stealing goods and receiving money from the native residents.

Poona Mortality Curve
This curve shows mortality in Pune City plotted with deaths in each five-day interval on the Y-axis between December 20 to May 30. As per Surgeon Captain Beveridge who made the curve, it shows a steady rise until the first week of March and then a marked fall which could be accounted for by measures taken by the plague committee.

The committee also claimed that these “energetic measures” carried out by military officers with “praiseworthy zeal” led to the decline of the disease by the end of May 1897 after a peak in March.

HOW INDIANS SAW THESE OPERATIONS?

Local experience of these search operations and forceful segregation of plague patients and suspect, however, was not as benign. The complaints sent to senior officials – including Rand – and news reports in the local publications suggests that residents looked at these operations as a reign of terror.

As per the petitions, as summarised by Rajnarayan Chandavarkar in his essay ‘Plague Panic and Epidemic Politics in India: 1896-1914’ published in the book Epidemic and Ideas, there was wanton and indiscriminate destruction of the property during searches. The segregation and limewashing parties would dig up the floor, put gallons of disinfectant in the nook and crannies of the houses, at times broke open the doors and left them ajar, took away “perfectly healthy” persons and, in some cases, even neighbours and passers-by.

“…There were complaints that ‘all the females are compelled to come out of their houses and stand before the public gaze in the open street and be there subjected to inspection by soldiers. Soldiers were said to behave ‘disgracefully with native ladies’ and the tenor of the official response was that they had ‘merely joked with a Marathi woman’ suggest that sexual harassment probably did occur. Shripat Gopal Kulkarni, an octogenarian, complained that ten or twelve soldiers had burst into his house, forced him to undress, ‘felt…the whole of my body and then made me sit and rise and sitting around me went on clapping their hands and dancing,” writes Chandavarkar.

It was at this backdrop that Bal Gangadhar Tilak wrote in Mahratta, his English newspaper, that the” Plague is more merciful to us than its human prototypes now reigning the city. The tyranny of Plague Committee and its chosen instruments is yet too brutal to allow respectable people to breathe at ease.”

No doubt that the regulations and measures as they were imposed in Pune were the most stringent among all the cities which were afflicted by the pandemic. In fact, Antony MacDonnel Lieutenant-Governor of the North-Western Provinces had observed in July 1897 in a communique that “If the plague regulations had been enforced in any city of these provinces in the way in which …they were…enforced in Poona, there would have been bloodshed here.”

THE MURDERS

Blood was indeed shed. On June 22 1897, Chapekar brothers – Damodar (27), Balkrisha (24) and Vasudev (17 or 18) – shot Rand and Lieutenant Charles Ayerst while they were returning from Queen Victoria’s Jubilee Celebration at Government House in Ganeshkhind (now Pune University). While Ayerst died immediately, Rand succumbed to the injuries on July 3.

Damodar Chapekar, who is said to have planned and led the assassination, said in his confession (which was later retracted by him) that the search operations carried by British soldiers were behind his decision to kill Rand.

“In the search of houses a great zulum (atrocities) was practised by the soldiers and they entered the temples and brought out women from their houses, broke idols and burnt pothis (holy books). We determined to revenge these actions but it was no use to kill common people and it was necessary to kill the chief man. Therefore we determined to kill Mr Rand who was the chief,” Damodar was recorded to have said on October 8 1897 in front of a magistrate following his arrest.

20210109_231001
This roadside sclupture in Pune depicts the assassination of Rand by Chapekar brothers – Damodar, Bal Krishna and Vasudev – in a rather erroneous manner.  As per police records, Damodar had shot Rand at “point blank range” from behind by climbing up the moving tonga and throwing up the curtain. (Picture: Atikh Rashid)

While none of the Chapekar brothers or their other accomplices hinted so, the British also surmised that the attack may have been inspired by the “peculiarly violent writing of the Poona newspapers regarding the plague administration” and “some of the recognised organs (of the Poona Brahmins) have, in articles that shortly preceded the murders, almost openly advocated the duty of the forcible resistance to the authority. The reference here was Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s editorials in Kesari as well as writings and reporting in other newspapers such as Sudharak and Poona Vaibhav among others.

The government – startled, embarrassed by the murders – booked Tilak of sedition under Section 124 of Indian Penal code for exciting feelings of disaffection among the public through his writings in Kesari. It was also alleged that by glorifying and justifying Shivaji’s killing of Afzal Khan in the 17th century, he directly supported violence and resultantly caused murders of the two British officers barely a week after the publication of the articles. The court found Tilak guilty and sent him to 18 months of imprisonment.

ACCUSATION OF SEXUAL VIOLATIONS

The alleged atrocities committed by British soldiers during plague control operations also caused an uproar in United Kingdom when Congress leader from Maharashtra Gopal Krishna Gokhale who was visiting England to appear before Welby Commission gave an interview to The Manchester Guardian (now The Guardian) on July 2 1897 (published on July 3) in which he levelled serious accusations against the British soldiers. These “rumours” were the talk of the town in India but were raised outside the country with such prominence for the first time.

Apart from detailing how soldiers “ignorant of the language and contemptuous to customs” offended scores of ways, he also made allegations of “violation of two women, of whom is said to have committed suicide rather than to survive her shame” attributing the information to his contacts back home in Pune. This caused an uproar in the British parliament as well back home in India. The Bombay Presidency government called it a “malevolent invention” and challenged Gokhale to prove them or share with the government the names of the persons who had shared this information with him.

After his return to India, Gokhale tried his best to gather evidence from the persons who had written to him about the atrocities against the women – especially the two cases of rape – but nobody was willing to come forward, especially in the light of the severe crackdown in Pune post-Rand’s assassination including sedition case against Tilak. A detailed account of this episode has been given by Stanley Wolpert in his book Tilak and Gokhale: Revolution and reform in the making of modern India.

Unable to substantiate these claims, Gokhale published an “unqualified apology” to British soldiers which was published the Manchester Guardian and The Times of India on August 4.

As per, Chandavarkar the rumours of these violations – which may or may not be confirmed – should be seen as the nightmarish experience of the local population of their private places being “invaded and violated” by uninformed foreign agents.

“Stories about the behaviour of the soldiers may have borne a considerable measure of truth but they also reflected the nightmarish invasion and violation of privacy – even god-rooms and kitchens – by the most frightening, powerful, uniformed foreign agent of public authority. Sexual harassment by the soldiers and their ‘disgraceful behaviour towards the native ladies’ almost certainly occurred – ad, indeed, physical examination, ‘the exploration of the native’s body’ in the street of at railway checkpoints may themselves be regarded precisely as that – but reports of them also served as a metaphor for the violent eruption of the state into the privacy of people’s lives,” Chandavarkar writes.

The plague, meanwhile, continued its killing spree in the city for several years. By May 1904, it infected 45,665 and killed 37,178.

 

Maharashtra’s internal migrants desperate to return home

While state agencies have set their focus on transportation of inter-state migrants stuck in cities like Pune and Mumbai, very little is being done for internal migrants who came to big cities from poorer districts in Marathwada and Vidarbha.

ATIKH RASHID

Sunita Katar, a 40-year-old widow from Daithana in Parbhani district, had moved few months ago to Ahmednagar, about 250 kms away, to earn a living as a farm labourer. Although the nationwide lockdown implemented on March 24 closed all avenues of finding employment, she stayed back in Ahmednagar until the end of the second phase of the lockdown, which ended on May 3. On that day – when the movement of stranded persons was allowed but only with prior permission – she decided to walk home from Ahmednagar to Daithana by surreptitiously crossing the two district borders.

By Tuesday morning, she had covered 200 kms and had reached Manwat in Parbhani district. She was 48 km away from her home when she was reportedly crushed by a vehicle. Local police said it was not clear if she was mowed down while crossing the road or if she was trying to stop the vehicle to hitchhike. “She was travelling alone and illegally. Since it was very early in the morning and there are no closed circuit cameras, we don’t know what really happened,” said Shivaji Pawar, assistant police inspector with Manwat police station.

While the state agencies have set their focus on transportation of inter-state migrants who are stuck in cities like Pune and Mumbai, very little is being done for internal migrants who came to the big cities from poorer districts in Marathwada and Vidarbha in search of employment.

According to government estimates, there are approximately 3,00,000 students and migrant labourers stranded in cities, who want to go back to their homes in Marathwada or Vidarbha. On Wednesday, state Relief and Rehabilitation Minister Vijay Wadettiwar said his ministry has decided to use Maharashtra State Road Transport Coproration (MSRTC) buses to transport the stranded internal-migrants home from big cities like Mumbai, Pune and Nagpur.

“We are chalking out a plan. An expense of Rs 20 crore is expected for this and it will be borne by the Relief and Rehabilitation Ministry. The transport minister has agreed to provide MSRTC buses for this purpose. It will be a free service for the stranded persons,” said Wadettiwar.

He added that a final decision regarding the same will be announced in next two-three days.

Meanwhile, stranded migrants were running from pillar to post to obtain the travel passes to return home. At various police stations in Pune, where applications for transit passes are being accepted, those who approach with a request for an inter-district pass are being turned away.

“I submitted my request five days ago and have received no response yet,” said Puja Tambe, a student who wants a pass to return home in Beed district.

Of the total 28,773 requests the Pune Police has accepted at its 30 police stations by May 5, none was for travel within the state, said an officer. According to the police, although applications were not being received through police stations, they have been granting transit passes through their online platform, punepolice.in, but only in cases of “extreme emergency”, such as medical situation or death of a first relative.

‘Home districts reluctant to accept migrants’

Pune District Collector Naval Kishore Ram said several district administrations in Marathwada region were not willing to accept migrants workers wanting to return home from Pune or Mumbai.

“They are resisting the return. We are in discussion with them,” said Ram.

When asked about this, Parbhani District Collector Deepak Muglikar said at present the district has just one COVID-19 positive patient and the administration was aspiring to keep it that way.

“We are in orange zone now and are striving to return to green zone status. We can’t go for blanket acceptance of all migrants who want to return to Parbhani, especially from Pune and Mumbai, which have become hotspots of COVID-19. It’s not only administration, local residents too do not want anyone from outside to enter Parbhani district at this stage,” said Muglikar. He cited the example of a 19-year-old youth, who travelled from Pune to Parbhani on his bike.

“After the boy tested positive, we had to test 41 persons with whom he had come in contact with during his illegal drive from Pune. Another woman who came from Aurangabad and tested positive in Selu made us test and isolate 69 persons. We can’t open our boundaries for incoming persons as it would affect our efforts to become a ‘zero patient’ district,” said Muglikar.

(This item was published in The Indian Express on May 7. It can be accessed here

 

If we don’t get food, we will leave for home again, say migrant labourers stranded in Pune

Around 150 people – comprising migrant labourers from Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, started their long journey home, about 1,000 km away, on foot, They were, however, intercepted by Pune police only two hours after their journey.

ATIKH RASHID

A group of around 150 people — comprising migrant labourers and their families, staying in and around Katraj area of Pune and natives of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, started their journey home, about 1,000 km away, on foot. Their journey was, however, cut short by the police even before they could cross the city limits Wednesday morning. They had walked for two hours carrying just the bare minimum needed for the journey, when, around 3.30 am, the police stopped them and gave them two options: either go back to their rented houses in Katraj, or stay in a government shelter for migrants.

There are 60-70 families of migrant daily wagers from Damoh and Jabalpur districts in MP and Balodabazar in Chhattisgarh who stay in tin-houses in Babaji Nagar, Anjali Nagar, Sachhai Mata Mandir, Sund Mata Mandir localities of Pune near Katraj and Wadgaon Budruk areas.

Most of the daily wagers had arrived in Pune two-three months prior to the announcement of the nationwide lockdown owing to the COVID-19 pandemic. They said whatever money or saving they had was exhausted. They said they were largely dependent on food packets being distributed by social workers in the area and that no help has been offered to them from the government.

“The food packets distributed are not enough for us. They give one small packet each for adults and kids. We couldn’t go on like that and hence decided that since the 21-day lockdown was to close on April 14, we will leave that evening to go home on foot as we didn’t have money for fare,” said Chhote Lal, a labourer in his 40s. They said they were not aware that the lockdown has been extended till May 3.

Guddu Pal, another daily wager, said that after the police intercepted them they had no option but to return. “They had taken us to a school in Kondhwa where there was no space. They asked us to stay in the open. We decided to return here,” says Pal. According to him, the police had promised them that they would be provided food twice a day and would be given no reason to complain.

“We didn’t leave for fun. We prepared ourselves and our kids to walk 1,000 km because we are suffering. If we don’t get enough food, we will leave again,” said Pal, patting his belly, adding, “Even if that means getting beaten up by the police.”

One of the women brought out a food packet she had saved to eat later to show the size of the helping. “This is how much we get per person. Is this enough for even a small child?” she asked.

The younger labourers said they were aware that the lockdown is on but felt they couldn’t continue to stay on in Pune as they were facing trouble getting food and there was no end to the lockdown in sight. “Can you tell for sure that lockdown will end on May 3?” asked Bhagchandra Pal, who hails from Damoh, MP. “We left our homes to earn some money. We can’t work now and don’t have enough to eat and don’t know when things will normalise. So what’s the point of continuing to live here like this!” Pal said they had estimated that they will reach home in 15 days if they walked only during the nights (to escape heat).

Police Inspector Vinayak Gaikwad, in-charge of Kondhwa police station, detailed how the police spotted the group. “When they had reached Khadi Machine Chowk, our team stopped them around 3.30 am, about two hours after they had started from Katraj. We convinced them that there was no way they could be allowed to head for their native places and that arrangements for their food and shelter will be made by the government. They were taken to Darekar School in Kondhwa, which is a designated shelter camp. But they said they will prefer to go back to their homes in Pune.”

‘Green Maharashtra’ initiative: 38 out of 59 participating govt agencies fail to submit survival report for a single sapling

According to the plan, the survival reports of seedlings planted between July 1 and September 30 last year were to be uploaded to the portal launched by the state Forest department to monitor the drive.

ATIKH RASHID

FIVE months after the erstwhile government headed by Devendra Fadnavis announced achieving its goal of planting 33 crore saplings in the state within three months, 38 out of total 59 government agencies that were involved in the drive have not submitted sapling survival reports.

According to the programme, the survival reports of seedlings planted between July 1 and September 30 last year were to be uploaded to the portal launched by the state Forest department to monitor the drive. These 38 agencies had reported to have planted 5.5 crore saplings during the drive but were silent on whether these survived.

In case of 14 other departments, survival reports have come from only three out of the total 36 districts.

Only Social Forestry, Forest department (Territorial), Forest Development Corporation of Maharashtra and Forest Wildlife Department have diligently reported survival numbers on the portal. According to the portal, a total of 34.47 crore saplings were planted as part of the Green Maharashtra drive last year, of which 15.68 crore have been reported to have survived. Most of these were those planted by forest agencies.

The non-Forest agencies — mostly state government, central government and local body offices, which had planted a total of 16.97 crore saplings — have submitted survival reports for only 3.41 lakh saplings, leaving the fate of the rest (16.94 core) to imagination.

In 2016, the state government had launched the ‘Green Maharashtra’ drive under the leadership of then forest minister Sudhir Mungantiwar, with an aim to plant 50 crore trees across the state. The previous government claimed it planted 19 crore saplings between 2016 and 2018 and then additional 33 crore between July 1 and September 30, 2019.

To monitor planning and implementation of the campaign, a special portal was created to upload plantation numbers, photographic and videographic evidence of plantation drive as well as survival reports after conducting inspection in October and May every year.

As The Indian Express earlier reported, the non-forest agencies, which were reluctant to take part in the humongous drive stating they neither had expertise nor financial resources to do so, had claimed to have achieved plantation targets, but in a majority of instances had not uploaded the photographic evidence.

The portal shows that although gram panchayats reportedly planted 8.64 crore saplings during the drive, survival reports have been submitted only for 2,46,226 in Chandrapur district. Gram panchayats from no other district have submitted their reports. Similarly, the state Agriculture department had claimed to have planted 1.9 crore saplings. But positive survival reports have been submitted only by one gram panchayat (Mhatroli) in Alibaug taluka of Raigad District for 340 saplings.

While Vivek Khandekar, chief conservator of forest (Pune), did not comment on the issue, other officials said the forest department had no mandate to force compliance from non-forest agencies. “You would see that most of non-compliance is from non-forest agencies and we can’t do anything about it,” said an official.