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Ensure Women’s Rights During the Lockdown! An Open Letter to Delhi CM Kejriwal

Dear Shri Arvind Kejriwal,

We, the undersigned organisations and individuals committed to feminist principles and women’s and transpersons’ human rights, call upon the State government to recall and act in accordance with women rights standards in the state government’s response to COVID-19, especially in the context of the painful aftermath of the riots in North East Delhi and the humanitarian crisis that has followed the announcement of the lockdown.

Further, we wish to remind you that it is obligatory on the government to do due diligence in upholding standards of international law and state policy must not magnify existing gender inequality or force women and transpersons along with other marginalised communities into a greater humanitarian catastrophe. The challenges posed by COVID-19 must also take into account lived experiences of women, girls and transpersons who face greater challenges due to their sex, gender and sexual orientation.

I. Lockdown as a Public Health Measure rather than state policy of enforcing impoverishment, mass displacement and fatalities

The declaration of a lockdown without a comprehensive human rights, women’s rights and transperson’s rights framework means pushing entire communities into regimes of impoverishment that include increased morbidity and fatality, loss of livelihoods, hunger and starvation deaths, greater stigma and violence, increased state violence and absence of systems of state accountability, and the retreat of any urgent redress by the courts, where access is even possible.

1. While “social distancing” and “lockdown” has been described by the UN as ‘comprehensive and robust’, we would like to emphasise that the WHO has repeatedly emphasised testing, testing and more testing. Lockdown cannot succeed without targeted and wide scale testing. We urge the Delhi Government to ensure that free testing in the public and private sector be made available for all poor and deprivileged, especially all women, gender & sexual minorities and children in Delhi, including those who do not have a travel history. Private tests require the production of address proof by way of aadhar, passport or election card – however, many displaced persons may not have such proofs. The procedure must be simplified.

2. Soaps and sanitisers must be provided to all working class, displaced and marginalised women and gender & sexual minorities. Hand made masks may also be provided.

3. The government must take strict action against any form of police excess on women and gender & sexual minorities. Developing mechanisms for police accountability must be a priority for Delhi government since women and gender and sexual minorities in Delhi have been routinely experiencing police excess since the last few months without any trace of state accountability.

4. Issue a detailed memo on action taken by the State Governments since the time of receipt of information about COVID-19 in December 2019, with respect to the mass displacement of women migrants and children, and transpersons the measures taken to ascertain food, health and social security for riot affected, migrant, homeless, displaced, iterant, elderly, disabled, and single in Delhi.

5. Upload accurate information on how many women, children and gender and sexual minorities have been affected by or succumbed to Covid-19 and maintain a data base on the impact of Covid-19 on women, children, gender and sexual minorities in Delhi, as per age and social location.

The Delhi government must provide online services and telephonic helplines to all women and sexual & gender minorities in Delhi, so that they can consult doctors and lawyers for free if they face any health problems, or discrimination and violence due to COVID-19 lockdown and its aftermath.

Many students are facing immense problems due to violence in intimate partner relationships and a draconian abuse of power and even violence at the hands of campus security and/or the police. They need safe accommodation and state run shelter homes are not the solution. In countries like France hotel rooms have been made available for women to move into in case of domestic violence and similar forms of violence. The government could partner with hotels in the city for helping students facing discrimination, violence and health emergencies on the basis of their sex, gender and sexual orientation.

II. Health Bureaucracy is Gendered, and Women doing National Service are at Risk

The Delhi government must take note of the fact that the health bureaucracy is gendered with many women medics and health workers at the bottom of the health bureaucracy with the burden of containing and treating epidemics. At all levels of the health bureaucracy, the Delhi government should enact comprehensive measures to protect the health and safety of women health workers. Further,

1. We urge the Delhi government to ensure that all doctors, nurses and hospital staff, especially women, are given protective gear at the earliest and stocks are planned for the future. We have noted with concern that women doctors in the city do not have PPE or are having to make their own masks and sanitizers.

2. A protocol and comprehensive measures for ensuring the health of all health and women relief workers working in mohalla clinics (including ASHA workers or ANMs) must be worked out and implemented by the Delhi government without any further delay.

3. Further, women doctors and hospital staff all over the city and indeed the country are facing discrimination, evictions and even rape threats. The Delhi government is requested to set up a task force to assess the problem women doctors, nurses and hospital staff, as well as the para medical workers, are facing. And set up helplines to assist women who face societal or workplace backlash due to the COVID-19 crisis.

4. The women doctors, nurses and staff should be provided safe accommodation, assured health insurance, safe transport and home care assistance.

5. We urge the Delhi government further to create a fund for women scientists and researchers to be able to work on discovering a cure for COVID-19.

III. Sexual and Reproductive Health

Many women, children and transpersons face sexual abuse, dowry harassment, cruelty, intimate partner abuse and/or domestic violence at home. The media has reported the increase in the number of calls received by the National Commission of Women. During a lockdown, the victims of sexual abuse, matrimonial violence and domestic violence are not able to access safe spaces in their neighbourhoods, with their relatives or in shelter homes. Sociologists predict that cases of domestic violence, matrimonial violence, sexual abuse and other forms of abuse will increase with mobility restrictions especially during a lockdown. Children also may face enhanced chances of sexual abuse. Adult women and women students should not be forced to return to abusive homes, yet face evictions from Universities or hostels or rented accommodation.

1. The Delhi government must set up helplines and short stay homes for victims of sexual abuse and domestic violence for survivors wanting to escape abuse conditions during the lockdown.

2. Counsellors must be made available for women to call to deal with the violence and stress of the lockdown. Disseminate information about gender-based violence and publicize resources and services available

3. The Delhi government must increase resourcing for nongovernmental organizations that respond to domestic violence and provide assistance — including shelter, counselling, and legal aid —  to survivors, and promote those that remain open are available. The DSLSA must provide legal aid and support to women and sexual minorities in need during the lockdown.

4. The Delhi government must develop protocol for the care of women and transpersons who may not be admitted in hostels or shelters due to exposure to the virus which includes safe quarantine and access to testing

5. A legal aid program at the empanelling lawyers who are working from home must be set up and cases of rape, cruelty and abuse must be considered urgent matters for the courts to hear during the lockdown. Make provisions for domestic violence survivors to attend court proceedings via accessible teleconference. DSLSA must take on such cases.

6. The Delhi government must ensure urgent release/parole for women and gender &sexual minorities who are convicted or under trial. The Delhi government must develop and implement measures to to protect all prisoners and undertrials from the impact of COVID-19 in all state prisons. This means ensuring that the international health protocols for sanitation, hygiene, soap, water, cots, spare pair of clothes, adequate nutrition and regular health checks, at the very minimum. There should be a task force set up for this purpose that reviews each district level prison.

7. The Delhi government must develop and implement urgent measures to protect inmates of all state institutions such as protection homes, beggars homes, observation homes, juvenile homes, and related institutions from the impact of COVID-19 in all state institutions. This means ensuring that the international health protocols for sanitation, hygiene, soap, water, cots, spare pair of clothes, adequate nutrition and regular health checks, at the very minimum. There should be a task force set up for this purpose that oversees and reviews the implementation of the protocol.

8. The Delhi government must provide free education to all girls in schools and women in colleges, from dis-privileged backgrounds, for a year. The lockdown may result in increased drop outs and families forcing women to get married instead of pursuing studies and careers. Special measures must be instituted for ensuring that gender and sexual minorities in schools and colleges do not face discrimination, violence and lack of access to health services including protection from discrimination, scholarships and counselling services.

IV. Discourage Non-Secular, Racist, Sexist and Casteist Messaging

The Delhi government must explain what COVID-19 is to women, and gender & sexual minorities in simple and accessible language without creating panic. In doing so, the Delhi government must recognise that stay at home, curfew and lockdown orders could pose life threatening situations for women.

1. The Delhi government is responsible to educate people that the status of sanitation workers in society is not at the bottom of social hierarchy, but an essential service and they should be accorded with dignity and worthy of basic human rights. We insist that the state government recognise that underlying the call for social distancing is the evil of untouchability and that the most valuable public service today is provided by those communities who are treated in cruel, degrading and inhuman ways.

2. The language of social distancing reinforces caste discrimination and codes of untouchability. The Delhi government therefore must develop communication kits that emphasise that physical (or disease) distancing with social solidarity rather than use the term social distancing.

3. The messaging of the state government should make it clear that COVID-19 afflicted are not impure, contagious or populations that have to be treated as “termites” who must be “disinfected” to contain contagion.

4. It is a matter of public record that there has been a media campaign against the Chinese which has been extended to people from the North East in the city identifying the contagion with entire communities of people. The Delhi government must advertise that the law on prevention of atrocities may be applicable in such cases. There should be active and responsible collaborations with activists and human rights defenders and other NGOs to prevent further discrimination and violence against people from the North East in Delhi city. Prevention should be planned for schools, university campuses, hostels, neighbourhoods, RWAs, hospitals, among other sites.

5. There should be no tolerance for Islamophobic speech or practices of boycott, ostracisation or any other degrading practice that attributes the virus to entire communities of Muslims. Such speech should be considered discriminatory and therefore a form of hate speech liable to legal action and compensation; and such practices tantamount to cruel, degrading and inhuman treatment amounting to torture.

6. There should be no tolerance for xenophobic speech or practices of boycott, ostracisation or any other degrading practice that attributes the virus to entire communities of people from the North East or from China. Such speech or practice should be considered discriminatory and therefore a form of hate speech and atrocity liable to legal action and compensation.

7. Campus security and RWAs must be clearly directed not to beat up students or residents in overzealous implementation of the lock down.

8. Sexist language such as the use of Lakshman Rekha, is offensive to us for it places the burden of patriarchal discrimination on all women. The idea that anyone who goes out of the house, especially women will be transgressing state morality and deserving of the violence they get is abhorrent to us. While it indicates to us the lack of sensitivity to the reality that the being locked up in the house is not safe for scores of transpersons, women and children, who are often victims of sexual abuse and domestic violence.

9. Sexist and racist violence against Muslims and all religious minorities, and the people of North East must be discouraged through positive messaging. The Delhi government helpline must respond to the calls of those who are victims of such verbal and physical violence.

V. Sexual and Reproductive Rights

There is no acknowledgment of the fact that the state needs to ensure for sexual and reproductive rights of all women and transpersons during the lockdown. The State government must do the following:

1. It should notify and advertise that abortions are essential and emergency services.

2. Supply of condoms, pills and sanitary napkins as essential services that ought to be available to every woman. This should be provided from door to door, in vulnerable communities and as part of ration supplies.

3. The State government must ensure nutritious meals for pregnant women, health checks for pregnant women, supply of medicines and health care for pregnant women and provisions for safe deliveries. Health care for new born babies and provisions for their nutrition must be provided.

4. Permission for ambulances, curfew passes for family of the woman in labour and COVID-19 protection for the mother & child must be ensured.

VI. Substantive Equality Must be Upheld

1. Muslim women and children in the aftermath of the Delhi riots are a vulnerable population whose well-being the Delhi government must urgently address. The resettlement, compensation for destroyed homes and livelihoods, food, health security, psycho-social healing, life insurance and livelihood of the displaced and those who were forced to return to their homes should be addressed with utmost urgency. The state government and the DCW must provide support to women’s organisations and civil society groups working to assist displaced women to rebuild lives. Information of the action taken, especially of compensation, on this front must be uploaded on the Delhi government and DCW website. A helpline for Muslim women preferably run by Muslim women must be set up given the fact that many Muslim neighbourhoods remain vulnerable to police harassment, and lodging of criminal cases. Delhi government must recognise that Muslim women increasingly face social bias and cannot access courts, lawyers or hospitals without discrimination and threat of violence. The reports of the civil society groups from the violence hit mohallas of the North East Delhi is a testimony to the discrimination Muslim women and men faced in the hospitals and at the hands of the police. These facts are a matter of public record. Such forms of discrimination against minorities must be taken seriously and a task force and a protocol must be set up in Delhi government to ensure justice for women from minority communities. Discrimination on the basis of religion in the provision of service at the public hospitals or in the Police Stations must be acted upon not only as dereliction of duty but as misconduct and bias. They should not be refused medical help, stigmatised or stereotyped if identified or diagnosed as vulnerable to COVID-19 or as COVID-19 patients.

2. The Delhi government must recognise the grave risk to all dalit women, children and transpersons including safai karmacharis, and all caste communities in the sanitation sector (formal and informal). Not only should all of these workers and their families be provided safety gears, they should be given increased wages, health insurance and services, and life insurance. Their national service should be recognised that sanitation work is the most crucial and critical aspects of public health, especially during the times of a pandemic. Contract labour must end in the sanitation sector and all sanitation workers should be regularised and paid a decent wage to help them open up opportunities should their next generation wish to pursue other occupation. Food security, testing, gears and health care must be provided to all such workers and their families free of cost in recognition of their essential service.

3. The Delhi government must recognise that the women, transpersons and children migrants who have been displaced and face police violence also run the risk of sexual abuse and even trafficking. Their safe passage, accommodation, food and health security must be ensured and monitored by the Delhi government . CSOs, Women’s groups and groups working for the rights of gender and sexual minorities who are already on the ground or have the capacity to ensure the safety of migrants should be approached for partnership by the Delhi government .

4. Widows, elderly women and single women and transpersons must be identified as vulnerable populations who are left without any support structure during the lockdown. CSOs and women’s groups who routinely work with these most vulnerable should be approached to identify such women.

5. Special provisions for domestic workers, daily wagers, sex workers, single women, elderly women, widows such as food deliveries, essential commodities delivery and access to health. Such people can only be identified through community groups working with them. The Delhi government must open communication lines with these groups and set up mechanisms to get updates from them even in non-emergency times. Door-to-door ration deliveries should be arranged with WHO guidelines of sanitisation and hygiene in place.

6. Special food and health security must be provided to all sex workers which must include access to essential commodities, health care and an assured income. Sex workers face stigma, exploitation and severe discrimination in hospitals and at the hands of police. The Delhi government must ensure in partnership with CSOs that they are not denied public services. Door-to-door ration deliveries should be arranged with WHO guidelines of sanitisation and hygiene in place.

7. The Delhi government must ensure that food and health security is provided to all transgender persons which must include access to essential commodities, health care and an assured income. Transgender people face violence and severe discrimination in hospitals and at the hands of police. The Delhi government must ensure in partnership with CSOs that they are not denied public services. Door-to-door ration deliveries should be arranged with WHO guidelines of sanitisation and hygiene in place.

8. Provide extra financial and mental health support for families caring for children with disabilities.

9. Delhi has a rural population of almost 2 million (2011 Census data). Lock down provisions must allow women in rural, peri-urban and urban villages of Delhi to access open areas for defecation where necessary in the absence of adequate toilets.  Women must be allowed to fetch water where such access does not exist within households and government must take all steps to assure access to drinking water and for maintaining personal hygiene.  The Union home ministry has exempted agricultural operations by farmers and farm workers in the fields from the Disaster Management Act.  We urge the Delhi government to make clear a statement for such exemption in Delhi so that men and women farmers and farm labour are able to harvest their Rabi crop, and collect fodder for their cattle herds where such fodder is  not provided under the essential services, all of these while maintaining norms of physical distancing and social solidarity. Since most of these rural workers are farm labour or marginal farmers, extending crop insurance and access to economic subsistence resources to tide over the crisis  and  enabling them to bring produce to the mandis through public services must be ensured.  

10. The gender budget for meeting the challenges that women and transpersons face during this health emergency and the lockdown must be announced. The Delhi government must call a meeting of GB experts and identify priorities of all gender and sexual minorities to set aside a budget and feed it into the national economic package for the vulnerable announced by the government.

Further, we endorse the 10 UN Treaty Bodies’ statement that ‘security measures, should be guided by human rights principles and should not, in any circumstances, be an excuse to quash dissent’. Protest sites which are now vacated or graffiti on walls have been removed, defaced or attacked. We condemn this and demand that women’s and transpersons’ right to dissent not be curtailed. The lockdown must NOT produce further morbidity and death of women, transpersons and children. Rather a robust perspective on women’s rights and the rights of gender & sexual minorities must animate state policy on COVID-19 which is inclusive, non-discriminatory, participatory and diverse.

We offer these suggestions without replacing the need for engagement and feedback from all women’s, gender & sexual minorities rights and human rights groups, rather this is a plea that governments engage with marginalised communities and include them decision making and recognise diversity in leadership. We appeal to you to recognise that lockdown outside the framework of health rights, women’s rights and human’s rights has created a mammoth humanitarian crisis that must not be treated only with a framework of policing and punishment. We hope that the Delhi government will take our proposals in a constructive spirit and help the women and gender & sexual minorities in the city in these times of crisis.

Yours,

1. Afreen Faridi, Jawaharlal Nehru University

2. Aishwarya Kothare, Jawaharlal Nehru University

3. Ajita Rao, Women against Sexual violence and State repression (WSS)

4. Amreen Murad, activist

5. Amrita Shodhan, SOAS, University of London

6. Angbin Yasmin, New Delhi

7. Anindya Sinha, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru

8. Anubha Rastogi, Independent Lawyer

9. Anuradha PatI, Development Professional

10.Archana Khetarpal

11.Archana Prasad, Jawaharlal Nehru University

12.Arundhati DhuruPati

13.Arunima N, Jindal Global Law School

14.Ayesha Kidwai, Jawaharlal Nehru University

15.Bidisha Mahanta, Zubaan

16.Brinelle D’souza, TISS

17.Dawood Faisal Jawaharlal Nehru University

18.Debjani, I P College

19.Deepti Bharti, National Federation of Indian Women, Delhi Unit

20.Devanik Saha, Institute of Development Studies

21.Devika, Jawaharlal Nehru University

22.Dolan Samanta, M.phil Research Scholar, Jawaharlal Nehru University

23.Dr Padma Bhate-Deosthali, Senior Advisor CEHAT

24.Dr V Rukmini Rao, Executive Director, Gramya Resource Centre for Women, Telegana

25.Dr. Janaki Abraham, Delhi University

26.Dr. Mira Shiva, Initiative for Health  & Equity in Society

27.Feminists in Resistance

28.Gabriele.D, Pennurimai Iyakkam

29.Gautam Banerjee, Tata Global Beverage

30.Gayatri Nair, IIITD

31.Govind Kelkar, India

32.Harya

33.Health, Ethics and Law Institute, Mumbai-Pune

34.Honey, Ambedkar University Delhi

35.Indira Chandrasekhar, Tulika Books

36.Indira Unninayar, Advocate, Supreme Court & Delhi High Court

37.Ishani Butalia, Zubaan

38.Jagori

39.Jahnvi Andharia

40.Janaki Nair, formerly Professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University

41.Jashodhara Dasgupta, Independent Researcher

42.Jayati Lal, Wake Forest University

43.Jeevika S

44.Jhuma Sen, Jindal Global Law School

45.Johanna Lokhande

46.Julie George, Women’s rights Lawyer

47.Kalyani Menon Sen, Feminist Learning Partnerships

48.Kamla Bhasin,  Social Activist

49.Karuna D.W., Visiting Faculty, Azim Premji University

50.Karuna Menon

51.Kavita Krishnan, All India Progressive Women’s Association, AIPWA

52.Madhavi, Student, Jawaharlal Nehru University

53.Madhu Sahni, Jawaharlal Nehru University

54.Manjari Charitable Trust

55.Maya Sharma

56.Meena Gupta (retired civil servant)

57.Meghna Singh, Zubaan

58.Minar Pimple

59.Nadia Singh, Northumbria University, Newcastle, UK

60.National Domestic Workers Union

61.Navdeep Mathur, IIM Ahmedabad

62.Navpreet Kaur, JDMC, Delhi University.

63.Navsharan Singh

64.Navsharan Singh, Researcher

65.Neeta Hardikar

66.Niharika, Delhi

67.Nitika Khaitan, PUDR

68.P K Vijayan, Hindu College, Delhi University

69.Pallavi Gupta, Researcher

70.Pamela Philipose

71.Parnal Chirmuley, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

72.Pradip Datta, Jawaharlal Nehru University

73.Pratiksha Baxi, CSLG, Jawaharlal Nehru University

74.Priyaleen Singh/SPA Delhi

75.Prof Ritu Dewan, Director & Professor (R), University of Mumbai

76.Professor (Dr.) Manjula Batra, Dean, Faculty of Law, SGT University, Gurugram

77.Putul Sathe

78.Rachana Johri

79.Radhika Radhakrishnan

80.Rajini R Menon, Oxfam India

81.Rakhi Sehgal, New Delhi

82.Richa Jairaj  Independent Researcher

83.RJM Desai, Independent Researcher and Consultant

84.Sagari R Ramdas , Food Sovereignty Alliance, India

85.Saheli, New Delhi

86.Sangeeta Rege CEHAT

87.Sangram Sanstha

88.Sarojini PR

89.Saumya Dadoo, Detention Solidarity Network

90.Shailza, lawyer

91.Shamshad Qasmi

92.Shaunna Rodrigues, Columbia University

93.Sheena Jain, Jamia Millia Islamia (retired)

94.Shewli, Tata Institute of Social Sciences

95.Shweta Vachani, New Delhi

96.Siddhesh Gooptu, Zubaan

97.Smriti Minocha

98.Soma KP, Makaam NFT, Delhi

99.Sonal Kellogg/ Sabfree Foundation

100.Sreekala MG

101.Srinivas

102.Sucharita Sen, Jawaharlal Nehru University

103.Sujata Patel, Indian Institute of Advanced Study

104.Sumi Krishna

105.Suneeta Dhar, Activist

106.Suranjan Sinha, independent researcher, formerly University of Delhi.

107.Swastee Ranjan, University of Sussex

108.Tejaswi Chhatwal, Research Scholar

109.Uma Chakravarti

110.Urvashi Butalia, Zubaan

111.Urvashi Vashist, Nirantar

112.Vanita Mukherjee

113.Vaskar Mech, Jawaharlal Nehru University

114.Venkatachala G Hegde

115.Vibhuti Patel

116.Vikas Rawal, Jawaharlal Nehru University

117.Vimala R

118.Vrinda Grover, Lawyer

Cc: Ms. Swati Mahliwal, The Delhi Commission for Women

Featured

Chemical Sprays vs. Human Rights in Bareilly

Vrinda Grover, Soutik Banerjee, Ayesha Kidwai

On March 30, 2020, the district administration of Bareilly in the state of Uttar Pradesh, admitted that migrant workers, who had made the harsh (often by foot) journeys home following the sudden announcement of a nation-wide lockdown by the Prime Minister on 23rd March, had been sprayed with Sodium Hypochlorite solution (1% conc.) by state personnel. Videos and images showed state personnel wearing hazmat protective suits spraying a group of working-class poor men and women. The UP state officials said that the aim of this chemical spraying was to ‘sanitise’ and ‘disinfect’ the men and women.

As you see the video, these thoughts and questions may come to mind:

In the face of a highly infectious viral pandemic, is the State not justified in adopting all such measures in order to halt the spread of the disease? Since these people may well be infected with the virus, a disinfecting spray would surely protect these workers’ own families, villagers and local people from contracting the coronavirus? Could it possibly not safeguard the migrant workers themselves from infection? Further, since such workers are ordinarily used to hard manual labour, aren’t their bodies and skin so tough that this chemical spray will not harm or hurt them?

You may also think…

Given the huge influx of migrant workers and the lack of resources, in what other way could the administration respond? In a poor country like India, there are no facilities and resources to disinfect each migrant worker properly. States like Kerala (in its Wayanad district) too have sprayed a group of people considered to be possibly infected exactly in the same fashion—is not the outrage against UP officials politically motivated?

In any case these are extraordinary times…

This is a public health crisis that has brought the world to its knees. Is this the time to criticise state administration and officials? Is this the time to talk about lofty ideals of human rights and dignity?

What is this chemical Sodium Hypochlorite, that was sprayed on the migrant labour?

Sodium Hypochlorite (NaOCl) is a well known chemical solution which is most frequently used as a disinfectant for treating biological waste in water treatment plants or for cleaning hard surfaces. It is colloquially referred to as bleach. However, it is known to be corrosive to metals and has severe adverse health effects when exposed to human skin or the eyes.

Dr. Nicole Girotti from the Western University of Canada in 2015 published Guidelines for the use of sodium hypochlorite as a disinfectant for biological waste. As per the guidelines, the appropriate concentration of sodium hypochlorite for disinfecting general liquid biological waste is 5000 ppm, approximately 0.5%. The guidelines state that as per the Global Harmonized System (GHS) classifications, human exposure to Sodium Hypochlorite (0.5% conc.) solution could result in skin irritation, corrosion and eye damage, and if it is inhaled in any quantity it may result in coughing, irritation and vomiting. 

Sodium Hypochlorite is not a disinfectant to be used on humans. The US National Library of Medicine classifies it as a corrosive hazardous material which causes severe damage to the skin, eyes, respiratory tract, lungs, gastric system and even coma in those who are exposed to it by inhalation or ingestion. Further, symptoms of NaOCl poisoning may not manifest themselves immediately and an immediate referral of exposed individuals to medical attention is required.

Chemical spray will not kill the COVID-19 infection

The group of workers in Bareilly, and elsewhere, who were forcibly ‘disinfected’ are the victims of an egregious crime, irrespective of what the State intended to do. No law or regulation legitimises the forcible ‘disinfection’ through exposure to hazardous material and in fact the World Health Organisation has specifically warned against the use of alcohol or chlorine in humans in trying to combat COVID-19.

Chemical spray is a criminal offence

In India, the corrosive nature of Sodium Hypochlorite solution is well known, and beyond 5% concentration it is treated as a poisonous corrosive substance under The Poisons Act, 1919. Sale or possession of Sodium Hypochlorite solution above 5% concentration is outlawed by various states unless a license has been obtained by the seller or purchaser from the State government. 

Look again at the images and the video. All the state personnel are wearing full hazmat protective suits, indicating that they are cognizant of the serious dangers and harm that this chemical spray can cause to their own bodies; yet they have no compunctions about exposing the workers’ bodies to it. Can the actions of the Bareilly administration to spray migrant workers with the same, putting them at potential risk of multiple health hazards, be brushed aside as an overzealous administrative lapse? 

The chemical spray of Sodium Hypochlorite, depending on the concentration of the solution, amounts to various offences under the Indian Penal Code (IPC). A voluntary act by any person which causes disease to another is defined as ‘hurt’ in Section 319 of the IPC and is punishable under Section 323 IPC with imprisonment up to one year. As a rash and negligent act which endangers personal safety of others, it is punishable under Section 336 IPC with imprisonment up to three months. NaOCl as a corrosive substance also makes it amenable to prosecution under Section 324, punishable up to three years. Further, a voluntary act causing disease by means of poison (which includes Sodium Hypochlorite above 5% conc) is punishable under Sections 326 and 328 IPC punishable with imprisonment up to ten years. Under Section 326 A, if the solution is above 5% concentration, it could amount to an acid attack, punishable up to imprisonment for life.

Chemical spray is a constitutional wrong and torture

Watch the video again. In the absence of a single WHO or GoI guideline that recommended the spraying of humans with this chemical disinfectant, why did the Bareilly administration decide that the migrant workers deserved this treatment? Did their unwashed tired bodies and obviously dirty clothes provoke this response? Was the fact that their existence and needs had been summarily overlooked in the Prime Minister’s address and government lockdown announcements make them dispensable and less-than-human everywhere, even in the places that they hail from?  

In terms of our Constitution, the treatment accorded to these workers is a serious breach of the human rights and fundamental right to life. The fact is that the Bareilly administration had no reason to assume that any in this group of workers were possibly infected with COVID-19, as they were not even subjected to a thermal test that indicated a raised temperature. Further, no official informed them of the health hazards of this spurious disinfection, or sought their consent to this procedure, even on the pretext that it would grant them or their families a measure of protection. The Supreme Court has repeatedly asserted that the right to life guaranteed under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution to all persons, places human dignity at its core and the right does not denote a mere animal existence. These acts of the Bareilly administration also wantonly violate the basic code of equality and non-discrimination that Articles 14 and 15 of the Indian Constitution guarantee to all. 

What the migrants have suffered has a name, a description under international human rights law. Article 15(1) of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities, specifically states that medical experimentation on humans without their free consent amounts to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. In order for conduct to amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, it need not involve physical pain and can include acts that cause both physical and mental suffering. Treatment or punishment that humiliates or debases a person, causes fear, anguish or a sense of inferiority, or is capable of possibly breaking moral or physical resistance or driving a person to act against their will or conscience, can be cruel, inhuman or degrading. (Kracke v Mental Health Review Board (2009) 29 VAR 1.The UN Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, to which India is a signatory, also prohibits the State from employing or excusing any cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. This prohibition against torture enjoys the status of a jus cogens norm, which means that a State cannot claim any exemption or derogation from this fundamental prohibition under any circumstances. Therefore, even while combating the spread of COVID-19 through a lockdown, the State cannot commit, allow or excuse any acts that are tantamount to torture.

What about the spray on men by police in Kerala?

It has now been confirmed by district officials in Wayanad that no chemicals were sprayed there, instead a soap and water solution had been sprayed on people traveling to Wayanad. This happened more than a week ago and has been discontinued. There was thus no chemical spray on humans in Kerala to combat the spread of coronavirus.

What should have been done?

The orders passed in the State of Uttar Pradesh, as clarified by the District Magistrate of Bareilly, included spraying of disinfectants on buses to clean and purify them to prevent the spread of the virus. It is now contended that the orders were misunderstood and the migrant workers were sprayed. 

No government circular recommends disinfestation of individuals who are suspected to be infected with COVID-19. To detect and combat possible Coronavirus spread the district administration could perhaps have discharged its duty by -: 

  • checking the body temperature of the migrant workers through thermal scans
  • setting up mobile bathrooms and supplying soap and water for bath
  • give a set of clean clothes for them to wear after bath
  • providing hand sanitizers if deemed necessary
  • doctors doing a medical checkup if symptoms show and providing medical treatment, etc. to anyone needing it

These are cost effective, doable solutions and medically acknowledged to be successful. 

What now?

What we have witnessed in Bareilly is therefore not simply a well meaning but misplaced determination to erase the potential of contagion but a grave breach of the law and constitution. The victims of the chemical spray must immediately be provided with:

  • Proper medical treatment free of cost
  • Compensation for cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment
  • Public apology by concerned district administration / State officials

Even in times of COVID19 lockdown, it is imperative to uphold human dignity at every step of fighting the coronavirus, otherwise the virus will end up not only causing damage medically, but also sharpening division and discrimination.  

As the country confronts a difficult, uncertain public health crisis there is an urgent need for Guidelines, protocols and Standard Operating Procedures that inform all state officials, personnel and the district administration across the country, how to perform their duties and discharge their respective roles. State functionaries giving illegal orders and those committing crimes will be culpable and liable.

Mutual trust and respect between the state and peoples will go a long way in tackling this public health crisis. Even in times of COVID19 lockdown the right to dignity, equality and non-discrimination of all citizens under the Indian Constitution must remain alive and singing.