The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare on Monday said that the incident of road disinfectant being sprayed on returning migrant workers in Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh was “an overzealous employee acting out of fear or ignorance”. A video showed two people dressed in full protective gear spraying a group, including children, who were squatting on the road.
The health ministry, in its Monday briefing on the coronavirus outbreak in the country, said that action has been taken “at the highest level” after the incident came to light.
Ashok Gautam, the nodal officer in charge of the Covid-19 mitigation group, had said earlier in the day that the migrants were sprayed with chlorine-mixed water, the Hindustan Times reported. However, he added that this step was necessary to contain the spread of Covid-19. “We tried to keep them safe and asked them to shut their eyes,” Gautam said. “It’s natural they will get wet.”
In the video, a man can be heard yelling to the migrants to turn around and close their eyes, even as the disinfectant is sprayed on the crowd again from the other side.
Bareilly Chief Fire Officer KN Yadav, in a video tweeted by a reporter from NDTV, said that the sanitisation programme is being carried out by the fire brigade using sodium hypochlorite – the chemical name for bleach.
In Lucknow, Additional Chief Secretary (Information) Awanish Awasthi claimed that such measures are allowed across the world but the eyes of people being sprayed were kept closed, PTI reported. He, however, said that the manner in which the migrant workers were sprayed on was wrong.
The Bareilly district administration has ordered an inquiry into the incident. District Magistrate Nitish Kumar said some officials may have “crossed the line”. “We have looked into the video,” he said. Teams of Bareilly Nagar Nigam [civic body] and fire brigade were asked to sanitise buses. But they went overboard. We have ordered action against the concerned people. Those affected are being treated under the guidance of Chief Minister’s Office.”
Opposition leaders expressed outrage over the incident and accused the Uttar Pradesh government of treating migrants in an inhuman manner. Bahujan Samajwadi chief Mayawati said it was cruel and inhuman to punish the migrants who have already suffered so much because of the lockdown. Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi Vadra said “bathing” the migrant workers with chemicals will be hazardous for their health. “The labourers have already suffered a lot,” she said in a tweet in Hindi. “Don’t make them bathe with chemicals like this. This will not protect them but will create more problems for their health.”
Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav asked if the authorities made arrangements for the people to change out of wet clothes. “What arrangements were there for people to change out of wet clothes?” he asked. “What alternatives are being provided for the food that gets wet due to the spraying?”
Over 25,000 migrant workers from other cities have arrived in Bareilly so far, an unidentified administration official said.
At least 1,071 people have been infected with the coronavirus in India so far, and 29 have died, according to the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi had on March 24 announced that a three-week lockdown would come into effect from the following day. After this, thousands of migrant workers had started returning to their native places, some even on foot, in several parts of the country. On Sunday, the Centre banned interstate and intercity movement to prevent spreading of Covid-19 due to the movements of masses of migrants.