In April 2020, a video on the internet showed a police inspector overturning the handcarts of vegetable vendors and beating them, another video from mid-January this year, featured a sub-inspector beating a woman hawker with a baton. In both of these incidents (representative of numerous other such instances across the nation) which happened in Gujarat, the perpetrators of violence said that people without masks and absence of physical distancing angered them. Whether the victims in these cases were compensated for their loss and trauma, is a question that remains unanswered and uncared for.
Cut to July 2, 2021, where an affidavit submitted by the Gujarat government in the Gujarat High Court with reference to a PIL shows that the state authorities collected Rs. 252 crore from 37.42 lakh people for not wearing masks, Times of India reported.
The above-mentioned fine amount was collected from June 24, 2020, till June 28 2021 and the capital city of Ahmedabad with 6.63 lakh cases had the highest COVID mask violations incidents and subsequently the highest collection of fines at Rs. 53.21 crore. The state capital is followed by Rajkot where Rs 25.12 crore was collected as a fine by the police.
When the novel coronavirus hit the world, limiting human-to-human physical interactions and the use of masks proved to be highly efficient in the control of virus spread globally but its implementation given the socio-economic realities of India, health experts predicted was bound to be difficult.
According to The Economic Survey of 2018-2019, almost 93% of the total Indian workforce is a part of the unorganized sector whereas NITI Aayog in 2018 placed the numbers at 85%. This means that the majority of the Indians work in the unorganized sectors notorious for poor working conditions, meagre wages which often translate into no savings, and an absence of a security net that people working in the organized sector have. What this means is that daily wage earners including street vendors and hawkers and other informal labourers cannot afford to not go to work, that is if they find work.
The Selective ‘Concern’ of Gujarat Government
‘But the state cares for our collective health safety hence the fines!’ Why is it then, that the sanitation workers and community health workers have been working even during the peak of the pandemic without proper protective gear?
All throughout the pandemic, the people in Gujarat faced the horror of seeing their loved ones die waiting in lines to get admission in hospitals or to procure medicines and oxygen cylinders amid an acute shortage of hospital beds and medical oxygen all to the credit of the state government’s lack of any strategy to manage and mitigate the health crisis. The state government’s handling of the situation worsened to an extent where the Gujarat High Court had to take suo moto cognizance as the state headed “towards a health emergency of sorts”.
When we juxtapose the emphasis of the Gujarat state government on imposing fines on the common people for not wearing masks etc to prevent COVID19 from spreading to its efforts at fudging COVID19 related data to escape accountability and mismanagement (no management would define its role during the crisis better) even as people continued to pay for it with their lives, we realise that the well-being of the masses and mitigation of the crisis rarely was its primary concern.
Government Fine Makes a Mockery of the Working-Class
The affidavit also mentions that between March 25, 2020, and June 28, 2021, the Gujarat police distributed 57.45 lakh masks to offenders. But what happens when the masks can’t be used anymore and one does not have the means to buy a new one? Is there any mechanism in place where this issue is addressed by the state which apparently deeply ‘cares’ for masking? What does the state government plan to do with the amount collected as fines?
An important disclaimer at this point must be given that asking people to mask up and maintain physical distancing per se is not being questioned here rather the high fines imposed on those who do not enjoy the luxury of working from home. The fines in place make a mockery of the poor working-class people who have been failed consistently by the state as they struggle for shelter, food, and even basic healthcare.
Along with the fines collected by the state police for mask violations, it also received around Rs 101 crore as fines for curfew violations in a year. On average, Rs 1 crore fine was collected every day for offenses of not wearing a mask and venturing out during curfew hours.
Gujarat government isn’t alone in collecting an exorbitant amount of money from the public as fines for violation of COVID19 protocols. Governments in Kerala, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Delhi, and Uttar Pradesh to name a few, have been charging heavy fines on ‘violators’.
Even though Hindu religious congregations and endless political rallies many of which were led by PM Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah, maskless of course, amidst the peak of the deadly second wave of the pandemic were allowed to continue as if some mysterious (and definitely unscientific) principle would safeguard these gatherings from being infected by the virus. To none’s surprise, no fines were imposed.