KO File Pic: Abid Bhat
As the world is gradually reopening after being left paralytic by the pandemic, many stranded Kashmiris are finally heading home after braving the traveller’s nightmare only to land in the ‘horror houses’ back home. While authorities are admitting lapses, many are now throwing their weight behind home quarantine for the fear of administrative ‘breeding grounds’.
FOUZIA and her husband Basheer Ahmad lived the life of nomadic merchants in West Bengal, where her husband would sell shawls and clothing embroidered with Kashmiri artistry to earn a few rupees for sustenance. Their travels in the land of the roshogolla was the sole means of their daily bread but the announcement of the Covid-19 lockdown on March 24 brought their livelihood to an abrupt halt.
Such was the fate of many Kashmiris who had departed from their homeland in search of a ‘better something’ but were now increasingly anxious to figure their way back to their families.
After several weeks of hardships and agony – some of which was well documented by the news media, the government of India decided to allow the interstate travel of migrant workers on April 29 by running special ‘Shramik’ trains.
As the voices of dissent grew louder and angrier, on May 15, this provision was also extended to privileged professionals, who then began to jubilantly book their flight/train tickets back home.
The merchant couple was also elated when the news of the re-commencement of interstate travel reached their ears. They set themselves for their journey to Srinagar on May 27 in hope of meeting their loved ones in the backdrop of the contagion.
However, even after two months since their enforced grounding, on reaching Srinagar the couple was unwillingly exacted to be in the company of an alien called ‘quarantine’, which seemed more nightmarish than the period they had survived without income and answers.
A term unbeknown to many, ‘quarantine’ was seldom used pre-Covid times but the weight of its implementation in the valley has shaken the foundation of the skewed Kashmiri ‘normal’. The burden of its enactment has descended upon the population like an avalanche of unpleasantness while it was already reeling under the boots of a tight security clampdown.
To the natives of the juxtaposed valley – famed for its natural cosmetics and historic human tragedies, the double lockdown is stupefying. But ready to bear the horror, Fouzia and Basheer had taken the Rajdhani Express to Jammu.
Upon reaching the terminal station, Fouzia and her husband were tested for the virus and fortunately for them, both of their results were negative. “Soon after, we (travellers) were packed in a passenger cab by the authorities and taken to Srinagar,” she said while speaking to Kashmir Observer.
“That was the worst journey of my life,” Malik Nisar said. “As if the fear of the virus wasn’t already enough, the appointed driver drove like a madman scaring everyone to death,” he added.
Malik Nisar, a Kashmiri journalist who had been previously stranded in Bengaluru, had to grapple with the administrative incompetencies when he was making frantic efforts to reach his home in Baramulla.
On May 14, the journo was summoned by the authorities at the Baiyappanahalli Police Station after he had registered himself on an official link that was collecting data from Kashmiris who were stranded in the silicon city of India.
“We have a WhatsApp group called Kashmiris in Bengaluru and my friend sent the official link on the chat for people like me to register. After submitting my details through the link, the officials told me that I would be leaving for Kashmir on the 12th of May but their inefficiencies led to us leaving the city on May 14,” he detailed.
The Kashmiris registered with the station were taken to the railway centre in a state transport bus at noon, but owing to miscommunication within government departments, the hopeful travellers were left waiting till 7 pm. “Additionally, since all of us were fasting for Ramzan, the wait was torturous,” he said.
His train was packed with the natives of Jammu, Kashmir, and Ladakh. There were families, labourers, students, and professionals in the train taking the total headcount to 1200.
According to Nisar, water was the only essential regularly provided as meals were unfulfilling and scarce.
“Throughout our three-day journey, starting May 14 at 10 pm, we were provided with two meals of dal-chawal, a meal of potato chips and a banana, a meal of two rotis with jam as an accompaniment, and nothing more,” he said.
His train’s terminal point was at Udhampur, where all the passengers were asked to deboard with a packet of dal-chawal at 12 am. “We were screened for Covid-19 at Udhampur and made to go to the booths that were set up at the station for every district within the regions Jammu, Kashmir, and Ladakh.”
Social distancing was very strictly implemented when the passengers lined up in front of their booths but what perplexed them was the sheer brazenness with which they were later packed up as cattle in buses and sent to their respective districts.
Furqan Khurshid, a professional photographer who boarded a flight from New Delhi to Srinagar on June 1, also complained about the lack of awareness on the part of the authorities who were mixing international travellers amongst his class of travellers in the buses that were taking them to their districts.
“From the airport we were taken to the Tourist Reception Centre (TRC). We were made to sit in an old state transportation bus and mixed up entirely. Sitting on the seat next to me, was a woman from Iran and we all know how badly hit Iran was,” he said.
Furqan’s flight was delayed by five hours whereas he was asked to report to the airport four hours prior to the flight’s time by the airline.
“There was no social distancing at the airport either. Even while we were given masks and sanitisers while boarding the flight, the seats were fully occupied,” he added.
Similar to the process followed at the train stations, the airport authorities had also placed booths for every district.
“My Aadhar card details were asked when we were on the runway, after which I was given a slip with a unique number. At the exit gate, I had to submit my slip where a healthcare worker took my (nasal) swab. As I proceeded further, I was asked to go to my district’s booth and register with all of my personal details. I remember that there were eight categories for people’s quarantine preferences – pregnant women was one of them,” Furqan recollected.
Simpletons like Fouzia and Basheer didn’t know at first what the authorities meant by ‘quarantine’.
From Jammu, they were taken to an orphanage in Srinagar that had been converted into a quarantine centre on an ad-hoc basis.
On their first day at the centre, after consuming an ice cream scoop, Fouzia let out a sneeze, sending shockwaves throughout the facility. She was hurriedly tested again with the husband and the result appeared to be positive for her and negative for him.
They were immediately separated and she was taken to Jawahar Lal Nehru Memorial (JLNM) Hospital in Rainawari, Srinagar.
“The ward at the hospital looked like a dungeon. No one came to see me for three days. I was just isolated in a room that looked haunted. On the fourth day, a doctor came in and just handed over a prescription and left,” Fouzia bitterly remembered.
Her husband was tested for the third time after their separation. “His results were again negative but in spite of that, he was taken to the S P College hostel and kept there,” she added.
However, every traveller did not have to deal with administration-induced anxiety.
Furqan Khurshid opted for a ‘paid quarantine facility’ for Rs 600 per night at the Hotel New Suriya when he was given the choice between the former and the J&K administration’s facility.
His Covid-19 report came within a day’s time. “Thankfully, I had tested negative for the virus and I was allowed to leave the hotel immediately,” he said. As per him, his day-long stay was comfortable and effortless.
But his co-traveller, Waris-ul-Anwar had another story to tell.
A PhD scholar, Waris opted for the administrative quarantine. From the district counters at the airport, he was taken to St. Joseph’s Higher Secondary School in Baramulla, in a state-owned bus. The school had been converted into a quarantine facility and was free of cost for those who chose it over the paid facilities.
“The rooms we were given to share amongst ourselves didn’t look sanitised. When we complained to the ones in-charge there, they sent two men into our rooms to sprinkle some water,” he said.
He mentioned that the quarantine facility was crowded and he was desperate to leave it as soon as he came in. The fear shared by all the inmates was of ironically contracting the virus in the facility.
“Even if we came in without the virus in our bodies, the conditions of the facility were such that we were very scared of catching the disease there,” Waris remarked.
The washrooms were not clean and the food was badly prepared. Despite knowing that the temperature in the area was at a chilling low, the authorities had made no provision for proper bedding. The inmates were asked to call their homes for blankets if they needed them at night.
“But it was already late and it was not proper to trouble our families at that hour. After consistent complaints, the officials gave us a thin excuse for a blanket and we couldn’t sleep due to the cold. We were exhausted from the trip, but it was impossible to sleep,” Waris said.
Even though the couple had to struggle with apathetic red tapism for knowing their own fate, Waris-ul-Anwar managed his way out of the dreadful centre through some ‘pull’.
“We had finished spending a day there but there was no sign of our reports. Luckily, someone quarantined at the facility had some pull with the airport officials and managed to procure our results through a PDF file from the sampling centre. The report said that we had tested negative. We showed the same to the officials and were given our release orders,” he added.
Unfortunately, Nisar did not have the luck of Waris. He spent five ‘awful’ days in the quarantine facility erected inside Delhi Public School in Delina. He told Kashmir Observer that the washrooms were dirty and the food was scanty with a foul smell.
“I called the Nodal Officer and expressed our grievances over the bad quality of food. We asked him to help us out but he sounded callous. When I told him that we will protest over his inaction, he threatened to have me imprisoned there for 21 days,” Nisar said.
Later that night, the inmates enjoyed a meal of chicken and Nisar believes that his call to the officer helped. He spent his time in the quarantine centre with little food for iftar.
Apart from that one night of chicken curry, they were served dal-chawal everyday for the five days that he spent there. The only solace was that the food did not smell bad anymore.
With his eye for suspicious events by the virtue of his profession, Nisar noticed that while he and his inmates hadn’t been provided any masks or sanitisers in Delina, the administration was publicly claiming that it is incurring the cost of Rs 1500 per head in quarantining them.
“Where is the money going? We received no item of protection. Our food was terrible and the washrooms were dirty. How can the cost per head be Rs 1500 when even the basics are not being provided?” he asked assertively.
The Helm Of Affairs
Dr Imtiyaz Banday, the Nodal Officer at Beerwah’s quarantine centre told Kashmir Observer that the health infrastructure is dealing with a demand it was never prepared for.
“We are being told that 10 people are coming to our facility when 200 arrive. That is the state of affairs. It is utter chaos,” he said in a tired tone.
The Nodal Officer told us that on June 8, around 38 people tested positive for Covid-19 but the Beerwah authorities had no place for them.
When asked about the grievances at the quarantine centres he was quick to inform us that these were not the undertaking of the healthcare workers and were the problems of the administration.
“We are responsible for providing healthcare, conducting samples, and preparing reports for the people. The issues of the food, washrooms, cleanliness, is not our call to take and don’t come under our purview,” the doctor maintained.
Even hotelier, Irfan Khan, who runs the Hotel New Suriya told Kashmir Observer that his staff had left no stone unturned in making the stay of the travellers comfortable.
However, he has been in the wait of answers from the administration over his hotel’s use as a quarantine facility.
“From May 15, the administration has been sending people over to our hotel for social isolation. The entire period from May 15 to June 1, our hotel worked without charging the guests as the authorities had assured us payment. Since June 2, we set up a counter at the TRC and have been collecting the service fees over the counter but the period preceding that remains unpaid for,” he rued.
Noting that the hotel industry is under severe strain due to the pandemic, Irfan Khan and his contemporaries are waiting for some clarity over the payment of the dues from the J&K administration.
When these issues were listed to Kashmir Divisional Commissioner PK Pole, he said that his officers were aware of the conditions in the quarantine centres but were doing their best.
“The facilities are not going to have the comforts of their homes,” DivCom Pole told Kashmir Observer. “That must be understood by the people. We have never dealt with a situation like this before and we are doing our very best.”
He said that the administration was working to build a ‘Covid-19 Care Centre’ with a capacity of 8000 beds. “Even if the situation gets 5 times worse, we will be able to cope up as Kashmir’s total bed capacity will be 10,000,” he stated.
“We must understand that the testing rates in Kashmir are the highest. Out of the 65 lakh population, 98,900 residents have been tested in addition to 36,000 returnees. So, our testing rate is almost 20,000 per million people – the highest in India. Hence, the numbers here are increasing,” he said.
Problems Remain Unsolved
Waris remembers how he had to unplug the overhead fan to charge his phone at the quarantine centre, at the expense of angering his roommates. There was apparently no source to charge their mobile phones which made it impossible for some to connect with their families to pick them up after receiving their release orders.
“The process followed throughout our journey from our previous settlement to our home seemed as though the authorities were trying to get us to catch the illness,” Waris said.
The rest agreed stating that the facility, its maintenance, and their treatment was so abominable, that they had to prepare themselves in case they contracted the virus at the very centre meant to protect them.
Apart from these woes, Fouzia and Basheer’s experience compelled them to believe that the harassment they had to face under the garb of ‘quarantining’ them was nothing but a ‘subtle manifestation of the PSA.’
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