Without a voice, are our cops left to die as unsung heroes?

Updated: May 18, 2020, 07:37 IST | Dharmendra Jore | Mumbai

The morale of the force is at an all-time low; the senior officers on the field are contemplating early retirement

File pic
File pic

Dharmendra JoreThe police quarters opposite my residential complex, housing over a hundred personnel, mostly officers of the beginner rank, lost its charm a month ago as the news of frontline law enforcers contracting the novel Coronavirus started trickling in.

It once buzzed with families and children who went to schools with our kids. Now they are nowhere to be seen. In fact, the residents of my complex who are mostly journalists and police families, have been sailing in the same boat because the family heads have been out in the field. The press persons have been reporting the pandemic while the police officers have been doing everything that they are asked to safeguard people. The media persons contracted the virus but most of them have recovered. The police personnel have not been so fortunate. The force has reported several deaths. Hundreds have been infected across the state and their number is expected to grow further. The morale of the force doesn't seem to be as high as it was when they first stepped out to fight novel Coronavirus.

Why serve any longer?
I reported on March 28 in mid-day, that the most vulnerable after medics treating the COVID-19 outbreak were the police personnel, who were the first line of defence against the pandemic with little protection for themselves. Several police constables and lower level officers from Mumbai told me that they faced a shortage of sanitisers, face masks and hand gloves because the fund allotted to their police stations was meagre. The personnel suffering from acute hypertension, diabetes and respiratory problems were exposing themselves to unknown contacts in the unruly people they were asked to control. Anxiety was at its peak among staff and their families.

The anxiety has now reached its zenith. I am told the officers of the senior inspector and assistance commissioner/deputy superintendent ranks feel that their lives are insecure because they are in the high-risk age group of above 55 years. Gruelling long years of service have made them prone to diseases that welcome the novel Coronavirus with open arms. The constabulary in this age group has been asked to stay away from pandemic duty. But the officers in commanding positions can't leave operations. The buzz in Mumbai police is that many officers of the vulnerable ranks are contemplating early retirement. "Why should I continue to serve with no guarantee of life? I would rather take pension and stay safe," an officer told me.

The senior officers can surely afford to quit. But what about the juniors like 32-year-old Amol Kulkarni, an assistant police inspector, who had a promising career ahead of him? Kulkarni, the youngest among the uniformed victims, passed away Saturday because of COVID-19. He was posted at Shahu Nagar in Dharavi's Coronavirus hotspot. A total of 11 police officials have died in Maharashtra so far due to COVID-19, of which 8 are from Mumbai. By Saturday, 1,140 personnel, including 1,020 constables and 120 officers had tested positive. According to information, 268 police personnel have recovered. The constables and low-ranking officers cannot think of resigning. They would rather die expecting the post-death perks to benefit their families, said a sub-inspector. "Even if we quit, where will we get jobs in the economic crisis that we foresee? We have engineers, science and technology postgraduates among the officers and our young constables are also graduates. The old lot maybe somewhat relieved because they have been sent on leave, but they advise us to be careful on duty," said another officer.

Sinking morale
Of all frontline COVID-19 warriors, the police force has been under more physical and mental duress. They have been protecting us without being protected themselves. They have been abused and attacked. They were accused of excesses in the initial phases. But did they do it on their own? They had taken a cue from the state's home minister Anil Deshmukh, who while giving a television interview, called an accompanying guard to wield his cane on screen. "I have told the policemen to oil their lathis (to control the unruly)," the minister said. However, after a couple of days the police force was asked to stop using force on the 'unruly' people. The fear of criticism of police raj and subsequent adoption of mild ways is being debated in the police force. The proponents of using the force wherever needed, argue that creating a fear factor in the people who did not respect the COVID-19 guidelines, have blamed their political bosses and top brass. Maybe it was the dire need of creating a much-needed fear factor that the state government thought of calling in more paramilitary companies to the state hotspots and in Mumbai where the cases are higher than in any part of the country.

The police say the society and politicians have always been discriminatory towards them. The observation seems fairly reasonable. Police presence is demanded for executing jobs that don't fit their profile and training. The administration relies a lot on the power of the uniform to handle things, but it doesn't think much of protecting the persons in uniform. While other employees of the state and Centre can raise their voice, the police personnel don't have a mechanism to officially express their concerns. Service rules bar the police from trade unionism while other employees have been protesting pay cuts, delayed salaries and demanding perks and protection as part of the pandemic mitigation tool. Other frontline warriors, the BEST drivers and the support staff in civic hospitals have started pressuring the government through their trade unions for their demands. What should the men and women in uniform do? Die unsung heroes as their families worry back home?
Late API Amol Kulkarni knew what was coming. He wrote a Facebook post 44 days before COVID-19 caused his untimely death, "Some gave Rs 5 crore. Some gave R500 crore. We are giving our life…" The silence at the police quarters is still deafening.

Dharmendra Jore is political editor, mid-day. He tweets @dharmendrajore Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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