Violence Against Police Enforcing Lockdown After Rules Tightened in Assam

After scores of people flouted social distancing rules, the government closed down market places on Friday.

Guwahati: On Saturday, there were reports of violence against the police in Assam on account of the nationwide lockdown. In the late hours of Friday night, a policeman was injured by a mob at Chapor in Dhubri district. In Bongaigaon district, a mob pelted stones at the police. The police fired in the air to disperse the crowd.

The two incidents occurred when people wanted to open shops for buyers to get access to essential food items. Chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal said such instances cannot be tolerated.

On Friday, images of scores of people flocking to designated places in and around the city to get a hold of fresh vegetables, in complete violation of the lockdown, resulted in Sonowal immediately ordering the closure of such spots. He asked the people of Assam to exercise restraint.

With the closure of designated spots, Sonowal said alternatives will be provided soon to make vegetables accessible.

A visibly distressed Sonowal, while addressing the media in Jorhat district, expressed shock and surprise at the flouting of lockdown norms, and said that he was sad as both the state and the Central government were trying hard to put curbs to stop the spread of COVID-19. He then ordered senior officials and bureaucrats of his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led-state government to issue ‘alternatives’ for people to get a hold of fresh vegetables. Among such ‘alternatives’ will be delivering perishable food items, especially vegetables, via mobile vans at localities in and around the city’s 31 municipal wards.

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On March 26 the Kamrup (metro) district administration had issued an order that in view of the scarcity of vegetables, the Food, Civil Supplies and Consumer Affairs Department of the state government has arranged for vegetables to be sold at seven designated points in and around the city, but with the condition that people maintain social distancing.

But in the morning of March 27 (Friday), scores of eager buyers who were under lockdown for two days gathered at the designated points in hordes. Images circulated on social media platforms and on local television channels showed people openly flouting norms. Social media commentators along with television reporters while reporting from the designated spots said people were shopping as if nothing were happening and it was like just a ‘regular’ day.

“I am quite disheartened that despite widespread appeal not to venture and maintain social distancing it was seen that people came out to buy essential items in total disregard of guidelines. I never expected that people will behave in such a manner. So, in view what happened today I am ordering all marketplaces in Assam to be shut until further orders. We will set up special monitor cells. We will also be planning so that essentials items like vegetables may be delivered at doorsteps. People need not venture out during the lockdown,” said Sonowal.

After what Sonowal ordered on Friday, local television news aired footage of what the chief minister had said on March 26 in Tezpur, that “fruit and vegetable shops will remain open”. Local media blamed Sonowal for the confusion, saying that’s why people flouted the lockdown.

The state media also held food and civil supplies minister Phani Bhushan Choudhury responsible for the confusion.

Chief secretary Kumar Sanjay Krishnan, in view of the total disregard for lockdown guidelines, said, “We will look into how so many people openly flouted lockdown norms while venturing out to buy vegetables and how this could happen. From today, every market will be closed. Only grocery and pharmacy shops will remain open. We will make arrangements so that vegetables are made available at grocery shops. We will instruct the deputy commissioners so that vegetables can be delivered to people in vans. We will also ensure that all meat and fishmongers’ stalls will remain shut until further notice.”

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Assam so far has not reported a single COVID-19 case, but the administrative machinery has rolled in measures to meet any challenges. On Friday, state health minister Himanta Biswa Sarma announced that the state-run Gauhati Medical College Hospital (GMCH) will remain shut from March 28 except for cancer and emergency services to make reservations for COVID-19 cases. The same may be done for the remaining five other medical college cum hospitals in Assam in the next couple of days. Around 620 final-year medical students will also be roped in and given intensive medical training on COVID-19 and the infections emanating from it.

The Nehru and Sarusajai stadiums in the city have been transformed into quarantine facilities with 1,000 beds each. A district hospital located at the outskirts of the city at Sonapur has been turned into a COVID-19 facility with 200 beds. It should be noted that early this week, the eye hospital at GMCH was evacuated to convert it into a COVID-19 facility.

“We have signed a MoU with three nursing homes in the city so that regular patients may be diverted to these nursing homes. We are also in touch with a private building firm to build a special hospital for COVID-19 cases. The quarantine facilities at the stadiums will be open quite soon. Even we don’t have any positive COVID-19 cases we have taken measures to meet out the challenges,” said Sarma.