Government

In Bareilly, Returning Migrant Workers Showered With Disinfectant on the Road

Amidst concern that bleach could have been used, District Magistrate Nitish Kumar has said it was misinterpretation of an order to hose down buses.

New Delhi: Reports of the Uttar Pradesh administration spraying migrant labourers returning to Bareilly with an ‘open bath’ of some chemicals, ostensibly to disinfect them, have sparked outrage.

Kanwardeep Singh, a journalist, tweeted short clips of migrant labourers and their families sitting hunched by the side of a barricaded road while officials in white protective gowns are seen spraying a liquid on them.

Many also commented that while the migrant labourers, forced to return to their hometowns after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a complete nationwide lockdown with four hours’ notice on March 24, are being denied their dignity, richer people who arrived through airports and likelier to have had the new coronavirus thanks to international travel were spared this treatment and in many cases even the requisite quarantining measures.

Another journalist, Alok Pandey, tweeted a clip shortly after of an interview with the Chief Fire Officer Chandra Mohan Sharma, who said they typically used sodium hypochlorite, also known as liquid bleach, to disinfect inanimate objects like the chassis of public transport vehicles, railings, etc.

The fire officer’s words has prompted concerns about whether the migrants were in fact sprayed with sodium hypochlorite as well. After the incident, several migrants, including women and children, complained of burning sensation in their eyes, PTI reported. Bleach is known to have this effect.

Also read: As Migrants Trudge Out of India’s Cities, the Stark Realities of Migration Stand Exposed

The Hindu reported that the nodal officer in charge of Bareilly’s COVID-19 response, Ashok Gautam, said the migrants had been showered with “sanitiser, chlorine mixed with water” and that “it was not a chemical solution”.

However, this is an odd statement considering the label of ‘chemical’ is quite vague and could in fact be applied to any compound, organic or inorganic.

Interestingly, the same report in The Hindu quoted a medical officer named Ashutosh Parashari saying that sodium hypochlorite solution was indeed sprayed on the migrants, and that”it does not have such hazards… that’s why it was used.”

This is also at odds with known facts about bleach. Both sodium hypochlorite and calcium hypochlorite – another bleaching material used commonly in powder form – break down in contact with water and release chlorine, an extremely reactive element.

This chlorine can cause a burning sensation in the eyes, inside and around the mouth, and on the skin. In higher concentrations, when it is more likely to be effective at eliminating the virus from the skin, chlorine can even cause burns and damage eyesight.

Bareilly district magistrate Nitish Kumar however admitted the act was a mistake and attributed it to “overactive” civic-body personnel and said action would be taken against them.

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He also indicated there was a communication gap and that the original order had been to sanitise the bus carrying the labourers, not the labourers themselves, and that the labourers are “being treated under the supervision of the chief medical officer”.

It also remains to be seen whether once the labourers reach their respective destinations, the government will continue to ensure they have access to soap or sanitisers, running water, clean living spaces and means to support themselves financially.