For Shamli's New DM, the Challenge of Managing COVID-19 Spread in a Polarised District

"It’s once in a lifetime that people see a pandemic like this, so initially it was a challenge," says Jasjit Kaur.

Shamli (Uttar Pradesh): It isn’t every day that a comb and a bottle of hair oil become the defining image of a person or place. But these are not normal times. And in the office of the district magistrate of Shamli, piled up in white squares, right in front of the magistrate’s chamber, were COVID-19 relief boxes, which upon opening revealed quite a lot about the place and the person in charge.

There was a hand towel, a small tube of toothpaste and a brush, hair oil, a comb, sachets of shampoo and soaps. There were also separate kits for women and snack boxes for children containing tetra-packs of juice and an assortment of chocolates. Also, neatly stacked behind the magistrate’s chair – carrom boards and strikers.

COVID-19 relief kits distributed by the Shamli district magistrate. Photo: Revati Laul

Jasjit Kaur took over as the district magistrate at the end of February, just a month before India went into lockdown. She is the first women to be put in charge of the district ever since it was carved out of Muzaffarnagar in Western UP in the year 2011.

Shamli has been the epicentre of communal violence in 2013 and this raised its head once again during the four successive lockdowns, where Muslims were spoken of as ‘COVID-19 spreaders’. It’s also a place where polarisation and chauvinism combine, highlighted most obviously by the district’s skewed sex ratio – or number of women to every thousand men. In Shamli this is lower than the rest of Uttar Pradesh – 878 women per 1,000 men – while the UP average is 912. This is still way below the national average of 940.

The district’s literacy rate is also abysmally low – at 53.89%.  These numbers make it easier to understand why, even after four lockdowns, the people of Shamli observed next to no social distancing or safety measures. More men wore masks than women, but they mostly had them hanging around their chins as ornaments, instead of around their noses and mouths.

What appears on the surface may seem like a straightforward story of a woman battling many odds – patriarchy and polarisation along with a pandemic. But two extended telephonic interviews and plenty of time on the ground in Shamli has established one thing firmly – nothing moves in straight lines.

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Excerpts from interviews with Jasjit Kaur

You took over at a time when a crisis was hitting. And Shamli is a very patriarchal space. I came to Shamli on May 1, I saw how everyone was out on the streets in close proximity. How have you been dealing with this?

Shamli is basically an agrarian society. People work in the fields, so they are of the opinion that nothing can happen to them. So it’s still very difficult to make people feel that COVID-19 can happen to them. There have been many relaxations since lockdown 4.0 and you see people moving around. So we’ve decided to set a very heavy fine for people because we can see that people don’t want to wear masks.

Unlike in Agra or Meerut where there was an explosion of cases that led to some fear being built about the coronavirus, that fear hasn’t set in here. Slowly cases increased and then they decreased and now they’re rising again. There are 11 at present. The last four cases have been of migrant workers that came in from Mumbai. But there is still no real fear of the virus so that is a challenge. But maybe with time some understanding of the virus will seep in.

Jasjit Kaur. Courtesy: DM’s office, Shamli

You joined at the end of February and COVID-19 started becoming a full-blown crisis in March. Can you explain the challenges you faced and whether being a woman in charge in a mofussil town was a factor or not?

There was no special challenge being a woman as such but because this was my first posting and the COVID-19 challenge just happened, it’s once in a lifetime that people see a pandemic like this, so initially it was a challenge.

In Shamli, we do not have a district hospital. It is under construction. There was a tiny hospital running in a small place and resources were strained as was the equipment. So we made a small isolation centre there, of five beds. And at that time, money for a hospital was not sanctioned. It got recently sanctioned – Rs 5.5 crore. So we can begin work on it. So we made arrangements in this new hospital building. We converted a section into a 100 bed quarantine centre. Lots of people came to help when we put out word that there was a lack of financial resources. I started a bank account were people could make donations.

There is also the question of asserting yourself. Like the time in early May when the Haryana government suddenly sent in busloads of migrants and overnight there were 4,000 of them.

In this case, Haryana had decided on two dates when they were going to send in workers. And they started two days earlier. So initially we did have a problem. I had to report to my authorities in Lucknow to say we can’t do this because we don’t have a single UP state transport bus in Shamli. If people are sent here in transit, I have to make a demand for buses. We have to order them from Muzaffarnagar or Saharanpur.

So I did talk to a few district collectors in Haryana. And I spoke with my seniors in Lucknow (the Uttar Pradesh state capital) to say that busloads of people have been sent in here with no prior information. I’m not prepared. Then our UP home department spoke with the authorities in Haryana. Then all the district collectors in Haryana started calling me and saying – madam if we have your consent, only then we will send in buses, otherwise not.

But first you had to call Lucknow and tell them to talk to Haryana on your behalf?


Do you think this was because you’re new or because you’re a woman or a mix of the two?

It was nothing, it was because there was a lot of stress there of the UP labourers. And because of some miscommunication maybe that they could send them. I’ve never felt like this that because I’m a woman people are taking undue advantage.

Also read: How Gendered Labour Was Hard-Wired Into Upper-Middle-Class Households

A couple of social activists I’ve spoken to at the district level who’ve been involved in COVID-19 relief, some junior level officer apparently told a Hindu social worker the following – `If you are Hindu, go distribute relief kits in Hindu areas, don’t go to Muslim areas because they are COVID-19 spreaders.’ Are these things you’ve heard of or had to contend with?

No. This is an eye-opener, what you’re saying. I need to work on this to find out more.

In general there is this perception in the village that Muslims are spreading COVID-19.

Actually when it initially spread in Shamli, most cases were spread by those who attended the Tablighi Jamaat Markaz in Delhi. But now it’s the vegetable mandi and Hindu families that are spreading it, so the effect of those rumours have come down. We did try to generate awareness, we said anyone can get COVID-19. Hindu or Muslim. Ever since there is more diversity in the cases, Hindus have been infected and spread the disease, that’s gone down.

Carrom boards – part of the DM of Shamli’s COVID-19 care for children. Courtesy: DM’s office, Shamli

I noticed the kind of relief kits you had made, when I was in your office. They included things like hair oil and also your kits for children with chocolates and carrom boards. Was this your idea?

We have had lots of migrants coming here, to Shamli. And we had to shift them to institutional quarantine for 14 days. It is very tough for them to stay in one place without visiting their family, so I wanted to make sure they were comfortable. I’ve seen people in such distress as I’d never seen before – people walking such great distances. There are rivers at both ends – Karnal border and Panipat. Some people came across sitting on tyre tubes. With children in tow. It was something else! We tried to monitor these spots and roped in our village pradhans to help us get to these people, provide vehicles. And get them to shelter homes.

So they had all their daily use items, sufficient clean water and clean toilets. The kits weren’t just my idea. My team here is very innovative.

Also read: It Is Time to Stop Seeing Domestic Workers as COVID-19 ‘Carriers’

Providing clean drinking water and clean toilets must have been a challenge in the first few days, how did you pull it off, for 4,000 people?

Our municipal staff was there for ensuring the toilets were clean. They have their own tankers in which they mixed sanitiser and bleach powder which they were instructed to spray in the toilets. And there are three sugar factories here. They also have a sanitising mix that they use in their distilleries. That liquid they provided and we used that. And our fire brigades and the police used the mixture provided by these sugar mills to sanitise not just the toilets but also the premises – in the morning and in the evening.

Many departments had to pool in – the municipal staff, the fire department and police and sugar mills. And all of us were on duty from the morning to the wee hours of the following morning – up to 3 and 4 o clock, as migrants came in. The entire tehsil staff was totally exhausted. For three of four days 80 buses came in each day and then the numbers started reducing. I would sit there till 3am with my staff to motivate them. That inspired them to see that `madam’ was also there on ground.

I was in the field till 3 am and back on duty by 7 am. Once I go then everyone follows. And they know that madam has a home and a small child and is still sitting here night after night, so that actually helps.

So have you moved with your family or is your family in Lucknow?

No my family is here with me. My son (who is 1.5 years old) is here and because of the lockdown, my husband is with me for the past three months. He’s taking care of the kid and I’m taking care of Shamli.

Revati Laul is an independent journalist and film-maker and the author of The Anatomy of Hate, published by Westland/Context. This story is the result of a Laadli media fellowship, but the facts and ideas presented are the writer’s responsibility.