Leh's Administration Charges People for Quarantine Facilities, Prompting Protests

Local leaders say that economic activity in the district coming to a standstill, people cannot pay tariffs of Rs 2,500.

Srinagar: The administration of the mountainous Leh district in Ladakh has asked people returning from other states or Union Territories (UTs)  to pay for the quarantine facilities set up for them in the region.

The issue, which has led to resentment among locals, came to fore on Thursday when residents from Chuchot, a village declared as a containment zone, staged a demonstration.

Led by women, the protesters threatened to defy the containment norms if the order was not withdrawn. The police, however, baton-charged the protesters, resulting in injuries to some women, said local representatives.

The controversial SOP

On May 12, the district magistrate of Leh, Sachin Kumar, issued a standard operating procedure (SOP) that said people arriving from other regions and live in containment zones within the UT shall not be allowed to enter their villages under any circumstances.

During the past two weeks, hundreds of people from Kargil and Leh districts of Ladakh, who were stranded in different parts of the country, have returned.

In Leh, however, people have been asked to stay with friends and relatives outside containment zones, with directions to remain quarantined for 14 days.

“Those who don’t wish to stay with the relatives and friends can stay in the facilities identified by the district administration. However, they will have to bear the boarding and lodging expenses on the nominal tariff fixed by the administration,” reads the order issued by the district magistrate.

Following the order, the administration identified 16 hotels for quarantining people, and the tariff charges fixed varied from 2,500-Rs 3,000 per day per person, said Saira Bano, Chuchot block development council’s chairperson.

Bano said she received calls from many students, asking her to intervene. “Some students were shifted to at least two hotels, but they were distressed after being asked to pay for the facility,” said Bano.

According to her, the villagers got angered when they came to know people will be charged for their stay in quarantine facilities. One of the hotels identified is in the containment area of Chuchot, she said.

“Isn’t it strange that authorities are asking people to stay in a hotel in the containment zone and pay for it, but won’t allow these people to return to their homes in the same zone,” she said.

Protests and lathi-charge

On Thursday, Bano, along with other local representatives and a group of people tried to meet the district magistrate over the issue of tariffs. She also wanted people to be allowed to complete the quarantine period at home.

“But after keeping us waiting till 3 pm outside his office, we were not allowed to meet the district magistrate,” she said.

Later, residents from Chuchot, including women, came out of their homes and staged a protest. The police, however, used force to disperse them.

“Many women were injured in the police action,” said Bano. She too was injured and had to be treated at a local hospital.

A BJP councillor from Leh, Sayeeda Ladakhi condemned the police action, adding that it was heart-wrenching to see women being thrashed. She claimed that it was unprecedented for people to pay for quarantine facilities.

Ladakhi said economic activity in Leh has come to a halt and people are not in a position to pay Rs 2,500 to Rs 3,000 as lodging and boarding charges in quarantine facilities.

“We condemn this decision by the administration. Recently, the government of India allocated Rs one crore to the district authorities for combating COVID-19. Why can’t a portion of these funds be diverted for the quarantine facilities?” she said.

The MP from Ladakh, Jamyang Tsering Namgyal, expressed resentment against the district administration’s “mismanagement”. “I have spoken to the Lt Governor and expressed my strong resentment against mismanagement by the district magistrate Leh for issuing vague SOP, thereby creating confusions among people, who were left with no option but to protests since morning,” Namgyal wrote on Facebook.

He also talked about “carelessness and insensitivity” on the administration and police’s part to not meet the protesting people. “Instead they were lathi-charged and many innocent women were injured and hospitalized,” said the MP.

‘Rescind the order’

The BJP councillor later wrote to Ladakh’s commissioner secretary (health) Rigzin Samphel seeking the order asking people to pay for their stay at quarantine facilities should be withdrawn.

“The evacuated students, pilgrims, and patients have already suffered in the past two months due to the lockdown. They are forced to live in hotels and pay heavy tariff per day which is impossible for them and seems utter mismanagement on part of district administration Leh,” she said in a letter to the health secretary.

The councillor said the directions to the evacuated people to stay with friends or relatives during the quarantine period were ‘shocking’. “How can we expect people to allow somebody with travel history to stay at their home during the quarantine period? This is illogical,” said Ladakhi, a former district vice president of BJP.

Demanding the order should be revisited, she asked the administration to set-up quarantine facilities within the containment zones and allow the families to manage food and other expenses of people staying there.

Fresh order, more anger

Amid the growing resentment, the district administration late on Thursday evening issued a fresh order. This time, people returning from other areas of the country were told they can stay in administrative facilities without paying any charges.

But there was no change made to the previous order asking people to pay for their accommodation in the hotels. “Those who don’t wish to stay in these facilities can stay in the facilities (hotels) identified by the district administration at their own expenses,” reads the new order, issued by the district magistrate.

Bano, however, said precautionary measures were not being followed at the “new common facilities”. She said 10-15 persons were lodged in a single quarantine facility, which puts all of them at risk if even a single person has been infected by the coronavirus.

“Our children aren’t safe in these common facilities. They are being lodged together, against the norms specified by the World Health Organisation. Who will be held responsible if any of these persons develop COVID-19? It can spread to others as well,” said Bano.

She said that while governments across the world are taking every step to ensure the protection of people, “That doesn’t seem to be the priority for the administration of Leh.”

Bano said people need not be quarantined in luxurious hotels but should be lodged in a safe environment, as per the WHO’s guidelines. “If the order asking people to pay for quarantine facilities is not withdrawn, we will go on hunger strike,” she said.

The Wire tried to contact Ladakh’s commissioner secretary and divisional commissioner, and Leh’s district magistrate several times, but received no response.

The issue has also led to resentment within the Ladakh Hill Development Council (LHDC), Leh. “We are discussing it in the council today,” said its chief executive councillor Gyal Wangyal.

The LAHDC is responsible for the local governance issues of Leh and is controlled by the BJP. “The administration doesn’t care about people’s sensitivities and the genuine issues raised by them. They don’t even listen to us,” said a member of the council.