UP’s harsh action over an online oxygen plea beats good sense
The considerations weighing on the mind of the Uttar Pradesh administration as the second Covid surge rages are hard to understand. The state police felt it worth its while to file an FIR against a resident and, as per media reports, issue a legal notice requiring the said individual to appear in person before the police—all for requesting aid on social media for arranging oxygen for a relative.
The FIR was filed under the relevant provisions of the applicable epidemic-time laws as well as the Indian Penal Code (IPC). The police believe this was intended to stoke fear amidst the pandemic; lately, India has made headlines internationally over shortages of critical healthcare elements, including medical oxygen.
However, the fact is the person made no mention of Covid, nor had he alleged a shortage. Further, there are many non-Covid medical conditions that may require oxygen support; even when there is no medical requirement, a layperson could still likely perceive urgency of requirement. These are facts the UP police has chosen not to take cognisance of.
Instead, it has invoked Section 505 (1)(b) of the IPC that is used to charge a person who “makes a statement or rumour or report with intent to cause, or which is likely to cause, fear or alarm to the public, or to any section of the public whereby any person may be induced to commit an offence against the State or against the public tranquility”.
While the state administration, in press interactions, has repeatedly played down claims of shortage of oxygen and other essentials, many print and TV news reports over the last couple of days have centred on hospitals in the state claiming shortages; at least one in Meerut, as per an India Today TV report, had a “request from the hospital authorities” to shift Covid-19 patients admitted to other hospitals because of dwindling oxygen availability.
With UP now having received a large consignment of oxygen and having put a real-time oxygen monitoring system in place, the situation on the ground may see rapid improvement. But, that doesn’t make the act less harsh; it paints the state administration as one that is quick to pull up anyone differing with its narrative. This could have an adverse effect on citizen monitoring of governance and reporting of genuine shortcomings.
Bear in mind, the Allahabad High Court has ordered the state government to report Covid-19 deaths to a judicial officer every day, even as multiple news reports have focused on the gaps between official death numbers and arrivals at crematoriums/burial grounds in the state. UP’s test positivity, as estimated by covid19india.org, has climbed from 2.1% on April 1 to a peak of 19% on April 26 (this fell to just under 16% on April 28) suggests testing is inadequate.
Against this backdrop, coming down so heavily on a person for a social media post could stoke public resentment. The administration has already been questioned over the indiscriminate slapping of draconian incarceration laws, and even coming down on a journalist for exposing the pathetic condition of the mid-day meal scheme in a district.