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Wednesday, January 19, 2022

A Letter From Samrala, Ludhiana: ‘Are norms only for us commoners? Corona hai vi ki nahin’

🔴 At a Cong election meeting, there is a lot to keep people from wearing masks — chai, pakodas, sloganeering, and the unmasked CM himself. But as a medical camp takes random samples, for results that are delayed, virus worries are in every conversation

Written by Raakhi Jagga | Ludhiana |
Updated: January 9, 2022 9:02:39 am
Punjab government, Charanjit Singh Channi, Punjab Congress, Ludhiana, Covid norms, Covid norms violation, Covid face masks, Indian Express, India news, current affairs, Indian Express News Service, Express News Service, Express News, Indian Express India NewsCong is happy about the crowd that came, with many standing outside. (Gurmeet Singh)

AROUND 11 am on Thursday, a crowd is making its way to the Dana Mandi (grain market) of Machhiwara, a small town in the Samrala constituency of Ludhiana, for a rally by Punjab Chief Minister Charanjit Singh Channi. Samrala is a constituency of around 1.80 lakh voters, half of whom belong to Machhiwara alone.

It’s a day after Prime Minister Narendra Modi cancelled his first public meeting in Punjab since the repeal of the three contentious farm laws, due to a security breach. The cascade of resultant ripples has spread out from Chandigarh to Delhi, to BJP units across the country.

That only partly explains the crowd who have come from even neighbouring villages and towns for the rally, with few seemingly worried about the rising Covid cases that have led Punjab to impose a night curfew from 10 pm-5 am and close educational institutions. Deputy CM O P Soni, who holds the health portfolio, admits there is concern. “There are no guidelines of the Centre regarding rallies, but I personally feel big public meetings should not be held in Covid times.”

At the grain market though — spread over 15 acres — it is election as usual, with tents in Tricolour hues and plastic chairs laid out. The only change is a medical camp outside the venue, where a team of doctors and parademics from the Machhiwara Civil Hospital are soldiering on, taking samples of the crowd for RT- PCR tests.

Dr Jaspreet Kaur, a senior medical officer at the hospital, says they are doing random tests. “We took 102 samples and the reports are pending.” With laboratories busy, the results are likely to take at least 24 hours.

Dr Rajesh Baskar, the nodal officer for Covid in Punjab, says: “Off and on, we organise medical camps near big rallies. It’s not done regularly. So far, we have not come to know whether anyone tested positive at these rallies.”

Congress Samrala MLA Amrik Singh Dhillon, the organiser of the Machhiwara rally, indicates the tests are just a drop in the ocean. Thousands are here for the meeting, he says. “Jinne andar baithe si, onne hi bahar khade si (The same number of people as you can see sitting inside, are present outside too).”

Among those standing as chairs are all taken is 41-year-old Dharamvir Dhammi, a contractor, who is among the 200-odd people raising slogans cheering the Congress. None of them is wearing masks. In between asking party workers if they have had refreshments, including chai and pakodas, Dhammi, who is the block president of the Congress’s Scheduled Caste cell, says: “I gave masks to everyone and asked them to wear them too. But when you have to raise slogans, you can’t wear masks.”

About gatherings during Covid, he says: “No doubt, large meetings should stop. I will raise this point at our next SC cell meeting.”

Ludhiana is seeing a big spike in Covid numbers the past few days, accounting for 292 of the 2,427 cases that tested positive in Punjab on Thursday, and reporting a positivity rate of 11.5%. The district has 776 active cases.

The snacks stall located outside the grain market premises is almost as crowded as the ground inside, with almost everyone halting for a quick bite before proceeding for the meeting, and sitting down without particular attention to social distancing. MLA Dhillon says all are welcome at the pandal, “whether they attend the rally or not”. “In this chilly weather, this is the least we can do for people.”

About Covid precautions, he says, “We have placed sanitisers outside the pandal and ensure people use it. The chairs have been spaced out… Prachar has to be done (we have to carry on with campaigning), but we are following all the Covid instructions.”

The stall started handing out savouries at 10 am, and it’s overflowing by the time Channi arrives at about 12.30 pm, wrapped in a shawl but wearing no mask; his security personnel though all have masks on.

This doesn’t go unnoticed. A murmur buiilds up among the crowd on how, two days ago, on January 4, the CM had informed that his Principal Secretary and Personal Assistant had tested positive for Covid. “And hence he wasn’t able to go to the function to inaugurate the PGI satellite centre on January 5, where the PM was to come. But on January 6, he is here.” (On Saturday, January 8, three members of Channi’s family tested positive.)

Satish Kumar, 40, a teacher, says, “I think Channi should have kept himself in isolation for a minimum of three days. Who are these Covid norms for? Only for commoners like us?”An incensed Paramjeet Singh, 35, add: “When the CM is not wearing a mask, why should we? Corona hai vi ki nahi (Is there actually any Corona?)”

In his speech, Channi uses the virus to take a swipe at Modi’s cancelled rally (the Congress claims that the PM didn’t proceed for the meeting as it drew a very thin crowd). “You can come near me,” the CM says. “I am not scared like Modi. You all have come to listen to me, I am thankful.”

To underline his “confidence”, Channi’s men allow the public to occupy the area in front of the stage that is usually kept aside for security.

Watching on from the snacks pandal, Gurpreet Singh, who is in his mid-30s, points to the muffler he has around his face, like several others around him. “It saves you from the cold and Covid protocol is also met. Look outside, how bad the weather is.”

There are loud cheers as Channi seeks blessings for Dhillon’s grandson Karanvir, 31, saying youngsters should “get a chance”. Satpal Bhangu, who runs a photography studio and is busy clicking, agrees vehemently.

Sarabjit Singh, 45, the owner of a printing press who is passing by, stops to comment on the crowd. “How will we take Corona seriously when politicians are doing rallies, not wearing masks and congratulating people for coming in large numbers? What purpose will mere closure of schools serve?”

Present in large numbers, women who are reluctant to talk say they have given their samples for testing but, irrespective of the results, have to carry on. “Rallies can stop, but not our chores,” says Rajdeep Kaur.

The meeting gets over around 1 pm, when the CM’s chopper takes off for Tanda in Hoshiarpur district, for another rally. As they leave, many stop at the pandal for another round of chai-pakoda. “No eatables, even water was allowed inside the rally,” says Dhammi, as he and his group ask for tea, including some with extra sugar.

Standing amidst the strewn empty paper cups, Dhammi is satisfied at how the day panned out. Channi has been facing protests by employees of various government departments, but there was no such demonstrator at Machhiwara. “This area has over 50% SC vote and has close affinity with Channi, the first Dalit CM of Punjab,” he says, as he leaves.

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