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Wednesday, June 03, 2020

From lathi-wielding enforcers to agents of information

How Goa’s police reached out to people in state’s battle against COVID-19

Written by Shobhit Saksena | Updated: May 11, 2020 11:05:25 am
Maharashtra coronavirus, cases, coronavirus Maharashtra cases, Maharashtra coronavirus count, COVID-19 cases Maharashtra, India news, Indian Express A largely peace-loving society, Goa is policed by a small but effective police force of 7,000 personnel. (Representational)

Goa evokes a unique emotion – “Susegad”, which means quiet, laidback and tranquil, evoking images of an endless ocean, sandy beaches lined with coconut trees and bounded by idyllic villages. A largely peace-loving society, Goa is policed by a small but effective police force of 7,000 personnel.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the world, the Goa Police found itself staring at an unforeseen challenge of protecting not only the 1.4 million residents of the state but also its large number of tourists and migrant labour. To put things in perspective, in 2018 alone, over eight million tourists visited Goa, which translates to about 20,000 tourists every day. With a large number of Goan youth working overseas, the state is an attractive venue for migrant labour from across the country. This also means that there are scores of families with only senior citizens who need special care and attention.

With the proliferation of disturbing stories and videos from around the world on social media, panic seemed imminent – while the tourists and migrant labour desperately wanted to return home, the old and ailing were worried about their health and well-being as also that of their kith and kin stranded abroad.

Given this background, it was realised that a lockdown enforced through “ruthless” policing would only worsen the situation and alienate the society which, if approached sympathetically, could collaborate with the police in this time of crisis.

Thus, a persuasive model of lockdown enforcement was devised and top priority was given to community engagement – this was intended to avoid panic amongst the people by dispelling their misgivings and addressing their concerns directly, while at the same time appealing to them to exercise precaution and stay indoors.

Charity begins at home and so the first step was to build confidence in the force. This was done by planning eight-hour shifts for the personnel and providing them with an adequate supply of safety gear (masks and alcohol-based sanitisers) sourced from the local industry. Police canteens were well-stocked with essentials to assure the police force of adequate supply for their families. The staff was then given basic information about COVID-19 – its symptoms, manner of transmission, importance of precautions such as regular sanitising and social distancing and most importantly, details of helpline numbers for the public to reach out to when in distress.

This helped transform the Goa Police from lathi-wielding enforcers to agents of information with microphones. Simultaneously, a parallel social media campaign was launched circulating all the necessary information online, which provided the public easy access to the police at the click of a button.

An unexpected but heartening consequence of this accessibility was that a large number of Good Samaritans reached out to the police to help those in distress. The local police station became the nodal point for relief – the beat police would identify households and pockets with people in distress and then small teams comprising of the police and the public would distribute essentials like rice, vegetables, medicines and cooked food. Such efforts helped to rein in the panic.

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In the aftermath of the Tablighi Jamaat episode, meaningful engagement with the community helped diffuse a potentially volatile situation. On an appeal through community leaders at the local level, all members of the Jamaat who had attended the meet in Nizamuddin, in Delhi, voluntarily reported for testing and quarantine while the locals assisted the police in contact tracing. Luck favoured Goa, as all attendees tested negative. Yet fake news flooded the social media which posed a serious risk to the law and order situation. The public address systems which had become popular by now, were jointly used by the local leaders and the police, as they walked from beat to beat reassuring the public and countering hate-mongering.

It was realised that public engagement made enforcement easier. Wide publicity was given to punishments prescribed for publishing hate content and violation of lockdown. Backed by a dedicated social media monitoring team, the whip was cracked immediately on perpetrators of offensive content. Similarly, the staff on the ground showed outstanding grit and promptness in dealing with violators of the lockdown. By May 3, Goa Police had registered over 30,000 cases of lockdown violations and realised over Rs 4 million in fines – all this with no complaints of physical coercion by the police and without any protests from the community at large.

As no fresh COVID-19 case was reported after April 3, it marked the onset of a crucial period — one case could have undone all the gains. Realising this, the public wholeheartedly supported the police – women, for example, stitched masks at home to be distributed to the police personnel and those in need, and kids made awareness posters and handed them over to the nearest policeman who would then display such posters on their patrolling vehicles. Together, the public and the police performed self-composed lyrics set to tunes of popular Konkani to spread awareness. These novel initiatives became immensely popular and played a vital role in Goa’s fight against COVID-19.

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On May 3, just as the 100th evening musical performance was concluding, Goa was declared a Green Zone. Traditionally, the role of the public in community policing has been limited to participating as eyes and ears of the police. What the Goa Police has learnt during the past 40 days is that a paradigm shift towards an engagement-oriented policing based on active collaboration between the police and the public is not only possible but is required and needs to be encouraged. This approach galvanised the entire state to fight unitedly against the COVID-19 pandemic, which had to retreat when faced by not just 7,000 but 1.4 million corona warriors.

The writer is an IPS officer posted in Goa

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