The Maharashtra police have booked Rahul Zori, a reporter with the news channel TV9 Marathi, for reporting on irregularities in the running of relief camps for migrants in Shirpur tehsil, Dhule.
On May 16, the channel aired a report by Zori showing how the camp at Hadakhed village near the state’s border with Madhya Pradesh existed only on paper. It was one of three such camps set up in Shirpur as per an order signed by the tehsildar, Aaba Mahajan, on March 31. None of these camps are functional now, according to the report.
The Hadakhed camp was set up in the District council Marathi School but when Zori visited it, there was nobody around and the gates were locked. There wasn’t even a signboard identifying it.
When Zori questioned Mahajan about this, he claimed to have spent Rs 46 lakh running the camp. However, the tehsil officials, with the help of social organisations, were still providing relief to migrant workers. That very day, Mahajan claimed, they had distributed khichdi to about 500 people. In all, with the help of social groups like Mee Shirpurkar, they had helped about 80,000 people, he added.
Asked specifically how many people got assistance from the Hadakhed camp, Mahajan said 61.
“The workers passing through weren’t ready to stop at the camp despite being requested to do so,” Mahajan claimed. “They were adamant on getting home, so food packets and water bottles were given to them.”
Newslaundry has accessed a list of 61 people supposed to have received assistance at the camp. They were supposedly from Dholpur, Rajasthan, and Agra, Uttar Pradesh.
After Zori’s report aired on May 16, Mahajan filed a complaint against the reporter at the police station in Shirpur town. The tehsildar accused Zori of defaming him by alleging corruption at the Hadakhed camp as well as of trying to obstruct official work by questioning him. Zori has been booked under penal sections for obstructing a public servant from doing their duty, defamation, publishing matter that is known to be defamatory.
Newslaundry spoke with several residents of Shirpur who disputed the government’s claims about helping migrant workers.
Amit Jain, a lawyer, works with Mee Shirpurkar, which has been providing assistance to migrants since the lockdown. “Shirpur’s tehsildar gave the order to start migrant relief camp on March 31,” he said, referring to the Hadakhed camp. “But they hardly ran it for three days. They kept a group of migrant workers there who were stopped while traveling in a truck. They kept them there for two-three days and fed them with the help of local residents and social organisations. Not one rupee was spent from the government side.”
He added, “They just made up documentation that a relief camp had been started and did nothing. There were no arrangements for migrants there. They didn’t even put up a signboard. Some 30-40 lakh migrants have walked on that highway since March, but no assistance was provided to them at the relief camp. The government has made tall claims of providing food to people, but on that highway we saw people struggling badly, without even a drink of water. So, the claims don’t stand. The authorities have been calling us and other organisations to distribute food to the workers. It was their responsibility, they even got money for that. But they didn’t do anything.”
Dinesh Pawara, a resident of Hadakhed, said, “Initially, some 70 people stayed in the camp. It ran nicely for a few days, but later people stopped coming. It’s possible that they didn’t notice the camp as it was on the opposite side of their way.”
When Newslaundry asked Mahajan about the allegations, he said, “My senior officials are investigating this matter. I have been working day and night. I got only Rs 2.46 lakh for relief work. I took the help of NGOs and the money was spent through them. My senior officials are aware of that.”
Why then did he tell Zori that his office had received Rs 46 lakh for relief work? Mahajan didn’t respond.
Zori stood by his story. “I have been in journalism for 10 years. I have never reported incorrect news in my career. As a journalist, it's my right to question the administration. My job is not just to ask questions but to bring out the truth," he said. “If someone is slapped with a criminal case merely for asking questions, it’s just wrong. I have been pressured many times before as well and I am least worried about such tactics.”
UPDATE: According to Zori's report, Rs 46 lakh was said to have been spent on the Hadakhed camp alone and not all the camps combined. And three camps were set up in the tehsil, not four. The story has been modified to reflect this. The errors are regretted.
Journalists are on the frontlines of the coronavirus crisis in India, as elsewhere, reporting from the ground and asking hard questions that need answers. Support independent media by subscribing to Newslaundry today, and pay to keep news free.