- NL Sena
Officers work long hours, handling everything from fumigation to food distribution to contact tracing, and the chances of testing positive are high.
There were 59 names on the list until Wednesday, including that of assistant sub-inspector Bhagwan Pawar. He was just another statistic, part of the tally of Maharashtra police personnel who have died of Covid-19. But that does not encapsulate the grief of the loss of a loving husband, a doting father, a faithful friend, and a sincere colleague.
Pune has been one of the cities that’s worst-hit by the pandemic. As of July 2, the city has seen 23,680 cases and 788 deaths. Around 4,861 police officers have tested positive in the state, of which 1,162 cases are active. In Pune, 122 police officers have tested positive and three have died so far.
The city now runs on essential service providers and this includes the 9,000-strong police force, performing everything from fumigation, food distribution, crematorium duties, and resolving migrant issues, to contact tracing, issuing travel passes, and maintaining law and order.
For the last four months, most police officers have worked double shifts. The rising number of cases, and deaths, amongst their own men and women has started to take a toll on their morale.
Bhagwan Pawar’s death has added to this distress.
Pawar, 57, died of complications due to Covid-19 on June 15 at a private hospital in Pune, 21 days after he tested positive. A member of the Special Branch, he worked for the Pune police for nearly 30 years. When the pandemic unfolded in India, he, like many other police officers, took on multiple duties, often without protective gear.
Multiple Covid tests and a Rs 9.5 lakh bill
“Throughout his life, our father did his best for us,” said his son, Nikhil. “He was a good cop and a good father. For him, duty always came first.”
Pawar first developed a cough on May 22. His son took him to see their family doctor in Hadapsar, where he was prescribed an injection and some tablets. Two days later, with no relief, his older son, also a police official, took him to another doctor.
“This time, an X-ray was done which showed infection in his lungs. The doctor prescribed medicines but two days later, there was still no change in his condition,” Nikhil said. “We did another X-ray and the doctor said we should take him to Sahyadri Hospital.”
Pawar underwent a Covid test at the hospital, which came back negative. He was admitted into the general ward and stayed there for two days, but his condition did not improve.
On the third day, he began to cough blood. “He was shifted to the ICU ward and they conducted another Covid test two days later. That came back negative too,” Nikhil said. “They did a bronchoscopy and sent his samples for a test. It was only in the third test that his results came back as positive for coronavirus.”
The positive test came back on June 5. The family lives in a slum area in Vaiduwadi, which is now a containment zone, and all the family members were tested. Pawar’s daughter and a daughter-in-law tested positive and were admitted to the hospital. His wife and two sons tested negative and moved into a quarantine centre in Yewalewadi. His police officer son was later, on request, allowed to quarantine at home.
Pawar was put on a ventilator, but died on June 15.
The Maharashtra government has by private hospitals for the treatment of Covid, and announced the free treatment of police personnel at 1,000 hospitals under the Mahatma Jyotiba Phule Health Scheme. Police personnel admitted at hospitals that are not under this scheme can claim reimbursements from the government later, though this can often take months.
The Hadapsar branch of Sahyadri Hospital, where Pawar was admitted, is not part of this scheme. After Pawar’s death, his family was handed a bill for Rs 9.5 lakh.
“We paid Rs 4.6 lakh till now, and need to pay the rest,” Nikhil said. “During my father’s treatment, his senior colleagues assured the hospital that they would get their money, and said my father’s treatment should not be stopped. They suggested shifting him to a hospital under the police scheme, but my father was on a ventilator at the time.”
Nikhil said the hospital recently telephoned him, asking that the remaining Rs 4.9 lakh be paid. “These amounts will get reimbursed, but it will take at least six or seven months...My mother is in shock. She is unable to come to terms with the loss of my father.”
The state government has announced compensation of Rs 65 lakh to families of police officers who died during Covid duty: Rs 50 lakh from the government, Rs 10 lakh from the police welfare fund, and Rs 5 lakh insurance cover from private banks. But many families, including the Pawars, are still waiting to receive it.
“We have not received any compensation from the government till now,” Nikhil said. “Last week, a private company called Mankind called me and offered help. They provide monetary help to the families of deceased cops, and heard about my father from the director general’s office. They met us, took some photos, handed over a dummy cheque of Rs 3 lakh, and said the amount will be transferred into our account within the next few days.”
Meanwhile, Pawar’s colleagues remember him fondly. Sardar Patil, a senior police inspector of the Special Branch, said: “He was a nice, decent man. He performed his duty in the best possible manner till his last days. We are sad about his demise. But I am proud too that as a police officer, he did his job without fearing the ongoing crisis.”
Who protects the protector?
Officers in the higher echelons of the police force are doing their best to keep morale high among the force.
“To protect the protector is very important. Just imagine what will happen if police officers retreat from the ground amidst the Covid situation. It will be chaos,” said Sambhaji Kadam, the deputy commissioner of the Pune police. “Other departments just pass orders. It’s our men and women who get those orders implemented.”
Pune’s police officers are overworked, Kadam said, but still work tirelessly. “Sometimes it feels unending, so it’s very important to keep their morale high. In fact, it’s the most important thing in the present scenario.”
The relaxation in the lockdown has made police personnel more prone to infection, as their interaction with the public has increased. On June 27, 10 police officers tested positive.
“When Covid erupted, it was a new thing for us. The police were not trained for it but we just went head-on into the battle,” Kadam said. “Too many things were going on at once...the police force was working everywhere. In the last four months, the Pune police has distributed food to around 18 lakh people.”
The police has put together inspirational and motivational videos to keep morale high. Counselling services have been set up for officers who need it. “Senior cops also go on the ground to boost the morale of the force. Their engagement is necessary and it does make a difference for the junior officers,” Kadam said.
An officer at the Pune city crime branch told Newslaundry that the force has multiple duties, including things that aren’t part of their job profiles. “We are overworked,” the officer said on the condition of anonymity. “After a day or night’s work when we return home, we are scared that we will inadvertently infect our family members. This is the thought that scares us the most.”
If an officer tests positive, the entire police station is quarantined, the officer explained, which increases the workload on other officers. “Cops are also not able to spend time properly with their families. All this frustrates us sometimes,” he added.
Being a woman police officer during a pandemic
Women in the police force told Newslaundry that they are caught in an endless cycle of work. A woman constable at the Samarth police station said she was initially assigned 12-hour daily shifts, though that was later reduced to eight hours.
“For women in the force, our duty starts from the moment we get up,” the constable said. “Even when I go back home after my shift, I have to take care of the household.”
The constable’s police quarters comprises two rooms, with the bathroom located right at the end. “If you have to use the bathroom to wash and sanitise yourself after reaching home, you have to pass through the rooms to get there,” she said. “I live with my children. Despite taking all precautions, I am scared they will get infected if I test positive someday.”
Police officers are also under pressure to report for duty, the constable said. When a colleague tested positive, she took a test as well. It came back negative, but the doctor advised her to rest for two days. “When I didn’t report for duty on the first day, I was scolded by a senior officer. I was told to join duty or face disciplinary action,” she said. “Things are not easy for us and day by day, they are becoming worse.”
Shabnam Shaikh, an assistant police inspector at Swargate police station, told Newslaundry that she hasn’t been able to hold her eight-year-old son since March, even though they live in the same house.
Shaikh’s work had her posted at a Jedhe Chowk, near Swargate, where she would stand the entire day, monitoring the situation. “I would leave home at 7 am and return only after 8 pm. It’s not an easy task to be on the road for 12 hours straight, particularly in summer,” Shaikh said. “We were in direct contact with the public. We didn’t know who was positive and who was negative, so the chances of us being infected were very high.”
Shaikh misses holding and playing with her son, she said. She also hasn’t visited her parents since the lockdown began in March.
“It’s been 12 years of service in the police force but Covid duty has been the most difficult one,” she said. She pointed out that Covid tasks aside, officers still have to handle cases being registered at police stations.
Does she feel afraid? “Before, even an itch in the throat would sometimes make me feel like I am infected,” she said. “But there is a limit to every fear, and Covid has reached that limit. So I am not afraid of it now.”
Death and discrimination in the line of duty
Apart from Bhagwan Pawar, two other police officers have died of Covid in Pune. Sub-inspector Dilip Londhe died on June 4, and constable Dipak Sawant on May 21. All three of them had comorbidities, or preexisting health conditions before testing positive for Covid-19.
Before his death, Londhe, 57, had been handling nakabandi (police checkpoints) while arranging food for retirees in containment zones and police officers in quarantine. He tested positive on May 23 and died in hospital 12 days later.
“Londhe sir was a very helpful man. He worked actively during Covid, doing multiple tasks,” said head constable Shivdas Ghatkar, Londhe’s junior colleague at the Faraskhana police station. “His was the first Covid death in the police department in Pune, so everyone was in panic. But our seniors encouraged us and took care of us, addressing our concerns.”
Londhe’s family has not received compensation from the government yet. Fifteen days ago, however, a senior police officer from the Faraskhana police station told them that a compensation cheque for Rs 50 lakh had been approved.
“They showed us the cheque but I didn’t have a bank account, so they told me they will keep the cheque with them and then transfer the amount into my new account,” said Usha, Londhe’s wife. “I didn’t have any objection to that.I have opened the account,hopefully they will transfer the amount soon.”
The Pune police’s third casualty, Constable Dipak Sawant, 42, was a former personnel of the Maratha Light Infantry. He joined the Pune police as a traffic constable in 2013. Sawant tested positive on May 9 and died on May 21 in hospital.
“When the lockdown started, he was assigned day duty for a few days and was later shifted to night duty,” said his nephew Saurabh Sawant. “He always used to tell us to stay at home and not go out. We didn’t expect him to pass away like this.”
Pramod Nikam, a constable at the Faraskhana police station, told Newslaundry that he tested positive in April. A former army man from the 116 engineer regiment, Nikam drives a vehicle for a senior police inspector.
“On April 16, I developed bodyache while returning from duty,” Nikam said. “I visited my family doctor who gave me some medicine. But my condition didn’t change so I went to the police hospital. I told the doctor there that my body aches so much that I don’t feel like working.”
Nikam was advised to rest for five days. A Covid test was not prescribed.
However, he went to the Yashwantrao Chavan Memorial Hospital the next day with his wife, and got a test done for coronavirus. Both of them tested positive. Nikam was admitted to the ICU while his wife was admitted in the general ward.
“I was worried and sad that my wife got infected because of me,” Nikam said. “I was discharged on May 2; I had lost 27 kg. Right from the commissioner to our station’s police inspector, everyone constantly asked after my health and told me to inform them if I, or any of my family members, needed anything. That gesture was quite boosting.”
Some police officers who tested positive told Newslaundry that they faced discrimination from the public. Nitin Bangar, a constable at Faraskhana police station, has returned to duty after battling Covid-19. He said that residents in his neighbourhood treated his family poorly.
“They used to look at my family with suspicion and discrimination. Fortunately, things are changing now as more awareness is being spread about this virus,” Bangar said.
Newslaundry reached out to Anil Deshmukh, Maharashtra’s home minister, to ask about delays in compensating the families of dead police officers, as well as issues faced by family members in paying steep hospital bills. This story will be updated if a response is received.
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