Mumbai: The city of masks and marshals
The ‘money goal’, if in existence, has perhaps led to some bizarre practices in the name of COVID protocols. The writer narrates his experiences and raises questions regarding COVID rules and fines
“Keep your eyes down and talk to us”, warned the young woman clad in a uniform issued by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC). She was addressing a lady, a surprised senior citizen.
The senior citizen had taken off her mask a minute before her husband brought for her a cup of roadside tea. This was observed by the BMC marshals, among them the aforementioned young woman, who went to her and asked for ‘mask violation' fine.
“When I protested the severity of the rule, she stood close, right in front of me, and misbehaved. As I am old, I complied”.
She complied and did not complain to the police.
I did, when I came across three such marshals harassing citizens at Mumbai's Marine Drive. I noticed them waiting to photograph anyone who took off their mask for ten seconds or so – even if the citizen was alone, with nobody around for quite a distance.
As long as the photo showed the citizen without the mask, they would ask for a fine.
Fines were being asked if citizens wished to blow their nose or wipe the Mumbai humidity off their lips. Or if a runner stopped and breathed heavily for some time. No leeway, or warnings, were granted to anyone, though the marshals themselves were touching their masks, or taking breathers.
I informed the Marine Drive police about these actions, and to my surprise, they took good interest in the issue. They informed me, eventually, that there have been several phone complaints, particularly against the behaviour of the BMC marshals. However, few citizens bothered to come to the station and inform.
I learned that some of the marshals are abusive, and some women marshals deal roughly with male citizens – through words and actions, often standing right up to them with the idea that if the man pushes them, they can complain about harassment.
I saw this in action.
At a busy road in Andheri, two women marshals stopped a rickshaw and demanded fine from a man. The man looked pitifully shaken as one of the women climbed into the rickshaw and sat next to the driver. “Open your wallet or I will drag you away”.
I was in another rickshaw, close by. I objected to this behaviour and called out to the man – don’t feel bullied.
Hearing this, the second woman marshal walked up to me and confirmed through her words, that she was berating that man. I had to tick her off as she began her tirade of vulgar verbal diarrhoea.
“Many of the fine collectors are workers from the Solid Waste Management (SWM) department – they must be the abusive ones”, said a BMC officer, pointing out that these workers are among the ‘illiterate, slum-dwellers'.
I asked different policemen about this.
“These workers have tasted power for the first time, and they can’t handle it. In the name of public safety, they yell at and insult people”, said one policeman, admitting that the police does not wear their masks diligently, and are not fined by the marshals.
“It’s seemingly about power, not public concern”, said a constable after claiming that the marshals are given ‘money goals' – a minimum figure of fine that they must collect daily.
This ‘money goal’, if in existence, has perhaps led to some bizarre practises in the name of Covid protocols. Here are some of them -
1. Only the passengers seated in Autorickshaws are fined by the BMC marshals for the mask – the drivers are not fined. “We are poor and it is a hassle to take us to the station. So we are mostly ignored”, said a rickshaw driver.
2. The rickshaw drivers are, instead, fined by the police, and escape with smaller amounts of fine.
3. Policemen are not known to be fined for wearing the mask improperly.
4. If you step inside a restaurant, you are not compelled to wear the mask even at rushed hours. But once you step out on an empty road, the marshal can fine you.
5. A smoker is not fined for not wearing the mask, until he stops smoking. A chain smoker, thus, is not fined. A non-smoker will be fined, unless he smokes or eats or drinks something.
6. Ground floor eateries' employees have to wear the mask, but ground floor residents are spared, even if outsiders are visiting them regularly.
7. Runners are not fined until they walk for a bit.
Furthermore, the BMC does not fine its own workers. Their sewage department employees, for instance, are exposed to the nastiest muck and filth of the city. They don’t wear masks and are not fined for it.
The police are known to have their fun with the roadside vegetable sellers, taking away fruits and vegetables without paying for them. If stopped, they can easily claim that the seller was not wearing the mask properly, and fine him much more than the cost of vegetables they take away for free.
“The good cops take away up to Rs. 100 worth of my vegetables. The others just come, pick what they want, and leave”.
All the above ‘police costs' borne by the sellers are additional to the ‘hafta’ money they anyway pay.
Roadside eateries are fined at will.
“They can just stand at a distance, wait for us to take off our mask for, say, a minute or so, and immediately catch and fine us”, said a tea seller who has been fined by the marshals.
Close to this tea-seller, at a distance of about 50 meters, is the local corporator's office. Here, I found no masks on the corporator or his team. Needless to say, they are not fined.
The law, thus, is not about Covid safety. It has, evidently, resulted in opportunism and crime.
Mumbai's mayor Kishori Pednekar has recognised the several social media complaints about ‘bogus clean-up marshals extorting money and harassing people'. (The Indian Express, October 3, 2021).
She has, in the recent past, also acknowledged the marshals' misdemeanours:
‘Don’t get into fights with people. If someone misbehaves, take a photo and video and report it to the supervisor. The citizens have also been disturbed with the continuous restrictions. Make them understand. The objective of the fine is not to collect money. It is to create awareness among people to wear masks. If marshals misbehave with the citizens, the BMC gets defamed. Keep ice on your heads and sugar in your mouth' (India Today, February 21).
Elsewhere, a BMC backed medical laboratory was found misrepresenting Covid protocols to unsuspecting, and gullible, citizens. When a senior citizen, who is a noted activist, caught one such laboratory’s personnel outside a shopping mart coaxing people for Covid tests, and reportedly demanding vaccination certificates, he was assisted by the police in his quest for justice. However, the lab attendants, some of them interns for hardly ten days, were let go under the excuse of ‘misunderstanding’.
“They were trying to scare people with needless tests. Perhaps they are backed by someone political. So we couldn’t question them in detail”, said a policeman who was helping the activist in the case.
“While people are fined for minor Covid offences, some exploiters, like this laboratory, get away with silly apology letters, such as this one”.