Maharashtra is in the throes of a resurgent coronavirus outbreak. It reported over 57,000 cases on Sunday, the highest since the start of the pandemic. Mumbai, the capital of the state, is reporting over 11,000 daily new cases, contributing immensely to the worsening coronavirus crisis. Now, a report published by Mid-Day sheds light on the possible reasons for this inexplicable surge in the number of COVID-19 cases reported in Mumbai.
For as much as Rs 10,000 to Rs 12,000, a handful of civic officials at the Mumbai international airport are allowing passengers from abroad to escape the compulsory seven-day institutional quarantine. The investigation by Mid-day brought to fore shocking lapses by BMC officials deployed at the airport, whose job is to ensure passengers from the UK, Europe, Middle East and South Africa undergo the mandatory 7-day institutional quarantine. These were amongst nations that reported new fast-spreading variants of the coronavirus.
The news daily found that an elaborate arrangement was in place for passengers travelling from foreign countries to slip away from the airport without undergoing mandatory quarantine. In its investigation, the newspaper discovered that far from ensuring that passengers were sent to mandatory quarantine, the BMC officials at the airport actively helped them to escape.
As per the Standard Operation Procedure by the Brinhanmumbai Municipal Corporation, international passengers above 65 years of age needing support, pregnant women, parents with children below 5 years, people having serious illness and those who landed in the city in extreme family distress conditions are permitted home isolation. All other flyers must undergo institutional quarantine for seven days.
Civic officials violate SOP and allow fliers to escape mandatory quarantine
However, the SOP was flagrantly violated by none other than BMC officials themselves, who took bribe in exchange for providing an uninterrupted exit to the passengers flying from abroad. Reportedly, after getting clearance from immigrations, passengers are shown a list of hotels marked for institutional quarantine. This is where a ‘deal’ is struck if the hotel budget does not suit a flyer’s pocket or the hotel room is inadequate for his stay for seven consecutive days, the report said.
Passengers who wanted to bypass the mandatory institutional quarantine were instructed to choose West Inn hotel. Based on the choice of the hotel, passengers were then bracketed in a group of 6 to 7 and asked to sit in each bus. Barring masks, neither the driver nor the civic officials had PPE suits on them.
The Mid-Day followed the BEST bus which stopped at the Sunshine Hotel and one of the passengers stepped out. The passenger’s luggage was shifted to an Innova car standing in the vicinity. The passenger boarded the bus again. The bus reached the West Inn hotel in Andheri and the same passenger came out of the bus. After a while, the same Innova arrived there. A few minutes later the passenger walked out of the West Inn hotel and sat inside the Innova in which his luggage was previously kept.
The Mid-Day team then followed the Innova car. The car went all the way to Ulwe, about 60 km from the airport, and stopped near the Om Anant Residency where the passenger got down. After enquiring with the building residents, it came to light that the man had arrived from a Gulf nation and lived in flat number 102.
However, this was not an isolated incident. The next day, Mid-Day followed another BEST bus and discovered that passengers, who were supposed to be escorted to the hotel for their mandatory quarantine, were dropped off mid-way in the route from where they were ferried to their respective residences.
BEST bus driver claims he has been doing “setting” for 10-12 passengers from foreign on a daily basis
The report also includes a conversation between a BMC official named Vasant and the Mid-Day reporter who wanted one of his relatives flying from abroad to escape the mandatory quarantine. During the conversation, Vasant reportedly asks the reporter to pay Rs 10,000 to a certain Dipali who is running a hotel to avoid the quarantine.
Vasant elaborates that the passenger will be taken to the hotel first where her check-in would be done and she will be subsequently released once she pays up Rs 10,000. Vasant said that the passenger will have to spend just an hour for the paperwork.
When asked if the passenger would face any difficulty since BMC officials visit the hotels daily to check on the mandatory quarantine, Vasant revealed that BMC officers visit the hotel daily and they collect money. The hotel and BMC people have full setting, he said.
Vasant further added that he has been facilitating the escape of passengers from abroad from a long time. He asked the Mid-Day reporter to call Dipali, who he claimed would manage everything. When Mid-Day contacted Dipali, she refused to meet them. She charged Rs 11,000 from the Mid-Day reporter for getting her sister out of mandatory quarantine.
Even as Mid-Day found that corrupt malpractices are underway at the airport to help passengers from foreign countries escape the quarantine, the BMC refuted the allegations, saying that they have a mechanism in place to check if the passengers are staying in the hotel.
BMC claims mechanism in place to check passengers are in hotel, insinuate Collector office of the malpractices
The Deputy Municipal Commissioner Parag Masurkar, who is the in-charge at the airport for institutional quarantine of passengers travelling from foreign lands, attempted to insinuate that officials from the Collector’s office might be involved in the malpractices going on at the airport. He said that officials from the Collector’s office are also there at the airport and the list of hotels is kept with the staff of Collector office.
BMC is giving wrong information: Collector
However, the Collector of Mumbai Suburban district Milind Borikar said that the BMC is giving wrong information. He added that his staff is at the airport to segregate international passengers arriving in Mumbai. He alleged that the entire process is controlled by the BMC and they had no role to play into that.
On being asked if the list of hotels is kept with the Collector office staff at the airport, as stated by DMC Masurkar, the Collector said, “No, no. He is giving you wrong information because we are not at all concerned with the quarantine facility; our staff is working there only to segregate passengers.”