A health worker conducts COVID-19 testing of a passenger at CSMT station in Mumbai. Photo: PTI
New Delhi: At a time when India is setting new records of rising COVID-19 positive numbers, an investigative report by mid-day has found that administrative misconduct on the Mumbai international airport premises has been making it possible for several international passengers arriving in the city to escape mandatory quarantine.
A set of officials tasked with ensuring that people arriving from foreign countries at the Mumbai airport go through a week-long institutional quarantine have in fact been ensuring that they can get out of this – for a price.
Maharashtra and especially Mumbai had borne the brunt of the initial days of the pandemic, and is doing so today as well. As businesses reopened, the return of what appears to be a significant COVID-19 surge threatens to affect Mumbai once more. The government has already announced a weekend lockdown across the state and stricter curbs from April 5.
The city’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport, one of the busiest in the world, sees thousands of arrivals each day. Many of them are from countries like the UK and South Africa and from regions like the Middle East and Europe, wherefrom researchers have reported new, more worrying variants of the novel coronavirus.
Such passengers are required to quarantine themselves at an institution for seven days, even if they have tested negative. To this end, they are accompanied by city officials to select hotels, and who also check in to ensure they are without symptoms through the seven-day period.
Reporters of mid-day, who posed as family members of a person scheduled to arrive from Dubai, found that there was systematic bribery and corruption involved at every step. As a result, those unwilling to undergo institutional quarantine got a pass at a cost of Rs 10,000 to Rs 12,000, posing a significant health risk to those around them.
Three reporters, Samiullah Kham, Shirish Vaktania, Diwakar Sharma, were reportedly first offered a ‘setting’ – a colloquial term for favours in exchange for bribery – by city officials. They were told it would be easy to arrange for a passenger arriving from Dubai to escape institutional quarantine.
In more than one instance in which reporters tailed the BEST buses assigned to drop passengers to the quarantine hotels, they found that the exchange of money across a web of Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) officials, bus drivers, bus helpers and hotel authorities offered people the chance to quarantine at home.
In more than one case, the arriving passengers who had not checked into the quarantine hotel but proceeded onwards with a little help from BMC officials stopped on their way, entered crowded areas like shops and then, housing complexes.
The process allegedly starts at the airport’s premise itself, where passengers are given a list of hotels to choose from. While some of them have a ‘setting’ with BMC, others don’t.
So seamless is the operation that the law-breaking passengers don’t have to worry about their luggage, which are transferred from vehicle to vehicle by BMC officials’ helpers, according to the report.
The reporters also spotted drivers and helpers of the buses wearing no protection other than a face mask. It was a driver who explained the routine to the reporters, noting that he had been able to fix such a deal for nearly “10 to 12 people” daily.
When asked by mid-day whether the fictional person the reporters had set as a front would have to stay at the hotel, he allegedly assured them that she would not.
“She will have to visit the hotel, give a copy of her passport and spend just an hour for the paperwork…I will provide you with the cheapest hotel and your work will be done in only Rs 10,000-12,000…BMC officers visit the hotel daily and they collect money. The hotel and BMC people have full setting,” the driver allegedly says.
A hotel tout, too, spoke to the news outlet and said, “We will get the passengers checked in and then help them go home. We will collect the money after that.”
Deputy municipal commissioner Parag Masurkar told mid-day that BMC staff were no longer being sent in BEST buses with passengers.
“We have a full mechanism to check if the passenger reached the hotel or not,” Masurkar, the person in charge at the airport for institutional quarantine of passengers travelling from foreign countries, told mid-day.
Masurkar also said that the list of hotels is with the collector’s office at the airport, appearing to absolve BMC of this responsibility.
The collector of Mumbai Suburban district Milind Borikar however told mid-day that his team only segregates passengers and that the list of hotels is “kept exclusively with the BMC officials.”
Note: This article was edited at 12:02 pm on April 7, 2021, to note that airport officials were not involved in the alleged transgressions.