Ikhlaq lost his grandfather to cold 15 days ago in the Malakpur camp. His wife gave birth to a child just a week after the death. (Raj k Raj/ HT Photo)
It is often said offence is the best form of defence. But this strategy does not work well always, especially when one is defending the indefensible.
Uttar Pradesh principal secretary (home) AK Gupta learnt this the hard way on Friday after he told the media, which was demanding an explanation on deaths in the Muzaffarnagar and Shamli riot relief camps, that "children [in the camps] have died of pneumonia, not of cold. Nobody can die of cold. If people died of cold, nobody would have been alive in Siberia."
The comment created a furore in the media as well as in the political sphere.
While it is right that cold is not the only killing factor for those on the streets, it is certainly a trigger that aggravates latent ailments among the homeless. Asked about this strange and supremely insensitive comment, Uttar Pradesh chief minister Akhilesh Yadav said: "I think officials should keep a control over what they speak."
Instead of such a mild rebuke, the chief minister should have sent the senior bureaucrat to the relief camps to see for himself how the inmates are faring in these cold months.
In fact, for long the Uttar Pradesh government had kept on denying that there have been deaths in the camps but on Thursday, it finally admitted that 34 children— all below 12 years — died at the relief camps between September 7 and December 20.
Taking suo motu cognisance of media reports, which said that there were not enough blankets for the inmates of these camps resulting in the death of infants and young children, the National Human Rights Commission has sought reports from the Uttar Pradesh government and the district authorities of Muzaffarnagar and Shamli.
However, such insensitivity is not restricted to UP alone: on the coldest day of the month, December 25, more than 900 people who lived in 165 makeshift homes were left out in the cold after their homes, built on railway land, were demolished by the authorities.
While the railways is well within its rights to claim its land, it could have roped in the civic authorities and NGOs to ensure that people were not left out in the open in this biting cold.
A similar incident happened just before the Commonwealth Games in Delhi when slums were demolished by the civic authorities in the name of beautification of the city. Governments in the country are also not known to prepare well either for natural disasters or extreme weather challenges, and often the existing shelters are shelters in name only.
In such a scenario, insensitive comments like the one made by the UP bureaucrat only rub salt into wounds.