On May 4, BJP MP from South Bangalore constituency Tejasvi Surya entered the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) South zone COVID war room during work hours (around 3 pm) and alleged that 16 of its workers were involved in a bed-for-bribe scam. Every person he accused hailed from the Muslim community. Surya claimed that he has evidence of their involvement in the scam. On May 5, The Hindu reported that most of these workers were fired.
The entire fiasco was live-streamed on the BJP leader’s social media account. He was accompanied by his uncle and Basavanagudi MLA Ravi Subramanya, Chickpet MLA Uday Garudachar, and Bommanahalli MLA Satish Reddy.
Starting from the 11:59 minute mark of Surya’s press conference, a two-minute clip has been widely circulated on WhatsApp. It shows Surya reading out 16 names and asking Special Commissioner Thulasi Maddineni, “Are you appointing for Madrasa or Corporation?… Who are they? Which agency?”
16 Muslim workers branded as ‘terrorists’ in WhatsApp forwards
A WhatsApp text was circulated with the names listed by Surya and the BBMP employees were labelled as ‘terrorists’ in a matter of a few hours.
(Viral text: ಆಸ್ಪತ್ರೆಗಳಲ್ಲಿ ರಾತ್ರೋರಾತ್ರಿ ಬಿಬಿಎಂಪಿಯಿಂದ ಬೆಡ್ ಬುಕ್ಕಿಂಗ್ ದಂದೆ: ಇದು ಭ್ರಷ್ಟಾಚಾರ ಅಲ್ಲ, ಸೋಂಕಿತರ ಹತ್ಯೆ ಏನು ಮಾಫಿಯಾ ಇದು. Helpline ಗೆ appoint ಆಗಿರುವ 17 ಜನರ ಹೆಸರು ಕೇಳಿ,,, ಇವರ್ಯಾರೂ MLA, MP ಗಳ ಫೋನ್ ಎತ್ತಲೂ ಸಮಯ ಇಲ್ಲದವರು..ಕಾನೂನು ವ್ಯವಸ್ಥೆ ಅಂತ ಏನಾದ್ರೂ ಇದೆಯಾ?? List of terrorists working in BBMP WAR ROOM killing thousands of Bengalurians.)
In response to the pandemic, several states have set up round-the-clock call centres that provide end-to-end support for citizens – from giving medical advice on a symptom to booking hospital beds. Last week, The Hindu reported that the BBMP COVID-19 helpline (1912) has 400 lines and receives about 3,000 calls from citizens across the city every day. BBMP Chief Commissioner Gaurav Gupta told The Hindu that the helplines are connected to the zonal war rooms.
Alt News gained access to the employee list of the South BBMP COVID war room. The list names 205 employees along with their employment ID, designation, mobile number, shift category, date of joining, and team name.
The 16 names mentioned in the WhatsApp text are listed in the same chronology as heard in Surya’s video. All names mentioned in this text were in the BBMP employee list except for one person. Most of them joined in the last week of April and they’ve been allocated specific shifts.
Special Commissioner Thulasi Maddineni told Alt News, “Just like everyone, the 16 members were hired based on their qualifications via a third-party recruiting agency. BBMP wasn’t involved in the recruitment directly.” On May 6, The News Minute (TNM) reported that the recruiting agency in question was Crystal Infosystems.
Shivu Naik, project manager at Crystal Infosystems, informed Alt News, “Out of the 16 names, 11 were detained on the night of May 4. They were kept at the police station until the wee hours of May 5.” Naik also clarified that one of the persons whose name isn’t on the employee list is a former employee at South BBPM COVID war room.
DCP Harish Pandey denied that the 16 men were detained. “The 16 names were not relevant at the current stage of the investigation. Hereon, the case has been transferred to the city crime branch. None of the people mentioned by MP Tejasvi Surya was detained,” he said speaking with Alt News. The News Minute, however, reported that the outlet met the group while they were being released from the Jayanagar police station on May 5. “Yet, Sandip Patil, Joint Commissioner of Police (Crime) flatly denied that they had been summoned or detained.”
One victim says some people were detained
Alt News reached out to all 16 individuals named by Surya. However, only one of them agreed to speak with us on the condition of anonymity. “Soon after Mr Surya’s press conference, we were fired. When I asked for an explanation from my manager, he said there is pressure from the MP. I can’t believe this happening to me. I am the only bread earner of the family,” he said.
We reached out to the concerned manager but he refused to comment. However, Crystal Infosystems project manager Shivu Naik claimed that the 16 employees haven’t been fired. “They are suspended until the police investigation is complete,” he said.
Furthermore, contradictory to the DCP’s claim, our source said, “Some of the people who were working in the night shift were detained at Jayanagar police station on May 5. The rest of us went to the police station and requested them to check our call logs and bank transactions to prove our innocence. We also tried to raise an issue about the WhatsApp text that labelled us as terrorists but no one took us seriously. Around 3 pm we learned that a protest was being held at our workplace. So we headed there.”
“Once we reached the protest site, journalists took our statements. However, as we approached to join the protest, BBPM officials and police warned us to not get involved else we might be put in jail,” he added.
When we asked him if there is any update from BBMP about his job he said, “There has been no update. Moreover, after the way we were treated I don’t feel like working there anymore. I’m looking for a new job.”
Tejasvi Surya falsely claimed BBMP website showed zero beds were available
After his press conference on May 4, Surya tweeted that his ‘outrage’ reformed the system as the BBMP website, which earlier showed zero beds available under the government quota, now showed 1504 beds available.
This afternoon BBMP website showed zero beds available in Bengaluru under Govt Quota.
Right now, it is showing 1504 beds as available.
System is reforming. pic.twitter.com/j59Q8Cuk8X
— Tejasvi Surya (@Tejasvi_Surya) May 4, 2021
Readers should note that the 1504 beds were the subtotal beds available in government medical colleges, government hospitals, private medical colleges and private hospitals.
Archived pages of the BBMP website show that the beds in the subtotal section on April 28, April 29, May 2, and May 3 were 1716, 1837, 1180, and 1506. Surya’s claim that there were zero beds available before he visited the BBMP COVID war room is false.
In fact, before his press conference was held, BBMP Commissioner Gaurav Gupta had tweeted that some 2,000 beds were available around 11 am.
ಹಾಸಿಗೆ ಲಭ್ಯತೆ ಮತ್ತಿತರ ನೆರವಿಗಾಗಿ ದಯವಿಟ್ಟು ಬಿಬಿಎಂಪಿಯ 1912 ಸಹಾಯವಾಣಿಗೆ ಕರೆ ಮಾಡಿ.
— Gaurav Gupta,IAS (@BBMPCOMM) May 4, 2021
Alt News studied the number of beds listed on BBMP and noticed that they are categorised into General, High Dependency Units (HDU), Intensive Care Units (ICU), and ICU + Ventilators. Over 80% of beds are in the General category and the remaining are for specialised needs which have been in high demand particularly in the second wave. Surya’s stunt had no impact on the availability of beds in the non-general category.
The following screenshots show that the number of beds in HDC, ICU, ICU + Ventilator category as of May 7 on BBMP’s website is zero. A possible explanation behind this is the excess demand for the non-general category beds.
BBMP bed scam – A brief
On May 1, Bengaluru Mirror published two reports (Agent 420, Khadi is earning its bed & butter) which revealed harrowing experiences faced by patients who reached out to BBMP for help. Several patients were allotted beds in private hospitals or charged heavy fees for the same.
A senior civic official told The Hindu, “From what has come out now, clearly there has been bed blocking and some have tried to make money out of the scarcity of oxygenated beds and ICU beds. But it may not be very widespread [as sought out by Surya].”
On May 5, Joint Commissioner of Police (Crime) Sandeep Patil told TNM that the four accused in the case are Rihan, Shashi, Rohith and Nethravathy. The police started the investigation following Tejasvi Surya’s allegations. Patil said that they were able to trace payments to two people.
The Hindu reported that Nethravathy, 40, and Rohith Kumar, 22, were caught after the police conducted a sting operation. A team, posing as relatives of a COVID-19 patient, approached them for beds. Harish Pandey, South Bengaluru DCP told the media outlet, “They would charge anywhere between ₹20,000 and ₹40,000 depending upon the financial status of the person asking for a bed.”
BBMP Joint Commissioner Sarfaraz Khan files police complaint after Surya’s stunt
The message made viral on WhatsApp after Surya’s communal accusations stated that BBMP Joint Commissioner Sarfaraz Khan should be held accountable for the recruitment of the 16 Muslim men.
Khan made a passionate post on Facebook where he clarified that his role in BBMP is related to waste management and not COVID war rooms. TNM reported that Khan has filed a complaint with the Bengaluru Police Commissioner against his name being linked to the bed scam.
How Surya was lauded by a section of mainstream media
Several media outlets — NewsX, Republic TV and Times Now — lauded Surya for unearthing the BBMP bed scam. But they failed to ask the lawmaker to present evidence for the allegations against the 16 Muslim men.
Tejasvi Surya revisited the Bengaluru South COVID war room on the evening of May 5. BBMP staff said that he apologised to the employees working there and said that he was just ‘reading out a list’ that he was given. Surya’s office has denied that he apologised. But apology or not, the damage was already done. A report by The Hindu quotes a war room employee admitting that it has become difficult to answer emergency calls. “If we say there is no ICU bed, people ask our names to find out which community we belong to. Some offer us money for a bed, others abuse us,” he said. A senior civic official overseeing the war rooms also said several employees have stopped coming, while others have quit. The South zone war room saw a 40% absenteeism. “The police have not harassed anyone, but these youngsters and their parents are scared,” the official said. A report in Times Now further says that Surya’s stunt may have been a diversion from MLA Satish Reddy who has been allegedly using his influence to get beds blocked by Bommanahalli zone war room for patients who do not need them. Reddy was one of the politicians who accompanied Surya in his ‘raid’. He has denied all allegations.