The year that was: What made news other than coronavirus in 2020

Migrants wait in queues before boarding a bus to the railway station, during the ongoing nationwide Covid-19 lockdown.
From protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) to the lockdown and the ongoing protests against three farm laws, 2020 has been eventful even without reference to COVID-19. While these issues dominated the discourse on news outlets and social media platforms, many were overshadowed by the pandemic and its urgency.

As we move on to 2021, here is a quick round-up of all that made news in 2020:

Protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act

The year 2020 began amidst nationwide resistance against the amendment made to the Citizenship Act. While the protests began when the bill was passed in parliament in December 2019, they continued well into 2020.

The Act, which offers Indian "citizenship to any person belonging to Hindu, Sikh, Buddist, Jain, Parsi or Christian community from Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Pakistan, who entered India on or before the 31st day of December 2014", was vehemently opposed by thousands of Indians.

The Act's opponents feared that the Act, in conjunction with the National Register of Citizens (NRC), will deem minorities as well as people from other sections of society without documents as illegal immigrants.

Between December 11, 2019 and March 9, 2020, at least 802 demonstrations were held over the Act, 85% of which were protests demanding that the Act be repealed and the remaining in support of it.



The lockdown and exodus of migrant workers

The protests against the citizenship act refused to die down even as India started reporting its first few COVID-19 cases. While the first three cases were reported between January 30 and February 3, it was only after March 2 that reported COVID-19 cases started increasing.

Between March 3 and March 23, reported COVID-19 cases in India jumped from five to nearly 500. To contain the spread of the viral disease, on March 24, at 8 p.m., Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a nationwide lockdown. By midnight, with just four hours of notice, India was under one of the most stringent lockdowns in the world.

The immediate loss of livelihood and uncertainty forced millions of India's rural-urban migrants to go back to their villages. Thousands in cities like Mumbai rushed to train and bus stations as early as March 20, the day before the janata curfew was announced.

Over the next few weeks, thousands were stranded or were forced to undertake journeys spanning hundreds of kilometres, on foot, to reach their villages.


The announcement of the PM CARES Fund

By the end of March, when India was close to reporting 1,000 COVID-19 cases, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a new fund to deal with emergency or distress situations, like the pandemic. The fund, called the Prime Minister's Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations Fund (PM CARES Fund) was established as a public charitable trust with the Prime Minister as the chairperson and the defence minister, home minister and finance minister as some of the members.

The fund was criticised for its lack of transparency with the information officer of the Prime Minister's Office stating that the fund is not a public authority and does not come under the purview of the Right to Information Act.

While the fund website declares that it received Rs 3,076.62 crore in five days to March 31, no details have been declared on the amount received since then. An IndiaSpend analysis found that the fund has received at least Rs 9,677.9 crore ($1.27 billion) till May 20.

Also, another similar institution had existed since 1948 for similar purposes: the Prime Minister's National Relief Fund (PMNRF). As of March 2019, the PMNRF has an unspent balance of Rs 3,800 crore. The government has not explained why another fund was set up.

Custodial deaths in Tamil Nadu

The lockdown that was announced on March 24 was extended four times till May 31. On June 1, the first phase of relaxation of the lockdown began and 19 days later, on June 19, two traders--father and son--in Tamil Nadu's Thoothukudi district were arrested for allegedly violating lockdown rules.

Three days after the detention, son J. Bennicks died in hospital, and P. Jayaraj the next day. They had allegedly endured hours of beating and torture by the police at the Sathankulam police station. On September 26, the Central Bureau of Investigation filed a chargesheet, booking nine Tamil Nadu police officials for the alleged murders, among other charges.

The incident ignited a discussion on custodial deaths in India and their underreporting. In February, a Dalit man in Rajasthan, who was detained on theft charges, was also allegedly killed in police custody. In a prison system where nearly two-thirds of the prisoners under trial are from marginalised communities, this incident also highlighted the caste prejudices and over-targeting of certain communities.



The alleged rape of a Dalit girl in Hathras

On September 14, a 19-year-old dalit girl was allegedly raped and assaulted by four dominant caste men in Hathras district in Uttar Pradesh. Two weeks later, on September 29, the girl died of injuries in Delhi's Safdarjung hospital. The state police were accused of delaying the filing of a first information report (FIR) and the forensic examination, and cremating the victim's body in the middle of the night on September 30, while restraining the family from performing the last rites.

The case triggered massive protests which led to an enquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). The CBI chargesheet filed on December 18 indicted the state police for ignoring the victim's statement and charged the four accused men with gangrape and murder. The incident also highlighted the caste skew that drives sexual violence against women.

 
Under Section 3 of the Prevention of Atrocities Act, 1989 (Atrocities Act), a range of caste- and tribal identity-based discriminatory actions are penalised. In 2015, the Act was amended to include over 30 offences. However, the National Crime Records Bureau's annual report on crimes in India has data on just four offences. All other offences under the Atrocities Act are clubbed as 'others'. Lack of disaggregated data on atrocities means there is no measure of the daily, lived experiences of discrimination that have been penalised under law.

Also, cases under the Atrocities Act alone constitute just 8.9% of the total crime against Scheduled Castes and 5.3% of crime against the Scheduled Tribes. Of the total registered crimes against SCs in 2019, 91% of the cases are registered for offences under the Atrocities Act read with the Indian Penal Code.

In 2013, after the brutal rape and assault of a 23-year-old (who was later named Nirbhaya or fearless) in a moving bus in Delhi, the central government set up the Nirbhaya Fund for enhancing the safety and security of women in India. However, the fund remains underutilised.

 
Protests continue against the new farm laws

On September 14, when India had crossed nearly 5 million reported COVID-19 cases, parliament convened for its monsoon session. Over the 10-day session, both houses of parliament passed 25 bills each, at a rate of 2.7 bills a day.

Among these were three farm laws that were passed by a voice vote amidst protests from the Opposition. These Acts are the main reason for the ongoing farmer protests across the country.

While these protests gained national attention only in end-November when over 300,000 farmers reached the Delhi border, farmers in Punjab had been protesting against these laws since June, when they were presented in parliament as ordinances.

Since then, protests have intensified. The farmers--mainly from Punjab and Haryana--have been camping at Delhi's borders for over a month now. Some farmers from other states such as Maharashtra, Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh are also protesting against the laws.

 
Protests against clearance of forests in Goa

While protests against the farm laws were gaining momentum, citizens in the state of Goa came together to protest against developmental projects that would endanger large tracts of forest land in and around the Mollem National Park and the Bhagwan Mahaveer Wildlife Sanctuary.

On November 1, at night, thousands of citizens gathered at the railway tracks to block the doubling of the railway line between Margao and Sanvordem, which is one of the three major projects sanctioned by the government. The other two projects are a four-lane highway expansion and the laying of a 400 kV transmission line.

Including these three, 16 projects were sanctioned in two video-conference meetings held in April, when the country was focused on the COVID-19 pandemic.

The protests in Mollem continued for weeks as citizens gathered for all-night vigils and railway blockages. The support that the protesters managed to garner through social media platforms helped them get national attention.

In six years to July 2020, India has approved over 270 projects in and around its most protected environments, including biodiversity hotspots and national parks. In the same period, over 87% (2,256 of the 2,592) of the proposals for environment clearance were approved. We undertook a year-long investigation on how some infrastructure projects are damaging the environment and how legal safeguards are failing to stem this damage.

(Rizvi Saif, a recent graduate from the Asian College of Journalism and an intern at IndiaSpend, contributed to this report.)



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