Cops accused of unfairly detaining NGO workers for doing authorised construction work

All staff members had permits to complete the construction work within two weeks so that the new building could be used as an emergency medical facility.

Described as a pack of ‘wild dogs’, a team of eThekwini Metro police officers pounced on the Aryan Benevolent Home (ABH) headquarters in Arena Park, Chatsworth, and arrested the CEO, Naren Pattundeen, and a building contractor for contravention of the Disaster Management Act (DMA).

The Metro police officers, some in plainclothes and armed, allegedly abused, reprimanded and rebuked Pattundeen, without giving him a chance to explain, before escorting him and building contractor, Roshan Lutchman, to the Chatsworth police station where they were both detained and charged, reports Rising Sun Chatsworth.

They are alleged to have been continuing with construction work of emergency isolation wards at the ABH premises on April 20, 2020, during the lockdown. About 40 labourers were also packed into four police vans and taken to the police station, where they were allegedly detained in close proximity to each other and allegedly harassed before being released.

Pattundeen, a diabetic, who must take medication at regular intervals, was apparently held in a small cell for most of the day before staff at the ABH took him some food.

The police officers were also allegedly threatening and rude towards ABH administrator Sherene Rambalee, and operations manager Vinay Nunthkumar.

They demanded to know why the administration department was still operational as it was not part of essential services and demanded that the ‘nerve centre’ of the home be shut down.

The two ABH employees explained that all staff members had permits and the functioning of the care facility depended on the administration being operational.

They added that the administrator was on duty to oversee the running of the home and ensure that Covid-19 guidelines were adhered to, the human resources department was necessary to oversee the nursing staff, the finance department was responsible for making urgent payments for goods and services, the stores were in charge of issuing provisions, the receptionist handled calls from relatives inquiring about their loved ones as no visitors were allowed, the maintenance team was on duty to effect emergency repairs, and the drivers were required to transport staff to and from the facility.

“But the police officers refused to take any heed and demanded that the entire administration department be shut down or my colleague, Vinay and I would face fines of R50, 000 and R100,000 respectively, if we did not get proper permits. The whole episode was frightening.

“This is a peaceful, caring environment for the aged and unfortunate children. To suddenly have a team of armed police officers rushing in like a pack wild dogs is unbecoming in any civilised country,” said Rambalee.

Nunthkumar explained that one of the police officers informed him that a complaint had been lodged with Metro Police on Sunday at midnight.

The metro team was then ordered to arrive at ABH to conduct the investigation.

The construction company, Rapid Builders and Contractors, was issued with a certificate dated April 17, 2020 by the Companies and Intellectual Property Commission (CIPC) of the department of trade and industry, allowing it to supply services and effect critical repairs to an essential service, in this case, the ABH.

The ABH is considered as an essential service provider under the state of disaster regulations and enjoys exemptions as it fails within the “social care services provided to older persons, the mentally ill, persons with disabilities, the sick and children (including services providing for the social relief of distress)” sector.

When lockdown was initially announced, construction work of new frail care facilities at the ABH was stopped.

However, following President Cyril Ramaphosa’s request to NGOs to continue volunteering to help the most vulnerable members of society and to reduce the impact of the coronavirus, the ABH decided to complete the construction work within two weeks so that the new building could be used as an emergency medical facility.

The ABH Arena Park Campus has 400 residents, made up of children, older persons, disabled persons and victims of abuse, and in the event of an outbreak of coronavirus, isolation wards can be quickly set up in the new building.

The ABH is also willing to allow the KwaZulu-Natal department of social development to make use of the emergency isolation facility.

Pattundeen claimed that several of the metro police officers were rude, aggressive and arrogant and were not prepared to pay heed to his and Lutchman’s explanation that the necessary permission had been sought to proceed with construction work.

“The ABH is a non-profit organisation and has kept its doors open for 100 years to clothe, feed, heal, and educate thousands of indigent aged and children. Despite these humanitarian efforts, law officers chose to act in a most despicable and disgraceful manner when it was clear that an emergency medical facility was being constructed at the premises of a bonafide essential service provider.

“Our nursing and administrative staff have put the welfare of our residents before their own health and safety and have been coming to work. Surely the police officers could see we were not open to sell goods or services at a profit. As an NGO, we are simply doing what the state lacks the capacity and resources to provide-dedicated care for the aged, frail and underprivileged children,” he said.

Nunthkumar shared that it is rather unfortunate that Pattundeen, who volunteers his time and resources without any financial return, and is committed to the wellbeing and welfare of the residents at the ABH, was treated in such a callous and uncouth manner.

He said: “Mr Pattundeen left his business which he was running to volunteer his services on a full-time basis to a home for the aged and children in need. Is this the kind of treatment he deserves for engaging in charitable work?”

Meanwhile, the ABH is to apply for a court order that will allow it to continue with construction work while adhering to all precautionary measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Metro police spokesperson Senior Supt Parboo Sewpersad stated that the matter is under investigation and could not comment any further.

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