With a record single-day spike of 9,887 COVID-19 cases, the total number of infections in India, as of Saturday, has mounted to 2,36,657 as the country entered what the Central government referred to as “Unlock 1.0”. The deaths, too, continue to rise as another 294 people lost their lives to the deadly coronavirus in the last 24 hours, taking the total death toll to a staggering 6,642. As India enters a critical stage in the fight against COVID-19 pandemic, Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot speaks to Outlook about the testing and medical facilities in the Congress-ruled state, the migrant labourers’ crisis and, most importantly, the economic revival. 

Migrant Crisis

Mr Gehlot, the world media have taken note of the migrant labourers’ crisis that resulted from COVID-19 pandemic in India. What’s the number of labourers and migrant workers who are still stranded in Rajasthan?

Rajasthan is the first state which raised the issue of permission for movement of migrants and special trains. We pressed into service free of cost Special Sharmik Buses also. As per the information, inward and outward movement of almost 13 lakh migrants has been managed by the state machinery. As on today, there are only a negligible number of migrants whose movement is to be done. We were the first one to have the online registration system for the purpose.

Many say the migrant labourer crisis was a completely avoidable one. We could have easily saved the lives that we lost in road accidents and/or due to heatstroke, starvation etc. Your views, Sir?

It had been extremely unfortunate to have seen and read about many cases of deaths and sufferings of migrant workers. But no such tragic case happened in Rajasthan. I wish to state with pain that the lockdown Phase 1 should have been enforced with a 4-5 days advance warning, so that maximum migrants would have reached their homes. Another important issue is, why special trains were started so late and so less in number. Rajasthan deployed cost-free Special Shramik Buses to mitigate the problems of movement of migrants.

There was big controversy recently over 1,000 buses that Congress General Secretary Priyanka Gandhi wanted to arrange for migrant labourers in Uttar Pradesh. The BJP says if your government had these buses, why didn’t you use them to ferry migrant workers in your own state?

The movement of inter-state buses was allowed by union home ministry very late and that too was subject to the consent of other states. Priyanka Ji was moved by the chilling scenes of the countless migrants walking on foot, sleeping on tracks, sufferings of pregnant ladies, children etc. The UP government should have welcomed her gesture. The moment union home ministry allowed inter-state buses, we were the first state to press into service free of cost Shramik Special Buses. Some states delayed their consent for our buses to enter. UP was one such state.

Do you think the controversy over buses could have been avoided? And is it a reflection of complete lack of trust between two principal parties of India?

I have already answered this. The UP government should have welcomed the gesture on humanitarian grounds.

Covid-19 Cases and State Healthcare

With over  10,128 cases as of Saturday, Rajasthan is on the fifth spot when it comes to the number of COVID-19 positive patients. Going forward, what is Rajasthan government’s strategy to contain the numbers?

Main strategy of Rajasthan is ruthless containment in hotspot areas and maximum corona testing so that no case remains undetected. By now, we have conducted approximately 4.40 lakh tests. Our case doubling rate is 19 days, which is way better than the national average. Of the total positive cases, above 6000 have already recovered and the number of active cases is 2766 and which includes 2712 cases amongst migrants. We are further strengthening each of our district hospitals.

Rajasthan has a recovery rate of about 55%. What has your government done that others could also emulate?

The current recovery rate of Rajasthan is 68.66%. When it comes to corona combat, Rajasthan can be credited with so many firsts to its account. These include imposing the lockdown from March 22, ruthless containment model of Bhilwara, detecting and pointing out to ICMR the failure of rapid antibody test kits, announcing the financial relief package for the poor and destitute. Rajasthan was also first in taking up the issue of migrants with the Centre, first one to launch 550 mobile OPD vans for non-Covid patients, first one to deploy free of cost Shramik Special Buses and the list of such initiatives goes on.

The Centre, it seems, has now left it upon state governments to manage the COVID-19 crisis. Your comment on the overall role of the Central government in the management of novel coronavirus over the past couple of months. What more do you think the Modi-government could have done?

States should have been consulted before the imposition of the first lockdown, a four-day window should have been allowed for migrants to reach their homes before the enforcement of first lockdown. Another important aspect is that Covid-related equipment, test kits etc. should have been arranged by GOI/ICMR through a mechanism of centralised procurement. Issue of migrants should have been handled with sensitivity. Economic assistance to the states should have been direct and early in addition to the broadly loan-based package of assistance to industries etc. announced by the union government.

Economic Revival

Over the past few weeks, the Centre has taken steps towards opening economic activities and resuming domestic flights. Do you think it is an appropriate time to open the economy and resume flights?

The whole country had been under lockdown for more than 65 days. Now, it is really high time to open the economic activities. Resumption of selected domestic flights is also the need of hour to facilitate the urgent nature of movement of people. It is essential for economic revival also. Of course, all this should be coupled with required precautions.

The cases across the country show no signs of abating. In fact, India has registered record cases on successive days now. Do you agree with Union Minister Nitin Gadkari that we will have to learn to live with the virus?

We have seen a high number of cases in the last few days. But this is quite understandable in view of the opening up of economic activities and allowing the movement of millions of migrants. Whatever we know about corona, it is not going to vanish soon. Hence, we will have to learn to live with it for quite some time with strict observance of required precautions.

One of the major concerns is that these migrant labourers, who were the pillar of the informal sector, have left in large numbers. Who will bring back the economy to its feet in their absence?

Inter-state massive migrations of labour has created a huge disruption. At the same time a new system of mapping of available skills of  workers and requirements of industries, has been introduced. Special purpose online employment exchange has been set up. Re-orientation of training has also been taken up in a big way by the labour department. We are trying our best to use the skills of migrant workers who have returned to Rajasthan to convert this into a win-win situation for the workers and industries.

Rajasthan has amended the Industrial Disputes Act to increase the threshold for lay-offs and retrenchment to 300 from 100 earlier. Your government has also raised working hours from 8 to 12. Doesn’t it once again exert extra pressure on the labourers and industry workers — the very same labourers who were almost abandoned when the lockdown was announced?

Rajasthan has an excellent track record of always standing by the interests of workers as well as needs of the industries. Whatever steps the state took were temporary measures to facilitate the interests of stakeholders. We are pro-active and in constant dialogue with all the concerned.

The Way Forward

The virus is here to stay and it’s amply clear now from the rising numbers. What lessons have you, as the Chief Minister of one of the largest state in India, drawn from the pandemic?

What we have learnt by now is that each state should have adequate corona testing capacity.  District-level hospitals and CHCs  should be capable to deal with corona testing and  care/treatment. Another very important learning is that private hospitals should also have capacities and willingness to attend to corona cases. Social distancing and quarantine should be enforced strictly. There are many other lessons also.

I hope it doesn’t happen, but in case there is a second wave, is your health infrastructure capable enough now? 

I wish to assure that Rajasthan has geared up to take care of the second wave of Corona, if it happens. We are strengthening our district hospitals, CHCs, PHCs and even sub centres also. We have increased our corona testing capacity from zero to 17000 per day. We have been consistently working to strengthen the health sector in Rajasthan.

What are your expectations from the Centre at the moment?

Looking at the vastness of resources with the union government, my expectations are as follows: a supplementary package for direct financial assistance to the states should be implemented; there should be a centralised system of procurement, at the level of GOI/ICMR, of corona-related testing kits, equipment etc. for further distribution to the states, to ensure quality, use of latest know-how and standardization; direct financial assistance to poor and destitutes be provided. This will help them survive and create demand for economic revival also. Genuine regular consultation with the states should be ensured treating them to be equal partners in the federal structure.

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