COVID Issue Can Last Till End of 2020, Govt Role is Key: Amarinder
CM Captain Amarinder Singh talks to The Quint on Punjab’s battle against COVID-19, the Centre’s role, and much more.
“What we are facing today is an unprecedented crisis. I am sure the Centre is doing its best, as are all the states. It is a coordinated effort, though I do feel the Centre needs to pitch in more to help out the states,” Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh told The Quint in an exclusive interview.
Here are the excerpts from the conversation.
With some conditions, the Centre has allowed all agricultural operations to remain fully functional from 20 April. Do you think this relaxation will solve all the problems of the farmers and people who depend on agriculture?
Commencement of agricultural operations was imperative to meet the urgent needs of the farmers, and even more importantly, to sustain India’s food security. It definitely won’t solve all the problems. In fact, in Punjab, we started the wheat harvesting and procurement operations on 15 April itself with extensive arrangements in place to manage social distancing and other COVID-19 protocols. We have also waived payment for two months’ penal interest on farmers’ crop, which is applicable on loans availed from central co-op banks and primary agriculture co-op societies. We have also asked the Centre to waive three months’ interest on crop loans and defer recovery of crop loans by commercial banks.
You wrote to PM Narendra Modi seeking incentive for farmers to delay wheat arrival in mandis. What is that demand and did you receive any assurance from the PM?
See it is very important to ensure that the mandis are not overcrowded at this time, so we have tried to stagger arrival of the produce by giving passes to the farmers. We also want them not to bring their produce to the mandis in April itself, but to stagger it into May and June. But that would mean additional storage facilities to be arranged by them for prolonged period.
This entails an additional cost, which they cannot afford to pay, especially in the current circumstances and given the fact that there have been unseasonal rains and hailstorm recently. This has led to flattening of the crop, causing yield reduction, and also extra expenditure on draining out the water accumulated in the fields.
We had asked the Centre for a bonus to incentivise the farmers to bring their produce to mandis in a staggered manner, spread over May and June, instead of April, but are yet to receive any positive response from them. We also asked the Centre to pay Rs 100 a quintal extra to the farmers bringing in their produce in May and Rs 200 a quintal over and above MSP for June. Unfortunately, there has been no assurance or response on this so far, even though we have pointed out that the cost in paying the incentive bonus would be offset by the resultant saving in the cost of healthcare, which otherwise would have to be incurred in case of spread of this deadly virus.
You extended the lockdown in Punjab even before the announcement by the central government. Why?
The situation warranted an extension. We have been closely watching the situation across the world and the global trends showed that the curve was nowhere near flattening even in countries that had already peaked. In India, and in Punjab, we have not reached the peak yet, so it was imperative to continue following stringent measures to ensure social distancing in order to check uncontrolled spread of the pandemic.
In fact, we had announced curfew in the state even before the prime minister announced Lockdown 1.0. We in the states have our eyes and ears closer to the ground and have a better assessment of the situation. Eventually, even the Centre took into cognisance the opinion of various states in going for further extension.
PM Narendra Modi said that our fight against COVID-19 is satisfactory as of now. Do you agree?
What we are facing today is an unprecedented crisis, for which there are no benchmarks. I am sure the Centre is doing its best, as are all the states. It is a coordinated effort, though I do feel the Centre needs to pitch in more to help out the states, which are leading the battle from the front. We have no money or the equipment needed to do the level of testing recommended by WHO, but in the absence of any help from the central government, we are left to manage with our own resources, which are highly constrained.
But as far as the fight on the front line is concerned, what the doctors, nurses and health staff are doing is extraordinary, and I am sure it is among the best in the world right now. They are risking their own lives, along with the other front line workers who are out trying to save lives.
According to you, how long will the coronavirus crisis last? And what steps should the Modi government take to fight it?
From all accounts, the pandemic is going to last for some more months, possibly till the end of the year. And things are likely to get worse going forward, as studies seem to indicate. The central and state governments need to work even more closely to intensify the battle. The central government has to be more proactive and agile, especially in terms of relief packages for various sections of the people across states. They have to ensure full protection for all the front line workers.
One thing is clear, the lockdown cannot be extended indefinitely, for months. So a more focused strategy needs to be drawn up by the Centre, in consultation with the states, to balance the restrictions with a level of normalcy. Some industries have now been allowed to open but, gradually, more would need to be done. The exit strategy needs to be extremely well thought out, with no one-fit-for-all formula that can be applicable to all states, districts, and villages.
What do you want to say about the central support in providing testing kits, PPEs, ventilators, ICUs, etc? Are you satisfied or do you see a bias against the non-BJP states?
I do not know the situation in other states, but we, in Punjab, have not received any central support so far in terms of medical equipment or infrastructural support. All that we have done so far, and are continuing to do, is at our own level, with our own meager resources, which we are trying hard to ramp up through cost-cutting and judicious expenditure across non-essential departments. I am happy to share that as of now we have sufficient equipment to handle the situation as expected to evolve over the next 30 days.
I am told, in fact, by my teams in the health and other departments that we are actually ‘over-prepared’ for the next 30 days. But as I have told them, let us err on the side of excess rather than shortage. I have also told them that we need to think and prepare beyond these 30 days, and the teams are working continuously to scale up the preparedness. We are also fortunate to have several local manufacturers pitching in with their innovative products, that have received the necessary approvals after testing, and we are procuring PPEs and ventilators, etc, from them.
We are also ramping up testing facilities in government hospitals and have operationalised mobile vans for SARI (Severe Acute Respiratory Infections) testing in hotspot areas. But we do need more rapid diagnostic kits, which are slow in coming from the Centre. Of the 1.01 lakh RDKs we had ordered, we have received only 11,000 so far from ICMR. We are supplementing these with kits from the open market, which are expected to start coming in soon.
The Centre has not yet come out with a financial package for states to handle the crisis, and recently you said that this is unfortunate. But even the Centre is struggling with revenue problems. How do you think the Centre can meet the demands being raised by states?
The Centre has the option of borrowing from the national reserves to combat this national health crisis. That is something we don’t have in the states. Where do we go? The fight is at the state level, and if the states have no funds then how can India succeed in fighting the pandemic?
The states need money, and the Centre has to come to their rescue. They have to find a way out. I do not believe that the Centre is bankrupt. It is a question of managing the resources.
Rahul Gandhi criticised the PM for acting late on COVID-19. Do you agree?
Yes, definitely. Had we started screening foreign returnees back in January-February, soon after the news of the coronavirus spreading around came to light, I think we would have been better off.
We may have even been able to completely check the entry of the virus into India. Rahul (Gandhi) had warned way back in February that this crisis is coming, but still we left it till March to start taking steps.
While I am not suggesting that we should have gone for an immediate lockdown in February, a whole lot of other restrictions could have been put in place, and advisories could have been issued to the public and social distancing norms could have been imposed in offices/public places, etc, back then.
But your government also allowed the Hola Mohalla festival when the news of the disease’s spread had already broken. So was that not a failure of your government?
We had issued strict directives, and taken all preventive measures, even though there were no restrictions in place at that time. In fact, I had personally appealed to the people, as had the SGPC, and there were no political events held to mark the occasion since all political parties had decided to abstain from the same.
The festival was nowhere near the scale it is usually held on, but had the lockdown/restrictions been imposed by then by the Centre, with strict advisories, things could have been better.
Recently, you wrote to the Centre to reconsider its directives asking industry and commercial establishments to continue paying full wages to their workers during the COVID-19 lockdown period. Why do you think so?
We have to be realistic. The industry and commercial establishments have been cooperating with the government all along in this critical period but we have to remember that they also have no revenue/income generation at this moment. It is like asking a hungry man to go on feeding the poor. He may share the little food he has for a day or two but what happens after he runs out of food?
The Centre has to announce more comprehensive and realistic support measures for industry and other establishments. They have to look at ways of compensating these for continued wage payment to their workers. They have to think out of the box, and look for innovative solutions to protect the interests of the workers, in these difficult times, without causing irreparable damage to the industry/commercial establishments, etc.
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