Around 2,000 NRIs Yet to Register With Police: Punjab NRI Minister
“Our awareness drive started very late, in the first week of March. We should’ve started by 15 January,” Sodhi says.
With the highest number of NRIs in the India, Punjab was the first state in India to announce a curfew on 23 March. Sensing the task ahead of them, Punjab's Health Minister Balbir Singh Sidhu wrote a letter to the Union government saying 90,000 NRIs had entered India in March and additionally asking for Rs 150 crore to effectively contain the spread of COVID-19.
However, almost two weeks later, Punjab's NRI Affairs Minister Rana Gurmit Singh Sodhi tells us that no money or assistance has come in yet.
In an interview with The Quint, we ask Sodhi if his ministry has been tracking the movement of NRIs, how many NRIs who entered India between January and April were tested, how many are yet to register with the administration and about the lack of co-ordination with the central government.
What is the NRI Ministry doing to aid the Punjab government to contain the spread of COVID-19?
We are trying to track the people who have arrived from outside India. We have requested them to get registered with the local police stations. Still, there are about 1,800-2,000 NRIs who are yet to register themselves. Time and again, we are requesting them to come out and register. It is not like they are criminals or suffering with a disease, but there is fear. People are telling them that their passport may be impounded or that they would be held back in the country. It is not that they are hiding, but they are hesitating to disclose.
How are we ensuring these 2000 odd NRIs register themselves with authorities?
I have instructed the Deputy General of Police NRI that all police stations must be told to convey to the NRIs that this is a sheer formality so we know where you are and it is in our records if you need to be quarantined. We will keep them under home quarantine only. However, the government needs to have these records. We have also told the members of the village panchayats to inform the police if someone has arrived from abroad to Punjab. For example, a girl from my locality was from Georgia who the police tracked cause she did not come out herself. She was placed in quarantine thereafter.
How many NRIs are there in total in Punjab?
There are two kinds of people; the ones who continue to hold Indian passports but are abroad and those who have settled abroad. I would say these would be more than 30 lakh people in Punjab.
How many of these 30 lakh people may have entered Punjab in 2020 between January to April?
I do not have the exact number as that number is only with the Government of India, but through an estimate, I’d say more than 1 lakh people have come in.
Do we know how many of these over 1 lakh people have been tested?
Only those who came to India after 15 March were quarantined. The NRIs who came before that have not been checked. Even if they are from Punjab or Delhi or from the south of India, this only started from 15 March onward.
Why was it that it only started from 15 March?
This is because the Government of India was not aware of the seriousness of the situation. The urgency to test only happened after from 15 March.
But doesn’t the Punjab government also have the authority, even if the person returned to the state via the Delhi airport or directly via the Amritsar or Chandigarh airport? Would the state government also be responsible?
Yes, you are right. It is our responsibility. However, it is also true that certain norms fixed by the central government, like the lockdown, was announced for 21 days which had to be followed by all states. So coming back to the NRIs, when they land, the airport authority norms are what is followed. These are fixed by and under the jurisdiction of the central government. There has been a lack of coordination also, I could say.
So you agree there has been a lack of coordination?
Yes. The lockdown that has been announced in India was still a lot more timely than in many other countries. Look at what has happened in Switzerland, Italy, Spain or America. I’d say Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh did a great job of ordering the curfew even before the 21 day lockdown was announced on 24 March. But when the COVID-19 cases started coming up way back in the month of December, our awareness drives should have also started. Our awareness drive started very late. It only stared in March – in the first week of March. We should have started this drive by 15 January.
Punjab’s health minister had asked for Rs 150 crore to test NRIs. has the central government responded?
No, there has been zero response from the central government.
How has it been to coordinate with the Centre?
They are communicating at the secretary level. Even CM Amarinder Singh has written to the Prime Minister and Health Minister Harshvardhan Singh, but there has been no response from the central government. The CM has asked for the immediate release of ₹6,752.83 crore towards the state’s arrears of GST compensation pending since 2 October 2019 to ease the process of tackling the disease.
Has the central government offered any assistance to Punjab?
No. Punjab is the food bowl of India and this is the important procurement season in the state, which started from 15 March. The central government must help the good and civil supplies, heath and the police departments to protect them who are working on the field. They should get maximum medical aid so they are all safe. Wheat cannot be harvested without labour. One has to cut the crop, bring them to the market, sell them, clean them, pack them, transport them to godowns, and then stack them. Then again, the grains are moved by special trains to deliver the wheat to other states. There is heavy movement of people at this time. So the government must give the state extra funds to handle this well.
Have you also reached out to the NRIs who are abroad. If yes, how?
I have done radio interviews in America, London and other countries to give assurance to families of those who are in Punjab that everything is fine. I have been told that NRIs who are in Punjab are working towards arranging for a special flight on 11 April, to return home. Many of them are parents whose kids are out of the country. NRIs who come here, don’t have their entire families here. Some are in Punjab and the others are say, in London. NRIs are being more and more co-operative. There have been rumours that NRIs will bring coronavirus with them. I have condemned this, as it a virus which does not discriminate based on colour, religion or race. Such talk is just wrong.
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