COVID Meet: Amit Shah Appears At Last – Will States’ Needs Be Met?
States are currently reeling under acute pinch of funds amid lockdown – Is Centre the oblivious to their distress?
Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s absence from the third video conference between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and state chief ministers is telling. It speaks of the futility of an exercise that is mostly a one-way street and scripted to boot.
All chief ministers were asked to attend, but only nine chosen ones were invited to speak. Four are from the BJP (Vijay Rupani of Gujarat, Manohar Lal Khattar of Haryana, Jai Ram Thakur of Himachal Pradesh, and Trivendra Singh Rawat of Uttarakhand), three are allies (Nitish Kumar of Bihar, Conrad Sangma of Meghalaya, and Zoramthanga of Mizoram), and the eighth is so friendly he might as well be counted as a BJP ally (Navin Patnaik of Odisha). There was only one speaker from the Opposition, V Narayanasamy of the Congress who heads the tiny state of Puducherry.
Modi 2.0’s Radio Silence On Critical Issues
Consequently, the interaction did not address any of the hot button issues arising out of the lockdown. For instance, Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray has thrown up his hands and has been pleading for the Centre’s help in repatriating restless migrant labourers back to their home states. He shot off a letter to Modi last week, expressing his helplessness in continuing to feed and shelter them without central assistance.
The PM skirted the issue completely, and since Thackeray was not on the list of speakers, he couldn’t raise it.
It was left to Nitish Kumar to field it in a strange roundabout manner, which seemed to be a rap on his Maharashtra counterpart’s knuckles. Kumar read out provisions of the Disaster Management Act that prohibit interstate movement of people and vehicles. “If five people come on the road and make demands, then should the government buckle? Is this the way governments run?’’ he is quoted as having said when it was his turn to speak.
It’s not clear what Thackeray made of this. There may be some indication in the next issue of the Shiv Sena’s mouthpiece, Saamna.
There was radio silence on another critical issue that states have been flagging – mounting revenue losses because of the ban on alcohol, and crashing petrol sales.
Liquor and petroleum products are the two biggest money spinners for states. Their exchequers have been bleeding since the Centre declared a national lockdown from 24 March and prohibited the sale of alcohol and tobacco. Petrol sales are virtually non-existent because vehicular movement is restricted.
Chief Minister Narayanasamy tried to flag the issue with the PM, but met with no response. Last week, his party compatriot in Punjab, Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, had hit out at the Centre on this. He said his state was losing Rs 6,000 crores because of the liquor ban, and demanded compensation from the central government.
States Reeling Under Acute Pinch Of Funds – Is PM Oblivious to Their Plight?
Other top-of-the-mind concerns are the lack of safety equipment for frontline health workers, shortage of testing kits and/or supply of defective ones, the need for ventilators and hospital beds, and a clear protocol for the handling of the pandemic.
States are also feeling the acute pinch of funds. Over Rs 30,000 crores are due to them in GST refunds. After much begging, the Centre released around half the amount, but there’s no word on when the rest will be given.
While states are being denied revenues that they could have raised from liquor and petrol sales, they are being asked to bear the cost of sheltering and feeding jobless migrant workers, upgrading health facilities to deal with a possible explosion of COVID cases, and buying all the paraphernalia required to manage the pandemic.
These were among the many issues chief ministers had hoped to discuss with the PM. They were also expecting to glean hints on a roadmap for exiting the lockdown and beginning the process of economic recovery.
Modi seemed quite oblivious to their concerns. He spoke at length in a monologue which sounded much like his last Mann ki Baat. And he sprinkled his speech with homilies, like maintaining “do gaz doori’’, and making the wearing of masks a way of life in the future.
Ironically, while the CMs had pinned their hopes on the PM to outline an exit plan from the lockdown, Modi turned the tables on them by asking each state to prepare their own roadmaps and revert to the Centre.
Amit Shah Moves to the ‘Front Row’ At Long Last – And To Do What?
There were two interesting takeaways from the meeting. One was an intervention by Amit Shah. Although the Home Minister has attended previous video conferences with the chief ministers, he has remained silent and let Modi do the talking. In fact, he has been unusually silent through the entire health crisis, although his ministry is the nodal point for all coordination and enforcement of the Disaster Management Act.
He seems to have finally decided to move to the front row.
He spoke for the first time at the video conference, and wagged a stern finger at the chief ministers to strictly enforce the lockdown in red zones in their respective states.
The message seemed largely directed at West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who has been locked in a running battle with the home ministry over the management of the lockdown in certain parts of the state, particularly the Muslim pockets.
Mamata’s Stoic Appearance
And this was the second interesting point that emerged from the meeting: Mamata’s remarkable refusal to rise to the bait and maintain her composure. Initial reports indicated that Mamata would skip the video conference, like Vijayan, but at the last minute, she decided to attend although she was not slotted to speak.
She kept quiet through the two and a half hours that the meeting lasted, without a flicker of emotion on her face even at Shah’s admonishment.
What States & Centre All Agree Upon: Lockdown Through May
Despite the disappointments and unspoken complaints about the entire exercise, there is one point on which both the Centre and the states seem to agree: all want the lockdown to continue through the month of May.
There may be some tinkering here and there, to create the optics of a ‘phased exit’. But both the Centre and the states are very clearly averse to taking risks at the moment.
(The writer is a Delhi-based senior journalist. She tweets @AratiJ. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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