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Thursday, June 04, 2020

Centre must use resources, skills of states, Opposition in battle against COVID-19

The prime minister has not sought to involve or invite the Opposition, led by the Congress, which has a rich body of expertise and leadership to assist in times like these.

Written by Randeep S. Surjewala , Muhammad Khan | Updated: April 4, 2020 7:24:02 am
In Chhattisgarh, which has a robust PDS system, free rations of rice are being given to around 6.5 million families for April and May.(Express photo by Vishal Srivastav)

It is a fundamental tenet of political theory that given a crisis large enough, humanity will unite to resolve and address it. This makes sense because a crisis offers opportunities for bipartisanship. Indeed, we have seen this in the state of Kerala, where the Left government and the Congress-led Opposition are working together to ensure that the COVID-19 crisis is tackled in a manner that utilises every possible resource and skill.

The approach of the BJP government at the Centre seems to run counter to this belief. The prime minister has not sought to involve or invite the Opposition, led by the Congress, which has a rich body of expertise and leadership to assist in times like these. It is also emerging that the PM did not consult with state leaders (at least non-BJP state leaders) before announcing the lockdown. Nonetheless, we place these recommendations in the public domain. We hope that the government may find them useful.

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First, involve and learn from states like Chhattisgarh, Punjab and Rajasthan. In Chhattisgarh, which has a robust PDS system, free rations of rice are being given to around 6.5 million families for April and May. Industries have been directed to provide free ration to workers and the panchayats are being provided with two quintals of rice for those who may need it. The state was among the first to set up state-of-the-art quarantine centres and as a result, there were only around seven confirmed cases in the state at the end of March.

Rajasthan, in addition to similar measures, has ensured the rapid manufacture of over five lakh hand sanitisers, innovatively, through sugar mills and distilleries, for healthcare workers. The government has also sought to ensure that migrants do not face unnecessary harassment while travelling. Punjab was one of the first states to respond to reports of police excesses and take immediate action. The state leadership also coordinated with the government of Bihar to ensure that migrant workers from the latter are adequately taken care of.

These are scalable experiences if only the Centre would create a task force comprising representatives of the states to meet every day (through teleconferencing), coordinate responses and share information in real-time. There is no viable justification for working in silos without such a central coordination committee.

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Second, testing is key to prevention. We must focus our resources and energies on ensuring tools for quick, contactless mass testing. Countries such as Germany have already introduced these measures. These will help us accurately identify and contain centres of concentration before they spread. It is equally vital to ensure the safety of our healthcare professionals and frontline workers. It is short-sighted of the central government to delay the ban on the export of surgical masks till as late as March 19 and ventilators, hand sanitisers and other breathing equipment till March 24. We must look at a clear import and manufacturing policy before it is too late.

Third, create a safety net to deal with the looming economic crisis. Even dedicated and unwavering supporters of this government are urging the PM to adopt the Minimum Income Guarantee scheme proposed by Rahul Gandhi, called Nyay, to offset the inevitable wave of unemployment. The government must also identify and listen to leaders with experience in dealing with situations like this. The Congress-led UPA government in 2009 battled the H1N1 virus as it spread throughout India and the same was ultimately contained. The lessons of that era are likely to be of great relevance and value.

Fourth, resist the urge to turn everything into a platform for personal vanity and applause. Activities like thali-clapping are no substitute for fighting this issue on a targeted, scientific and daily basis. Giving impassioned speeches does not remedy the fact that people were, once again, given only four hours before midnight to stock up on medication, essentials and to make travel arrangements. Assuming the central government had planned this a week in advance, sufficient time to the people would have alleviated the unmitigated suffering of millions of migrant workers walking home without food, medicine or shelter. The disruption in the supply chains that has caused artificial inflation of all essential commodities could have been avoided.

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The Opposition and the people have stood with the government in adhering to and supporting the decision of the 21-day lockdown. However, it is the constitutional duty of the Opposition to ask relevant questions such as how the economic package will be implemented to the benefit of the people. What about the plight of farmers, given that the harvesting season is here? How will we address resulting unemployment in a country where almost 80 per cent of the workforce is in the informal or unorganised sector? How will we address the concerns that threaten to devastate MSMEs and imperil the middle class?

A Common Minimum Relief Charter is necessary to provide clarity. The government is elected to serve the people and the actions it takes cannot be construed as charity to be celebrated in fawning tributes. The PM should remember the maxim by which all governments must abide — Salus Populi Suprema Lex (the good of the people is the highest law).

There were several ways to deal with this crisis. None of them involved treating citizens like the problem. This crisis will require improvisation and adaptation on a scale never seen before. We need to stand together if we are to rise to the challenge.

This article first appeared in print edition on April 3 under the title “Include, learn, fight”. Surjewala is the AICC media in-charge and an advocate. Khan is an advocate

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