Coronavirus lockdown | No stimulus for States yet, says Ashol Gehlot

Ashok Gehlot during the interview. Special arrangement.  

Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot has sought the Centre’s support to the States during the COVID-19 pandemic to help them revive their economies, while affirming that the package of ₹20 lakh crore had not provided any direct assistance to them.

In an interview to The Hindu, he expressed the hope that new sectors of the economy would emerge once the crisis ends. Throwing light on the measures to contain the pandemic, Mr. Gehlot asked people to acquire new knowledge and skills to make themselves suitable for the “new environment”.

Excerpts from the interview:

‘Centre needs to handhold States until their economies are back on track’

You have been claiming that Rajasthan is a model State in the distribution of ration and other materials to the poor and needy during the COVID-19 pandemic. Has the assistance reached the people not covered in the food security scheme? How much has the State government spent on it?

The Rajasthan government has set an example of helping out the poor and needy during the COVID-19 pandemic. Looking at the livelihood problems of the deprived sections of society, over 78 lakh people have been paid social security pension for three months, amounting to ₹2,100 crore. The State government has also deposited ₹2,500 each in the accounts of 33 lakh people who are not covered under the social security pension schemes. Those who did not have a bank account were given cash through the district Collector’s office. Till now, 3.60 crore dry ration kits/cooked food packets have been distributed free of cost to such people.

Tranche 1: Business including MSMEs (May 13, 2020)

Over 34 lakh people not getting wheat under the National Food Security Act have been provided 10 kg foodgrains each for three months. This has been procured by the State from the Food Corporation of India at the rate of ₹21 per kg with the total cost of ₹79 crore.

More than 40 lakh people have been provided jobs under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme since the resumption of MNREGA activities during the lockdown phases 3.0 and 4.0. The State government is leaving no stone unturned to provide help to poor people, including the migrants, during the pandemic.

Tranche 2: Poor, including migrants and farmers (May 14, 2020)

The recovery rate from COVID-19 in Rajasthan has touched 70%, which is among the best in the country. How has it been achieved and what was the role of doctors and health workers in it? Have the patients also cooperated?

The State government has utilised all resources at its disposal to contain the spread of COVID-19. We have followed the model of ruthless containment for all the hotspot areas by way of imposing curfew, sealing of the area, massive screening and total restrictions on movements. Another strategy has been to increase the number of diagnostic tests so that not a single case remains undetected. The high number of tests has also resulted in the number of positive cases going up. We have provided all the necessary medicines, equipment, PPE kits, quarantine/isolation infrastructure and moral support to the frontline corona warriors and others.

Tranche 3: Agriculture (May 15, 2020)

The role of doctors and health care workers has been very significant in checking the spread of COVID-19 pandemic. It is because of their dedication, hard work and outstanding services that the State has been able to combat the pandemic in an effective manner with 70% recovery rate.

You have laid emphasis on micro-management of COVID-19 and adherence to protocols by all stakeholders. What are the difficulties the State government has faced in fighting the pandemic and what message would you give to the people who are apprehensive about the long-term effects of the disease?

The biggest difficulty that the State had faced in fighting the COVID-19 was to conduct the testing of the large population. The capacity of testing in Rajasthan was negligible in the first week of March and as a result, the samples had to be sent to other States. Gradually, the rate of testing has increased and we have been successful in enhancing the polymerase chain reaction (PCR)-based testing capacity to more than 17,000 tests per day. Our target is to bring daily capacity level to 25,000 per day.

Tranche 4: New horizons of growth (May 16, 2020)

Some of the challenges could be listed as the huge inflow and outflow of migrants, limited availability of testing kits through the Indian Council of Medical Research and a very large number of poor people facing the sustenance issue.

My message to the people is that they should not feel scared of COVID-19. Rather, they should follow all the norms, such as the use of sanitisers and face masks, keeping the surroundings clean and adhering to social distancing, along with boosting their immunity to defeat the virus.

The long-drawn lockdowns have definitely created a sense of worry with regard to job security in future. My own sense is that we are very resilient and the roots of our economy are quite robust. Therefore, the negative impact of the pandemic is going to be temporary in nature. While some of the sectors will take a beating for some time, new sectors are sure to emerge after the crisis is over. We must be positive and optimistic with readiness to acquire new knowledge and skills and make ourselves suitable for new environment.

Tranche 5: Government reforms and enablers (May 17, 2020)

You have been very critical of the Centre’s economic package of ₹20 lakh crore to deal with the impact of the pandemic. What are its shortcomings and what are your suggestions for supporting the sectors such as agriculture, public sector enterprises, healthcare, industries and labour? Is the Atmanirbhar slogan in the package only meant for misleading the people?

Being factual in my responses to the package announced by the Central government cannot be termed as critical. The ₹20-lakh crore package has not provided any direct assistance to the States whereas it is the States which are fighting the pandemic at the ground level.

More than 90% of the package is in the form of loan to industries and businesses and not as grants. Some amount has been received in the disaster management fund but it is negligible in comparison with the requirements. This package neither provides any support to the States nor any help to the crores of people who have lost their employment.

As for my suggestions, I would say the minimum support price ceiling enhancement and inclusion of more crops in the MSP domain are vital for the agriculture sector. The government spending through public sector undertakings needs to scale up their productivity and demonstrate them as model employers to accelerate the pace of economy. The healthcare infrastructure should be on high priority to serve the twin purposes of economic revival and health maintenance. Industries and labour require a paradigm shift to make them future-ready. Most importantly, the Central government needs to handhold the States until their economies are back on the track.

Your repeated demands for financial assistance to the States have failed to get any positive response from the Centre. You have also complained that Rajasthan is not getting its due share in the taxes. Do you believe that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s talk of cooperative federalism is just for public consumption?

The economy of the whole country has received a severe jolt because of the pandemic and it has become very difficult for the States to survive on their own. We have asked for ₹1-lakh crore package for all States, economic promotion package for industry and trade, six months’ interest-free moratorium on the repayment of loans from the Central agencies, exemptions in interest on ways and means advance and an immediate release of GST compensation.

I strongly feel that the Central government should have provided direct economic assistance to the States and announced vital policy decisions in the interest of the States.

Over 13 lakh migrant workers have returned from other States to their native places in Rajasthan. What kind of challenges are they going to pose in terms of unemployment, virus infection and social conflicts? How will your government deal with them?

The State government has been taking steps to ensure that the arrival of migrant workers does not lead to a rise in positive cases. The shifting of migrant workers has happened in a phased manner, fully ensuring social distancing and screening. The home and institutional quarantine are being strictly enforced for all the migrants and an online system of monitoring is in place to ensure 100% compliance with the norms. A special migrant labour employment exchange cell has been made operational to accentuate this process.

Over 2,900 positive cases have been found among the migrants. Though unemployment is going to be a problem area, the migrant workers with their attendant skills could prove to be an asset for the State if we are able to redeploy their skills and capacities as per the needs of enterprises and industries in Rajasthan. We are imparting necessary training in partnership with the prospective employers to make these workers suitable for different jobs, than their previous ones.

The labour and industries departments are jointly working on this issue and have created a data bank of all the migrant workers so that suitable employment can be provided to them through the participation of private sector as per their needs.

Factories, mills and industrial units have restarted production in the fourth phase of the lockdown. What are the State’s plans for revival of local businesses and industries? Should the industries expect a stimulus package from the government?

The State government will take all concrete steps to help the local businesses and industries to resume their operations. The recommendations of the task force headed by former Union Finance Secretary Arvind Mayaram for restarting the economy will be implemented in the best interest of the local industries. We will also provide necessary support by way of recalibrated policies and proactive government response system.

The State already has friendly policies for trade and industries. Proactive steps are being taken by the departments concerned for supporting trade, industries, service sector, real estate, farm sector and all other sectors that would help speed up economic growth of the State.

The recent high drama at the Rajasthan-Uttar Pradesh border over sending buses hired by Congress for ferrying migrants highlighted the difference in the approach of States ruled by different parties. Do you believe that the BJP-ruled States are indulging in politics during the present crisis?

I feel that united efforts are necessary to fight the pandemic. We are making adequate efforts to help every migrant worker reach their homes. We have deployed “Shramik Special” buses along with the arrangements of food, water, etc. It is with this intention that the buses were sent to Uttar Pradesh. We all must be extremely sensitive to the unprecedented crisis being faced by migrant workers.

Despite your instructions for strengthening the quarantine facilities, several complaints about poor arrangements at institutional quarantines have been received. While the Rajasthan government insists on sending everyone coming from outside to a mandatory 14-day quarantine, the Centre’s guidelines for domestic travel do not put any such restrictions. Is there a discrepancy?

The migrants, including labourers, are coming back to Rajasthan in large numbers and to ensure that the virus infection does not spread in villages, strict arrangements for quarantine have been put in place. The quarantine management has been a very high priority of the State government for protection of lives. Quarantine committees formed at the State, district, sub-division and panchayat levels are working effectively.

The State government has prescribed a 14-day home quarantine norm for all the people coming from other States. There is no conflict with the Centre on any of the issues including quarantine. The States can decide on this for better management of the pandemic.

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Printable version | Aug 6, 2021 10:19:26 AM |

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