Centre’s decisions have led to a spike in COVID-19 cases in States: Hemant Soren

Allowing labourers to return without putting a proper plan in place has added to the confusion, according to Jharkhand Chief Minister

May 28, 2020 12:50 pm | Updated 01:28 pm IST

 Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren

Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren

Hemant Soren, who turns 45 on August 10, is Jharkhand’s young Chief Minister grappling with the twin crises of lakhs of returning migrants and COVID-19. In an exclusive interview to The Hindu , Mr. Soren said the Centre should have consulted State governments before allowing the Home Ministry to run trains without prior arrangements with States. The Centre’s decisions had resulted in a spike in the number of COVID-19 cases in States, he claimed. Excerpts:

Tackling COVID-19 is a big challenge for States. Can you tell us about the challenges that Jharkhand is facing?

The whole country is grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic. We have just started facing the challenges COVID-19 poses. With the number of returning migrant workers increasing, the challenge is going to get tougher for us. As of now, only 450 COVID-19-positive cases have been detected in Jharkhand. Of them, four have died. The case fatality rate has been nominal.

So far, Jharkhand has conducted only 53,000 tests. Is this the reason why the number of positive cases in your State remains low?

Absolutely not. If you check Bihar’s situation, you will find that we are in a better position. They should have conducted many more tests by now. Those who had been infected prior to the arrival of migrant workers have almost all recovered in Jharkhand. Now, a majority of infections are being detected among returnees. That’s why we are giving priority to testing migrant workers.

We have only four functional [COVID-19 testing] laboratories. We have made little adjustments by deploying additional testing machines. With every passing day, we are learning something. Earlier, the situation was much worse — we were getting our samples tested in Kolkata. Now, things have improved. Testing capacity has been augmented in the State.

The challenge being faced by migrant workers has become tougher. How many migrant labourers from Jharkhand are stranded outside and how many of them want to return home?

About 4.5 lakh migrant labourers have come by buses, trains and some by their own arrangements. More than eight lakh migrant labourers from our State are stranded outside. We want all our workers stuck outside to be sent back to Jharkhand with safety and dignity. I was the first Chief Minister to advocate that migrants had the right to return. As of now, 166 trains carrying migrant workers have already reached Jharkhand, another 70-80 trains are scheduled.

The Centre’s decision to go for a series of lockdowns to contain the spread of COVID-19 triggered one of biggest internal migrations since Partition. Do you think the decision to impose the first lockdown was taken in a hurry?

I have said earlier that is not the right time to do a post-mortem. When we fully recover from COVID-19, people will judge the decisions taken by Prime Minister, Chief Ministers and other ministers. We have to fight COVID-19 first.

However, I believe the Centre’s decisions are responsible for a spike in the number of positive cases in the States. Confining migrant workers outside their home States and not letting them return home are major reasons behind a rise in the rate of infection. Besides, allowing labourers to return without putting a proper plan in place added to the confusion. Earlier, workers were being sent by Shramik Special trains with a proper schedule and States had plans in place to deal with returnees.

Now, the situation has come to such a pass that a train scheduled to reach Koderma reaches Ranchi. States are unable to cope with unscheduled train movements. The State’s settled mechanism goes haywire if eight to 10 trains arrive in an unscheduled manner. Many State governments are entangled in this mess. This has happened to us, too. Earlier, two States used to send and receive migrant workers systematically. Now, the Central government suddenly took a decision that it would make trains available to States. As a result, people are not reaching their home in time. It is a strange situation we are now in.

What is the solution to this problem?

The Centre should have consulted States before taking such a drastic step. First, the process of facilitating the return of migrant labourers should have been completed. Subsequently, other steps should have been thought of. Now, that process has been disrupted.

Had the Railways run trains to full capacity and allowed people to return to their homes before lockdown, do you think infections triggered by migrants would have been lower?

That is an open secret. It is not difficult to understand. Many countries have allowed their citizens buffer time to return home. And people returned home. But in our country, States had to stop migrants going home. The situation got worse. Now, many fronts have been opened for States to grapple with. We have to keep an eye on people quarantined, send incoming migrant labourers to quarantine, fix the healthcare system and address growing unemployment. These factors have unsettled State governments.

Thankfully, we had prepared in advance to face challenges. In Bihar, migrants are forced to stay like animals in quarantine centres. You cannot find that kind of chaos in Jharkhand. You won’t find any migrant workers walking on road. We are running community kitchens at every 20 km distance on National Highways to ensure no one stays hungry. There have been examples of migrant workers dying on railway tracks and roads and women delivering babies on road. Poor people have suffered due to the malfunctioning of system. This is very tragic.

In meetings of Chief Ministers with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, you were not given a chance to speak on more than one occasion. Why did this happen?

Only the Centre can give a proper reply to this question. But, we never lost an opportunity to put forth our viewpoint. We had submitted letters giving valuable suggestions. The Prime Minister is now our captain. It is our duty to abide by his decisions.

You have tweeted about a member of the under-17 women’s football team, Sudha Ankita Tirkey, whose family had got five kg of grain and failed to get anything further. You have instructed your officers to make food available. Has the family of the player received the rations?

We have tried to bring overall changes in society. There will be stray incidents despite our efforts. I have been informed that the girl’s family has received the rations.

How will you mobilise funds to provide jobs to migrant labourers when all of them return home?

Our coffers are empty. After the imposition of GST, States do not have enough funds. We don’t have any means to mobilise resource and strengthen the economy. During consultations, I have emphasised that States should be given power to mobilise resources on their own and boost their finances. We are now seized of the matter so that we could strengthen our internal system. But it will take time. We have tried to provide jobs to all migrant workers by adding 10 lakh more to the workforce. We have formulated different programmes for both rural and urban areas.

Lockdown-4 is going to be over on May 31. What is your view on extending the lockdown?

We are assessing the situation. Our thrust will be on specific components. We have not taken any decision on this as yet. Our priority is to prevent people dying from hunger as well as disease. This is an evolving situation.

Kerala’s name is taken with high esteem among all States fighting COVID-19. One of the reasons is that they have invested heavily on basic healthcare system. If we assume COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity, will you be able to invest enough so that common people can access healthcare facilities?

I have been concerned about our healthcare system since the beginning. This time, we had amplified focus on health. Had we worked on the health sector for a full five years, it would have created a benchmark for the State. But almost as soon as we took over, we had to face the COVID-19 pandemic. As far as Kerala is concerned, the southern State has been prepared on the healthcare front since long.

Kerala and Jharkhand have an almost similar population (3.48 and 3.19 crores respectively), we both experience out-migration. While one is internal, the other experiences international migration, however, our growth trajectories and infrastructure are entirely different. With our limited resources and infrastructure, I feel confident to say that we have managed the pandemic pretty well. Right from ensuring food security (PDS, community kitchens and didi kitchens) for our people, managing and upgrading the health infrastructure and ensuring the safe return of our migrant workers to the State.

Also, we have a huge influx of returning migrants and it’s not practically possible to test each one of them, but we are ensuring screening and other measures to assess symptomatic persons and everyone’s mandatorily being sent to institutional quarantine once they reach their respective panchayats . I understand there is still a lot left to be done and that there will be a second wave of infections but I believe we are aware of the challenges and have systems in place to tackle these challenges.

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