Exclusive: Not the time to play politics over appointment of health minister, says Shivraj Singh Chouhan; MP may extend lockdown if needed
The immediate concern is fighting and winning this war against coronavirus and the safety of the people, Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan tells Firstpost.
The BJP government in Madhya Pradesh, which at present is grappling with the crisis of growing number of coronavirus positive cases and 76 deaths — second after Maharashtra with 223 deaths — may extend lockdown beyond 3 May, if the state is not completely out of danger.
The current government came to power in the state by toppling the 15-month-old Congress government — after a long political drama that culminated just two days before the complete lockdown of the country announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi began on 25 March. The state has functioned without a cabinet since then. Madhya Pradesh is the only state in the country with no health minister during this pandemic.
Ahead of a likely cabinet expansion on Tuesday, Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, in an exclusive interview with Firstpost, discusses in detail about his strategy to combat COVID-19 pandemic, plans to reboot the economy and redress agrarian issues.
What is the Madhya Pradesh government’s approach towards lockdown?
Government is well prepared to fight this havoc and we’re leaving no stone unturned for the well-being of people. Right from the moment I took oath as the chief minister, I focused my attention on dealing with this disaster. The first challenge before us was to supply adequate medical equipment, medicines, masks, PPE kits etc. Now the supplies have been ensured. Initially, cases of coronavirus infection were less in Madhya Pradesh. At present, the number of such cases has increased. But, in many districts, conditions are now better than before. We’ve made complete monitoring arrangements. Senior and competent officers are looking after the mechanism of the system in every field. We have given necessary guidelines to government and private hospitals, and medical colleges. We also organised a training program for private hospitals after meeting with the Nursing Home Association. Many private hospitals are proposing to give their entire hospital to deal with this epidemic. We have appointed separate cells, separate officers and set up control centres. Work is being done for better implementation of the protocol that we have got for prevention of COVID-19 by the Central government. There will be no reduction in the supply of basic needs.
Madhya Pradesh Health Department, medical staff and administration are working with full vigour to control the spread of the virus. Telemedicine centres have been set up in all the districts to help doctors directly communicate with the COVID-19-affected people through video calling. An app has been developed to monitor the quarantined persons, with the help of photo-based geo-tagging method. Training modules are being provided through WHO and UNICEF to impart immediate training to nurses and paramedical staff. To solve the problems faced by citizens during the lockdown, round-the-clock control rooms and call centres have been set up at the state and district levels. All kinds of essential facilities are being provided adequately in the affected areas.
Are you planning to relax it gradually, if so how?
The good news is that in many places we have been able to control the infections. Initially, some cases were found in Jabalpur but now the situation is under control there. The situation in Bhopal has also improved. Gwalior and Shivpuri got completely free of COVID-19 infection. The positive news makes us believe that if we all come together and fight this disaster following the rules of social distancing and staying indoors, we can defeat this menace. For me, the first priority in any situation is the well being of every single person in Madhya Pradesh. Right now, my duty is to protect their health. It is our responsibility to maintain patience and extend mutual support for a few days more to fight the pandemic.
I hope we will overcome this crisis very soon and succeed within this period itself.
In case we’re unable to get out of danger completely even after the lockdown, or if some more time is required to handle the crisis, the lockdown can be extended. The final decision will be taken on the basis of the outcome after lockdown ends and in the interest of the state.
Madhya Pradesh was much below the ladder in terms of COVID-19 positive cases and fatalities (first case of death on 25 March) initially. Why did it become the second state after Maharashtra in terms of deaths (76 deaths) gradually?
It is a challenging time not only for the state but for the whole country. We are trying our best. Initially, there were few cases in Madhya Pradesh, primarily in Jabalpur. But after that, there was a rapid increase in the number of cases around major cities like Indore and Bhopal. Tablighi Jamaat members from Madhya Pradesh, who attended the Markaz event in Delhi in March, came back and scattered into many corners and prime areas of the state. They responded reluctantly, didn’t come forward willingly and thus indirectly spread the infection. People with foreign travel history visited Indore, Bhopal and a few other places concealed the fact due to lack of awareness or other reasons. But we have increased medical facilities and are consistently trying to strengthen medical infrastructure across the state. New cases are still being found but we have divided the state into different zones. More than 400 containment areas and hotspots have been created in 26 districts. We’ve done 100 percent survey and contact tracing in all such areas. Screening and quarantining of more than 55,000 people have been undertaken. Arrangements have also been made to ensure the availability of all essential commodities in such areas.
India’s cleanest city consecutively for three years — Indore seems to have a growing number of cases — 897 cases and 52 deaths and has become a Coronavirus hotspot. What is the plan to contain it?
Indore is the prime commercial centre and densely populated city of the state. A large number of people from Indore travel abroad for business. Initially, such people concealed their travel histories and spread the infection by coming in contact with others. We are giving special attention to cases of infection found in the city. In Indore, the entire government staff, including the police and administration, along with public representatives, social workers, organizations, media and the public, has been fighting the battle against coronavirus wholeheartedly. I am confident that we will win this battle soon and Indore will set an example. I have reviewed the situation of the epidemic in Indore and the rest of the state, through video conferencing.
I have instructed on effective implementation of the strategy of ‘Identify, Isolate, Test and Treat’ (IITT) in all districts. With this strategy, we will be able to conquer coronavirus soon. The coronavirus testing rate in Indore is much higher than the rest of the state. A total of 5,120 samples have been taken in Indore, out of which 1,000 samples have been sent to Delhi for testing. So far, 3.9 lakh persons have been surveyed in the infected areas. Nearly 13 lakh people have already been surveyed in the entire city and another 21 lakh will be surveyed in the next seven days.
I have also given clear instructions for fair price ration to be sent to all districts in sufficient quantity and there should be no delay in the distribution. If there is no shop, the ration will be delivered at home. In order to ensure that vegetable and fruit crops are not spoiled, decentralised purchase of these perishable commodities can be arranged in a protective manner outside the city.
As per the instructions of the Centre, a containment plan has been prepared and implemented. Under rapid action, we have increased the number of investigation teams in the affected areas, in which three types of teams are working. One team creates public awareness and provides consultation, the second team collects samples by visiting homes and the third team provides psychological support to people by allaying their fears. We have arranged for the sample collection from home instead of hospitals so that a suspected infected person can be tested and isolated at the same time. In Indore, Bhopal and surrounding regions, instructions have been given for strict adherence to social distancing.
Coming back to power after 15 months, what according to you are the immediate concern, hurdles and challenges in combating COVID-19 pandemic?
The immediate concern is fighting and winning this war against coronavirus and the safety of the people. Hurdles and challenges are part of life. Although this situation is unprecedented, we have faced tough times earlier as well but have overcome and won every time with the support of the people of Madhya Pradesh. This time too, I firmly believe that with the support of the people, we will surely win. Saving lives is the biggest challenge in this fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the state, doctors, paramedical staff and even police have been attacked during the lockdown. What action will your government take against miscreants and what measures will be taken to prevent more such incidents?
We are continuously trying to counsel such persons so as to remove fears and misinformation about COVID-19, yet such incidents happen, which is very unfortunate. The Central government, the state governments and the entire administrative machinery of the country are repeatedly requesting people not to panic and to cooperate with relief workers. Instead, some incidents have been very disappointing. Recently, such incidents occurred in Uttar Pradesh too. No one will be spared if found disobeying the law, risking the lives of others or not cooperating. Those who attacked the officials are already behind bars under the provisions of the National Security Act and strict action will be taken against them.
What has the government done for migrant labourers and workforce in the state?
Adequate arrangements to provide food and ration to all the needy have been made. Many labourers from MP work outside the state; more than 5,70,000 workers had come to the state till 3 April. In view of the danger of infection, these migrant workers have been lodged separately in 2,792 places. Food has been arranged for them at 4,671 places in which private individuals and institutions are cooperating. Regular health check-up of migrant labourers is being done. This is the reason that only one labourer has been found coronavirus positive in the rural area, who is being regularly monitored and given required treatment. For monitoring health of migrant labourers, separate testing centres have been set up at 1,804 places at the Gram Panchayat level. A list of such labourers, who are ill, has been prepared and they are being monitored till recovery.
Recently, more than Rs 88 crore has been deposited in the accounts of 8,85,000 labourers, amounting to Rs 1,000 per worker, to help them meet their daily needs. Food arrangements have been made for daily wagers and also for those who do not fall under the BPL category but are unable to generate income due to lockdown. Instructions have given to provide two square meals to them from the amount available under the Panch Parmeshwar scheme of the Rural Development department.
Has the state government been effective in sending essential goods to poor localities?
Three months advance ration has been provided by the government to all the ration cardholders of the state. Apart from this, I have directed all district administrations that ration should be provided to the poor, labourers or any other person stuck in any district without food. So far, ration has been made available to more than five crore beneficiaries. On average, two lakh people are being fed daily in rural areas and 2.5 lakh in urban areas. The ration is also being given to those who don’t have ration cards.
How do you plan to reactivate the economy in the state?
It is, indeed, an unprecedented disaster and is surely going to disturb the economy of the state but we need to be well-prepared to face upcoming conditions at the earliest. This fact is in our checklist for the betterment and welfare of the state. The state is facing a monthly loss of around Rs 2,000 crore to Rs 3,000 crore, and we’re deeply concerned. We have formed a state-level committee to discuss measures to reboot the state’s economy and to regain the economic and financial momentum once the crisis ends. Wheat procurement is already in process. We are also planning to start the manufacturing industries soon in keeping with the central guidelines regarding COVID-19. We’ve already permitted transportation of goods, to keep the supply chain hassle-free. The production in the pharmaceutical sector is already on. We will gradually reopen remaining commercial activities across the state depending on the situation. For now, we have also allowed small economic activities in the green zones and small towns of the state. We will strictly follow the guidelines issued by the Government of India on restarting certain industries from 20 April onwards.
But it should be kept in mind that no labourer from the infected area would be allowed to report to work. All protective measures should be adhered to at the workplace. As far as possible, arrangements should be made for the workers to stay in the workplace.
When are you going to appoint ministers in your cabinet? There are allegations that the absence of a health minister has affected the fight against COVID-19.
In my opinion, this is not the right time to play such political games but we live in a democratic system, where everybody has the right to speak. However, allegations are not true. It is a fact that the council of ministers plays a crucial role in governance and ensuring the welfare of the state. As soon as I was sworn in as the chief minister, our primary focus was to prepare for this unprecedented battle, keeping in mind the safety of all public representatives as well. I am continuously coordinating with our MLAs and MPs and with their consultation, I am making decisions for the welfare of the state. Recently, we formed a 10-member committee to look after different aspects of this fight against COVID-19 and to support the mechanism built to fight this pandemic. As far as cabinet formation is concerned, whatever decision is taken, you will certainly get information about it.
Once the COVID-19 pandemic gets over, what would be your biggest challenge as the chief minister? What about the problems faced by farmers due to non-fulfilment of loan waiver promised to them by the Congress government?
Farmers are the backbone of our economy. Providing them with the right value of their crop will be our priority. We have already initiated procurement of wheat except in some districts that are affected by the pandemic. The crop loan scheme — that provides crop loans to farmers at zero percent interest — will also be continued in the year 2020-21. The previous government was considering shutting down this secure facility. Farmers are our priority and Madhya Pradesh government has been working relentlessly for the welfare of farmers. In this hour of crisis, we will give additional facilities to farmers. Agricultural activities will be encouraged in the state once this crisis gets over. As a respite, Rs 2,990 crores of crop insurance for FY 2018-19 and 2019-20 are being distributed immediately. I will do everything possible to ensure that farmers are not affected by this pandemic. I am also restarting the Sambal Yojna for the poor which can really make a difference in their lives.
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