Poorly-planned lockdown and unlock caused COVID-19 spike in Chhattisgarh, says CM Bhupesh Baghel

Chhattisgarh may have become synonymous with Left-Wing Extremism, but there’s more to the state than long-standing insurgency. The central Indian state, carved out of Madhya Pradesh only 20 years ago, comprises one of the richest regions of India in mineral and natural wealth. Yet, it has for long remained one of the most backward states of the country.

Governed by the Congress since it came to power in late 2018 after toppling the 15-year-old Raman Singh government of the BJP, it has lent solidity to the Grand Old Party of India by being an oasis of political stability, unlike the neighbouring Madhya Pradesh, where the Congress government led by Kamal Nath fell within a year-and-a-half in office.

Although Chhattisgarh remained unaffected in the initial phases of COVID-19 infections in India, cases suddenly spiked during the fourth phase of the lockdown — 1,549 positive cases as of now. Even though the death toll in the state due to coronavirus (eight so far) remains way below the figures from the most-affected states, the constant rise in the number of infections is alarming.

Chhattisgarh chief minister Bhupesh Baghel, in an exclusive interview, speaks on the state’s preparedness to deal with the sudden rise in the number of COVID-19 infections, measures to rehabilitate the migrant labourers who returned to the state after the lockdown began in the country in late March, state recording one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country despite combating Naxalism and more.

We are aware that the virus is not indigenous, but came from abroad. When it started spreading, we were quick to take preventive measures. Chhattisgarh was among the first few states that had decided to defer all public programmes, shut down schools and colleges, and observe the ‘Janta Curfew’. We quarantined all people who came from abroad, then we isolated people who had attended the Tablighi Jamaat function in Delhi. We were very strict about sealing the borders. That is how we managed to contain the spread initially.

Similar to the way the nation got a shock due to demonetisation, this unplanned lockdown had the same effect on the people. If the lockdown and unlocking had been executed in a planned manner, the coronavirus wouldn’t have spread in the manner it has now.

In fact, during the fourth phase of the lockdown, migrant labourers were returning to their home states from the states where they were stranded. During their travels, many labourers came in contact with infected workers. This obviously led to a spike in the cases of COVID positive patients, once they reached Chhattisgarh. But, I want to make one thing clear — the migrant workers are not responsible for this. It’s the unplanned way in which lockdown was executed that led to this sudden rise in positive cases in the state and the labourers became poor victims.

However, when migrant labourers from all over the country started returning to their home states, we did consider the possibility of the rise in cases of infection, and hence, we prepared in advance.

We have built 21,014 quarantine centres for migrant labourers and made it mandatory for those returning to Chhattisgarh to stay for 14 days in these centres. Most of these labourers were kept in quarantine centres near their villages only. Nearly 2.5 lakh labourers have already completed the prescribed duration of quarantine and have returned home.

I strongly believe that we will be able to control the spread of this infection.

The state government has made arrangements for all kind of facilities for the people staying in quarantine centres. More than four lakh labourers have availed of these facilities. Despite challenges and difficult circumstances, the officials of all the departments have done commendable work at ground level.

Managing several lakh people in quarantine centres is not an easy task; especially when they came back after sufferings for two months and troublesome journeys. We did receive a few complaints from certain quarantine centres, but those were resolved on time. However, these were isolated incidents that were resolved immediately.

What has the government done for the workforce and migrant labourers who are now at home?

It was a humongous task. No one was aware of the number of people working in other states — not only labourers, but many others. We started with collecting data and helping them then and there. After the second lockdown, they started coming back.

Nearly 3.13 lakh migrant labourers have returned to Chhattisgarh and they are being offered employment opportunities under MNREGA near their homes. When they were in quarantine centres, we offered them the opportunity to register themselves under MNREGA. Also, the BPL families with ration cards are being provided free 105 kg rice as three-month stock. The families who do not have ration cards are also being provided five kilograms of rice. Migrant labourers are also being provided skill development training as per their choice.

In this fifth phase of lockdown, which is more about unlocking — what steps has your government been taking in easing things?

All the decisions in the state have been taken in compliance with the guidelines issued. Relaxations for markets, business establishments, industries and other organisations have been given as per the guidelines. However, the restriction on the opening of malls, restaurants, clubs, educational institutions, ceremonies etc still continues to control the spread of the infection.

According to a survey by Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), Chhattisgarh’s unemployment rate had hit a 12-month low of 3.4 percent in April — much lower than the national rate of 23.5 percent, which is commendable. How could the state achieve it?

When the lockdown was announced, we were aware that we have to fight the pandemic cautiously and at the same time we were worried about the employment prospects in the state. We had started planning it from day one. During the lockdown, the Chhattisgarh government provided employment to people in rural areas under MNREGA to save the rural economy. Presently, 23 lakh labourers on an average are working every day under various ongoing MNREGA jobs in our gram panchayats. There was a time in the second and third week of April when Chhattisgarh was generating almost 90 percent of the total MNREGA jobs in the country.

Apart from this, under the Farmer Insurance Scheme, Rs 900 crore has been transferred into the bank accounts of farmers. Even during the lockdown, we ensured that labourers in Chhattisgarh face no shortage of employment opportunities.

The RBI has also appreciated the steps taken in Chhattisgarh during the COVID-19 crisis. It has been stated in the RBI reports that economic development rate of Chhattisgarh is better than many other developed states. During this time, forest produce collectors have also been given relief. The support price of Mahua flower has been hiked from Rs 18 per kg to Rs 30 per kg. As many as 25 minor forest produces are being procured at support price in Chhattisgarh.

Your government has initiated the much talked about ‘Rajiv Gandhi Kisan Nyay Yojna’. How is it going to help farmers?

Rajiv Gandhi Kisan Nyay Yojana is in a way a small component of the original NYAY scheme, a dream project of Rahul Gandhi. The theme is to transfer money into people’s pocket directly. Under Rajiv Gandhi Kisan Nyay Yojna an amount of Rs 5750 crore will be transferred into the bank accounts of over 19 lakh farmers. On 21 May — the day of Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated, we transferred the first instalment of Rs 1,500 crore under the scheme into the bank accounts of farmers. This amount will prove extremely beneficial for farmers during this period of crisis, helping them to procure seeds, fertilisers, etc. Here I would like to mention that earlier, we had made record procurement of 83 lakh metric tonnes of paddy, which has led to a significant improvement in the rural economy of our state.

What steps has the Chhattisgarh government been taking to revive the state’s economy?

It is too early to assess how much effort we would have to put to bring the economy on track again because we can manage our state but we don’t know how the markets around the state will respond post-COVID. We have taken several steps to revive the economy of Chhattisgarh.

As I told you, the transfer of additional amount into the accounts of farmers, first as payment for paddy procurement of 83 lakh metric ton and later under Rajiv Gandhi Kisaan Nyaya Yojana, has strengthened the rural economy of the state. In addition, we have paid nearly Rs 1,400 crore as wages to MNREGA workers. All the industries in the state have resumed work and they have been provided several packages. We have provided a concession of 30 percent in the guideline rates and two percent concession in the stamp duty to promote sale and purchase of land. The single window system has been launched to simplify the process of getting approval for housing schemes and other arrangements.

You have recently written to Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman that the state has been facing some hurdles in availing the additional five percent of GSDP borrowing from the Centre. Please elaborate.

Yes, I have written a letter and requested her to reconsider the Centre’s decision to link the increased borrowing limit of states to specific reforms and allow the states to enhance their resources during the COVID-19 crisis without any conditions.

Considering the demand of states, the Centre has allowed an additional borrowing limit of five percent of GSDP, but the state governments are unable to avail the benefit due to non-fulfilment of criteria. We have demanded that the states be allowed to avail the additional borrowing limit of two percent without any condition.

Is Naxalism the biggest challenge faced by Chhattisgarh?

This issue has been discussed enough. A part of the state is affected by Naxalism, but the Naxals have lost the trust of local people. Successful implementation of state government’s welfare schemes has hit the right chord to solve this problem. We are committed to providing benefits of education, employment, health, and other schemes even in the remotest of the areas. Naxalism is one of the challenges, but not the main challenge before us. If I prioritise the challenges, I would say malnutrition, poverty, lack of education and healthcare facilities are bigger challenges. Our main aim and priority are to solve these problems.

The judicial commission’s inquiry report of December 2019 proved that the 2012 Sarkeguda encounter during the previous Raman Singh government was fake and those 17 people killed were not Maoists. What is your next course of action, as you had said that a guilty in this case will not be spared?

We are examining the report and I have asked officials to come up with actionable points. As and when actionable points are ready, we will put the Action Taken Report in the House, and it will be made known to you too.