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BW Businessworld

Ashok Gehlot;- Centre Should Provide Autonomy To States To Issue Norms At The Local Level

“Our aim is to strengthen the health infrastructure in all districts so that testing and treatment for the novel coronavirus can be provided in all district hospitals”

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The battle against the coronavirus has already put enormous strain on the finances of states even as they try to cope with the adverse impact of the lockdown on their economies. To add to their woes, they now have to deal with the return of migrant labourers from different parts of the country, which is further straining the containment efforts. Rajasthan, for instance, is emerging as the new hotbed of Covid 19.  BW Businessworld’s Manish Kumar Jha speaks with Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot to get an idea of the challenges before the state. Excerpts

Covid-19 cases in Rajasthan number 2,328 now. What is the way forward?

The state government is putting all the resources at its disposal to contain the spread of the coronavirus. The total number of cases in Rajasthan (as on 9 May till 9.00 am) is 3,636. Out of which 2,021 people have recovered fully, while 1,771 people have been discharged from the hospitals. Over 1,52,245 samples have been collected (until 9.00 am on 9 May) for testing in Rajasthan.  

The death rate from Covid-19 in Rajasthan is much less than the national average. The rate of testing in Rajasthan is perhaps the highest in the country after Kerala. We had procured Rapid Test Kits as per the ICMR guidelines and approval. Unfortunately, the Rapid Test Kits results were incorrect to the extent of 95 per cent. If they had been of good quality, the rate of testing in Rajasthan would have been even higher. In addition to this we have been successful in increasing daily PCR testing capacity from zero in the first week of March to 10,000 per day in the first week of May. Our target is to take the daily testing capacity level to 25,000 per day. 

We firmly believe that we will be successful in checking the spread of the disease very soon. Our aim is to strengthen the health infrastructure in all districts so that testing and treatment for the coronavirus is provided in all district hospitals.

Along with this, another big challenge is how to restart industrial activities and bring the state economy back on the track. 

Since you have been leading the fight against Covid-19 in the state, could you talk about your experience so that it may broaden the collective response of the states in this fight?

Indeed, Rajasthan has been at the forefront in the war against Covid-19. The steps taken by the state government to contain the spread of the coronavirus have been appreciated not only in India but in other countries as well. The Bhilwara model is one such example.  

Our experience during the war against Covid-19 has been that curfew should be strictly enforced in the affected areas and those areas should be sealed and only except essential services should be allowed there. Secondly, extensive testing should be resorted to, so that not a single case remains undetected.

Thirdly, I would like to emphasise that the poor and needy persons should not go hungry even for a day in every state. Besides, special care should be taken to ensure that the morale of coronavirus warriors remains high.

Your initiatives on migrant workers have been effective. Will the migrant workers from other states in Rajasthan be retained? And, how you would plan to bring migrant workers from other states to Rajasthan? 

Currently, we are into the third phase of the lockdown up to 17 May 2020. The long period of the lockdown has bred restlessness among the migrant labourers from Rajasthan who had gone to other states in large numbers and now they all want to come back to their homes. I had requested the central government many times to help facilitate their return. The central government had accepted the request and issued orders for the return of migrants and labourers to their native place.  

Special trains were required to be made operational for the purpose. I am happy that ultimately the government of India acted on our request and have started operating special trains for ferrying stranded migrant labourers. The state on its part has created an online platform where migrant labourers who wish to return to Rajasthan or go out of the state can register. Over 18.76 lakh people have registered till 8 May 2020, out of which 10.64 lakh want to come from outside while 8.12 lakh want to go out of Rajasthan. 

The registered number is very high and the central government guidelines allow only stranded migrant labourers, tourists, pilgrims, students and others. The number of trains made available are very limited and consent of other states is essential for any such transportation either way, hence I believe the shifting is going to happen in a phased manner and only for those who are stranded and have registered. Till date we have been able to ensure the transportation of almost 4 lakh stranded labourers. 

You raised the issue of the states’ autonomy with regard to deciding the norms for economic and industrial activities as the states best know their circumstances. Could you elaborate on this?

It is very necessary to restart economic activities and trade in a phased manner under the modified lockdown. The circumstances of each state are different and so is the extent of the spread of the disease and the condition of hotspots. In such a situation the central government should provide autonomy to the states to determine norms at the local level instead of asking them to follow directions meant for the entire nation. This will enable more and more industries re-start their operations with a certain level of ease. In any case, the economic revival has now become a challenge of unforeseen magnitude. It would require collective efforts of the Centre and states for a fairly long period. 

What would you expect is an economic package for Covid-19? What is the way to address the plight of India’s MSMEs and more than 11 crore affected workers?

The economy as a whole has received a severe jolt because of the lockdown and it has become very difficult for the states to survive on their own. 

I had put forth 15 important suggestions before the Prime Minister as a follow-up of the video conference held on 27 April 2020. The main points include:

• An economic package for all states; package for trade and industry, scheme for payment of lockdown period salaries by the trade and industries to their workers.

• Ceiling on loans to the states be increased from 3 per cent of GDP to 5 per cent of GDP, 6 months interest-free moratorium on the repayment of loans from central agencies, exemptions in interest on wage and means advance.

• Immediate release of GST payable to the states. 

• Centralised procurement of medical equipment by GoI / ICMR and making them available to the states as per their requirements. 

• Selection of beneficiaries of food security on the basis of estimated population of the year 2019-20 in place of census of 2011.

I feel strongly that a stimulus package should be announced immediately by the central government. This should also be coupled with vital policy decisions in the interest of the states.  

Thanks to the Covid-19 crisis, opportunities have emerged for attracting global investors fleeing China to set up their factories in India. How do you view such investment opportunities? Do you have a message for such investors in terms of policy measures?

The state has always taken effective steps to attract investments whether indigenous or foreign, but the corona pandemic has adversely affected the industries and trade sectors. 

At present our focus is only on two things. First, to effectively fight against this pandemic and secondly, to ensure that factories and industries resume their operations smoothly. This in turn would also ensure people resuming their employment. Facilitation of new investors would be dealt with once we are seen off this pandemic phase. 

A task force will be constituted shortly to examine the issue of facilitating all such industries intending to come from China to Rajasthan. 

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