States with their limited resources will have to shoulder the greater burden of economic crisis that will follow COVID-19, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said in an e-mail interview, adding that Kerala plans to open up the construction sector in the non-hotspot areas to help migrant workers earn a living during the lockdown.
Kerala has managed to flatten the COVID-19 curve, which other States are still struggling to do. What is it that Kerala primarily got right ?
The State administration, socio-political organisations, voluntary organisations and the general public at large are jointly taking on this menace. I feel that the flattening of the curve has happened because of this united resolve. At the same time, we are guarded against any complacency that can creep in at any time and any juncture.
As you may recall, we had to undertake a tedious path of observation, detection, prevention, chasing the contacts, isolation and treatment as part of the strict regime we adopted right from the beginning. The country’s first coronavirus case was detected in Kerala on January 30 after a student who returned from Wuhan in China was tested positive. Two more Wuhan returnee students later tested positive. Following the detection of positive cases, we declared a ‘State calamity warning’ and over 3,000 contacts of these patients were placed under surveillance. We have managed to do contact tracing well.
Till date, (as on April 16) there have been a total of 387 confirmed cases of coronavirus infection in Kerala and 167 patients are currently under treatment in various hospitals across the State. 264 of the confirmed cases were people who had come to Kerala from outside the State and from abroad, eight were foreign nationals and 114 were cases of local transmission.
Kerala’s inalienable strength is our excellent social infrastructure, built over a period of time.
When this government assumed office in 2016, we constituted four missions to address Kerala’s new generation problems. One of the four, “Aardram” mission, is to improve our public health sector to global standards. We have already converted 170 primary health centres to Family Health Centres, where more facilities have been provided. We have provided more doctors, nurses and technicians to facilitate this. In the second phase, we are converting 504 PHCs to Family Health Centres.
And finally, we make it a point to have maximum possible testing done on a daily basis to ensure that our protocols are in position.
During the Prime Minister’s meeting with the Chief Ministers, you had suggested that post April 14 when the first round of lockdown was to end, the migrant workers should be allowed to return home in special trains. The Union Government doesn’t seem to be heeding to your advice.
First of all, I differ with the coinage of ‘migrant’ workers. For us, they are guest workers. We treat them at par with our own people and ensure that every welfare measure initiated by our government should reach them too. We have extended full assistance in the form of food, proper shelter and healthcare to the,
It is quite natural that they want to join their families in this hour of crisis. The biggest hardship these workers face is transport lockdown, which prevents them from reaching home. We have been seeing frightening visuals and scenes with regard to the movement of workers in other places. I do hope that the Centre government as well as respective States take appropriate measures to cater to these hapless people. I have requested the PM for special non-stop trains, if possible, so that the guest workers can reach their home States to help out their families.
As part of our relaxation, we are going to permit construction activities in non-hotspot zones with appropriate safeguards. This should ensure that most of the guest workers are engaged and provided means for livelihood. The government also has decided that guest workers should be engaged in cleaning up the public places and waterbodies like wells, ponds etc. We need to instill confidence in them and make them feel that they are part of our society.
What is the long term impact of the lockdown on the economy that you foresee ?
This is an unprecedented situation and it is difficult to gauge the exact nature of the impact at this juncture. The economy will be crippled, millions of job losses and crores of people adversely affected.
States with their limited resources will have to shoulder the greater burden of economic crisis that will follow the COVID-19 pandemic. The financial package announced by the Centre is inadequate. Altogether just ₹7,000 crore has been allotted additionally to the States. Many countries, including the U.S.A., the U.K., and Japan have announced financial stimulus packages ranging between 12%-20% of their GDP. In some of the packages, there are special schemes for protecting jobs in the private sector through employment subsidies to the job providers.
Our stimulus package is just 0.7% of the GDP. I do hope that the Union Government comes out with a large and substantive package to support the States, who are the primary responders.
All states including Kerala have criticised the Union government for not releasing GST payouts to the States and financial aid. Has GST specifically curtailed State governments’ financial freedom?
As you may be aware, we had our own reservation on GST roll out. However, we went along with it expecting justice and fairness from the Centre. I am sorry to say that even the promised and committed amounts have not been disbursed to States. Kerala has to get more than ₹3,000 crore as GST compensation, which has been withheld by the Centre. Along with this, there has been complete reluctance on the part of the Centre in supporting the States in dealing with the pandemic. Let me tell you that a State like Kerala, which has created elaborate paraphernalia to fight this menace got only ₹159 crore.
The suspension of the MP’s Local Area Development Scheme (MPLADS) for two years would further hit us as these funds become essential for funding COVID-19 related activities and development works. Few of our MPs had announced their intention in procuring PPE, testing kits and other medical equipment using their MPLADS but now we stand to lose them. The MPLADS fund is for the people of the MP’s constituency and not for the Central Government’s fundraising.
Also read | How Kerala has handled the coronavirus crisis
All States are in financial distress as revenues have stopped and the public healthcare expenditure has increased manifold to contain the outbreak. In this difficult scenario, we will have to borrow from the open market to continue the work and also to ensure that there is no break in our efforts due to lack of funds. Therefore, permission may be granted to State Governments to issue special Pandemic Relief Bonds.
We have also requested the Prime Minister to increase our borrowing limit to 5%. Similarly, loans from external agencies for epidemic control measures and reconstruction activities may be exempted from the State’s borrowing limit. The government is expecting a favourable response in this regard.
Many have compared PM Modi’s announcement of the lockdown to demonetisation, having come all of a sudden without any due consultations.
As far as our State was concerned, we have been taking steps in a phased manner in the run up to the lockdown announced by the Centre. Hence, there were adequate preparations and also awareness for the people. However, there are many views regarding the lockdown declaration of the PM. Since we have reached a different stage, I don’t want to go into the past. I feel that administrators, including me, will have to think about various strata of the society before taking drastic actions.
A huge population of Keralities are stuck in the Middle East (West Asia/Gulf countries). Are you satisfied with the Union govt’s intervention to help them?
Non-Resident Keralites are a major strength to our State. They have immensely contributed to the development of the State and our economy heavily depends on them. One of their major concerns is that they are unable to come to their homeland. The State government can’t help in bringing them back. But for sure we are coordinating through the Non-Resident Keralites’ Affairs (NORKA) department as well as various organisations in providing relief and assistance.
We understand there are limitations in doing things in a foreign land but at the same time we believe the Union Government could have done more to help a large number of Malayalee expatriates in the Middle East. The Centre should send special aircraft to bring back people who went aboard on temporary/short-term, visiting visas, and those requiring medical treatment back home.
The State Government will conduct the testing of these people once they are back and quarantine them, if necessary. We will extend all possible help and support to the Pravasi Malayalees when they come back also, including rehabilitation of those who would lose their jobs in the backdrop of the pandemic outbreak.