Jolted to a start

After initial denials and reckless statements, the Chief Ministers of both Telangana and Andhra Pradesh have attempted to rise up to the COVID-19 challenge and its economic fallout.

Published : Apr 23, 2020 07:00 IST

At a  ration shop in Khairatabad, Telangana, on April 6.

At a ration shop in Khairatabad, Telangana, on April 6.

THE Telangana government led by Kalvakuntla Chandrashekar Rao could not have had a more controversial start in tackling the COVID-19 crisis. Cornered by the opposition Congress in the Assembly as news trickled in of COVID cases, the Chief Minister said nonchalantly that the virus did not survive in temperatures above 27 0C and that paracetamol tablets were enough to treat the ailment. He was, of course, forced to retract that statement, later clarifying that he had only quoted a scientist. From that point Chandrashekar Rao has attempted to put in place several steps to steer Telangana through a maze as the number of people turning up positive for the virus in the State keeps growing.

Admittedly, the Telangana government was the first to request Prime Minister Narendra Modi to ban the arrival and take-off of all international flights in order to mitigate the risk of people coming from abroad carrying the virus and spreading it locally. It was also the first to suggest the sealing of inter-State borders, a ban on public transport, both intra- and inter-State, and urge Modi to extend the lockdown by another two weeks from April 13.

With government estimates indicating that Telangana has over 3.26 lakh migrant labourers (working in the construction and poultry sectors, irrigation projects and rice mills) and most of them keen to go back to their native places, the Chief Minister announced a one-time package consisting of 12kg of rice and Rs.500 a person to tide over the lockdown. Migrants will also be provided with shelter and medical aid.

The Telangana government also announced a relief package of 12kg of rice and Rs.1,500 a family to the poor, destitute and marginalised, and orphans and aged persons, most of who come under the umbrella of the nearly 88 lakh food security cardholders.

The opposition parties and COVID-19 Advocacy Lockdown Collective, a civil society organisation which has been working with affected people, have highlighted inadequacies in the implementation of the government’s initiative, pointing to delays and discrepancies in the distribution of free rice among poor families and migrants. They have also alleged that none of the food security cardholders have received the promised Rs.1,500 financial assistance. The civil society organisation has also requested the Chief Minister to extend these benefits to non-ration cardholders as well, since a large number of people who had applied for ration cards were yet to receive them.

Civil society organisations have also questioned the government’s decision to peg the number of migrant workers at 3.26 lakh. They claim that the number of registered building and construction workers alone in Telangana exceeded 8.5 lakh.

Chandrashekar Rao has been urging the people of the State to relive the “Sakala Janula Samme’”(total lockdown) movement, a tactic that was effective during the separate Statehood agitation. And while lockdowns and physical distancing are being enforced, albeit patchily, the real weapon against the virus, which is widespread testing and identifying and isolating those who have the virus, has been woefully below par. The government has authorised 17 government hospitals and laboratories, including the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad, to conduct COVID-19 tests. But the number of tests needs to be exponentially scaled up from the present capability of 1,100 tests a day if the Chief Minister’s apprehensions over the shutting down of the rural economy and employment are not to come horribly true.

Telangana has more than 50 lakh acres of agricultural lands, and harvesting is just around the corner. The government has promised to procure the entire yield at the villages itself at the Minimum Support Price. The State also has around 8,500 acres under horticultural cultivation. Officials from the Horticulture Department said that around 10,000 small and marginal farmers, mostly in Rangareddy, Medchal, Vikarabad, Bhongir Yadadri, Suryapet and to a lesser extent in Siddipet and Medak, depended on floriculture for their livelihood. Flowers such as marigold, chrysanthemum, lily, jasmine, and other locally grown variety have no buyers because of the wholesale cancellation of functions following the lockdown. With the investment required to grow flowers ranging anywhere between Rs.50,000 and Rs .1 lakh an acre in open cultivation and between Rs.3 lakh and Rs.4 lakh to raise orchids, carnations and roses in poly/green houses, the lockdown has meant huge financial losses.

Another sector to be badly hit by the lockdown is Telangana’s poultry industry. Around 60 to 70 per cent of the eggs produced in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh are sent to other States. The lockdown was another unexpected blow to the sector which was initially hit by rumours linking the consumption of chicken with contracting COVID-19. With demand and supply for both eggs and broiler chicken drastically reduced, distress sales and culling of birds have become a common sight.

Though Chandrashekar Rao was one of the first Chief Ministers to push Modi for an extension of the lockdown, he is acutely aware of the need to keep the State’s economy ticking. The near paralysis of the economy has resulted in Telangana’s tax and non-tax revenues dwindling: compared with the proportionate monthly revenue of Rs.4,000 crore, the actual accrual has been Rs.100 crore. Given this bleak situation, the Chief Minister, in a letter to Prime Minister Modi dated April 11, has asked for the implementation of “Quantitative Easing” and the effective use of “Helicopter Money”. (While quantitative easing is a method used by central banks to increase the money supply/liquidity in the financial market, helicopter money entails the printing and distribution of a large sum of new money among the public in order to stimulate the economy during a recession or when interest rates fall to zero.) Citing the fact that this approach is being followed by all the global major central banks, including the Federal Reserve, Bank of England, Bank of Japan, People’s Bank of China and the Reserve Bank of Australia, the Chief Minister suggested that “Quantitative Easing” should be at least 5 per cent of India’s GDP. With the Central Statistical Office pegging India’s GDP in 2019-20 at Rs.203.85 lakh crore, the Chief Minister would like “Quantitative Easing” to be at least Rs.10.15 lakh crore.

Officials in the Health Department said that the situation in Telangana was “more or less under control” until the return of the attendees of the Tablighi Jamaat’s Nizamuddin Markaz to the State: the number of positive cases rose from under 100 on March 31 to 644 (including 18 fatalities) in a 14-day period. The government has begun the process of identifying and isolating the markaz returnees.

On April 16, Hyderabad alone reported 25 fresh cases, with the total going up to 307 here. The total number of positive cases in the State was 700. Telangana Health Minister E. Rajender appealed to all Nizamuddin Markaz returnees and those who came in their contact to immediately report themselves to the health authorities for a check-up.

With the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (a high population density area of 55 sq km) becoming the epicentre of COVID-19 in Telangana, the government is planning to divide the city into 17 zones, with each zone being treated as a unit headed by a special medical officer, municipal officer, police officer and revenue officer. At present there is only one district medical and health officer in Hyderabad City. The Chief Minister has reiterated that his State is “fully geared up and prepared to facilitate treatment of 60,000 patients”, with a total of 11,000 beds being readied in isolation wards of hospitals, and another 1,400 beds in ICUs.

Bad start in Andhra Pradesh

Business as usual, was what Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Y.S. Jaganmohan Reddy envisaged, even advocated, when the first cases of COVID-19 surfaced in the State. Given this line of thinking, the government got off to a bad start in tackling the crisis. In mid March, Jaganmohan Reddy claimed that applying bleaching powder for six hours on items used by suspected coronavirus-affected people would kill the virus. He added for good measure that the use of paracetamol tablets would improve the condition of patients. And that it was dangerous only for people above 60 years and those who were predisposed to diabetes, high blood pressure, asthma, liver and kidney diseases.

Jaganmohan Reddy also flung himself into another controversy with the removal of the State Election Commissioner (SEC) Nimmagadda Ramesh Kumar from office. Ramesh Kumar’s decision in March to defer elections to urban and rural bodies in the State by six weeks citing “genuine supervening difficulties and exceptional circumstances” owing to the threat of COVID-19, was not to his liking. The election process had already been notified and Jaganmohan Reddy’s political outfit, the YSR Congress Party, had won quite a few seats unopposed. After insinuating that the SEC was playing sectarian politics since he belongs to the same Kamma caste as Jaganmohan Reddy’s bete noire, Chandrababu Naidu, the Andhra Pradesh government unceremoniously retired Ramesh Kumar. To this effect an ordinance was promulgated, amending Section 200 of the Andhra Pradesh Panchayat Raj Act, 1994, reducing the tenure of the SEC from five to three years.

Andhra Pradesh Governor Biswabhusan Harichandan then appointed a former Madras High Court judge, Justice V. Kanagaraj, as the new SEC. Ramesh Kumar has sought judicial intervention questioning his removal. The Andhra Pradesh High Court has asked the government to file an affidavit. The ugly showdown between the State legislature and the SEC has taken away from the State’s fight against the pandemic.

Inadequate testing

Opposition leaders and non-governmental agencies also accuse the government of under-reporting the number of COVID cases. There are also fears that the State has been unable to ramp up testing, contact tracing, and even implement social distancing. In most cities and towns across the State, the lockdown is relaxed every morning between six and nine, when the authorities seems to have given citizens a carte blanche. Also, there are only seven designated government centres authorised to test for COVID-19. So far, hardly 10,000 tests have been conducted. The private sector has not been allowed to test.

Jaganmohan Reddy was rudely jolted out of his initial inertia after attendees of the Tablighi Jamaat conference returned to Andhra Pradesh and the number of positive cases more than doubled in one night (from 44 to 101 in the intervening night of March 31). As of April 16, Andhra Pradesh had detected 534 positive cases, with 14 deaths. The districts of Guntur (122), Kurnool (112), S P S Nellore (59), Krishna (48) and Prakasam (42) have borne the brunt of COVID-19 cases. Sixty cases have been detected in a radius of 60 km around Vijayawada. Srikakulam and Vizianagaram districts have seen no positive cases.

The government has announced a relief package of Rs.1,000 and 5 kg of rice and 1 kg of dal (pulses) to every family in the below-poverty-line category. The opposition Congress has demanded that the government increase the amount to Rs.5,000.

Said Narreddy Tulasi Reddy, working president of the Andhra Pradesh Congress Committee: “The government is not doing enough. People are suffering. Jagan Reddy is more interested in electoral politics and in switching the State’s capital. Because so few people are being tested the real picture in the State is not out. More cases are being recorded, but in my opinion this is only the tip of the iceberg. In actual the State will have 100 times the number that is being recorded. The State government needs to involve the private sector. Even social distancing is not being properly implemented.”

Added Sake Sailajanath, president of the Andhra Pradesh Congress Committee: “Jagan Reddy is not taking the pandemic seriously. The government promised to release Rs.400 crore towards relief for poor and marginalised persons. But so far only Rs.50 lakh has been released. Frontline warriors have not been given PPEs [personal protection equipment], face masks, etc. In Anantapur district, four doctors and two nurses at the Government Hospital, Anantapur, and a mandal revenue officer tested positive because they had not been given the necessary equipment. Any official who raises this is suspended. Jagan Reddy had announced that 4.5 lakh government volunteers would go from house to house and distribute rations. With this not happening, people are crowding ration shops. Hardly a few metres from my house in Anantapur I can see it happening. Not even 500 tests are being conducted every day; we need to at least double the number immediately.”

The Andhra Pradesh government has decided to distribute 16 crore masks to every one of its 5.3 crore population. Each individual will receive three masks in a bid to “provide some safety from the virus”. With the agriculture, horticulture and aquaculture sectors suffering on account of the lockdown, Jaganmohan Reddy has written to the Prime Minister asking for a partial easing of the lockdown.

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