Critical battle

Rajasthan’s challenges have increased as Jaipur and Jodhpur figure among the 15 critical districts identified by NITI Aayog.

Published : May 07, 2020 14:44 IST

Migrants  proceeding to board buses in Jaipur bound for other States on March 29.

Migrants proceeding to board buses in Jaipur bound for other States on March 29.

After an initial spurt in COVID-19 cases from mid-March through April and early May, the confirmed cases in Rajasthan were more or less concentrated in three or four districts and mainly in the urban centres of Jaipur, Jodhpur, Kota, Ajmer and Tonk. On April 27, the NITI Aayog identified Jaipur and Jodhpur as “critical” districts along with 13 other districts in the country with high case volumes and loads. The share of Jaipur and Jodhpur in the State’s case load was 36.98 per cent and 16.75 per cent respectively. Ajmer, Bharatpur, Chittorgarh, Nagaur and Tonk districts also reported more than 100 cases each. Twenty-nine of the 33 districts reported more than one case. The recovery rate in the State, at 48.11 per cent, was higher than the national rate. The mortality rate, at 2.82 per cent, was lower than Madhya Pradesh’s 5.77 per cent. Rajasthan tested more samples than Madhya Pradesh did.

Rajasthan’s share in the country’s case load was 6.46 per cent. As of May 6, there were 90 deaths, 1,567 active cases out of 3,193 confirmed cases, and 1,536 cured or recovered cases in the State. Of more than 1.34 lakh samples collected, close to 1.3 lakh tested negative. The cases indicated that the virus had spread to the community level though it was by and large confined to urban centres and major cities.

The State government declared a complete lockdown on March 22, three days before the enforcement of the national lockdown. The administration’s stringent measures helped contain the spread of the virus in the textile town of Bhilwara. The relatively low population density of the district helped achieve this. Civil society organisations contacted by Frontline on telephone said the seriousness of the Ashok Gehlot government in dealing with the crisis was never in doubt but there were management-related issues. For instance, as soon as the lockdown was announced, the government declared the takeover of 84 private hospitals for COVID screening, isolation and treatment. The move was widely appreciated but the Rajasthan Nagrik Manch, a citizens’ initiative, has alleged that the takeover was mostly on paper. Anil Goswami, State convener of the Manch, told Frontline that in Jaipur only two hospitals, one of which was on private public partnership mode, were commissioned for isolation and treatment of COVID patients. Recently, one of them stopped functioning as a dedicated COVID-19 hospital.

Rajasthan has a huge migrant population, which depends on tourism, manufacturing and mining industries and agriculture for livelihood. Migrant workers from West Bengal were employed in the gems and jewellery sector, which took a major hit after demonetisation in 2016. Jaipur accounted for around 1.65 lakh migrant workers. Out migration from the State has generally been to Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat. Some 1.48 lakh migrants from Jalore district were said to be stranded in States such as Madhya Pradesh and West Bengal. Buses sent to West Bengal in the first week of May to bring back these migrants returned empty in the face of West Bengal’s non-cooperation.

There was also the issue between the States and the Centre over who should bear the cost of migrants’ travel. It was after opposition parties demanded that migrants should be spared the burden of paying rail fares that the Centre agreed to bear 85 per cent of the cost. The remaining 15 per cent was to be borne by the States. Congress president Sonia Gandhi declared that her party would bear the travel costs of the migrants if the Centre did not. On May 4, Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot assured the migrants that his government would bear the full cost of rail fare and arrange to transport them by buses to inter-State borders.

Lockdown and farm prices

Inter-district migration generally took place during harvest and sowing seasons. Onion harvest, for instance, was done mostly with the help of manual labour. Local people and migrants flocked to the Shekhawati belt (Sikar, Jhunjhunu and Churu) for the rabi crop harvest. According to Atma Ram, State secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the government failed to ensure fair prices for onion and milk produce. He said onion prices had fallen to Rs.7 a kilogram from the pre-pandemic rate of Rs.15 a kg. Likewise, the procurement price of milk by Saras (Rajasthan Coopertive Dairy Federation Limited), which was Rs.33 or Rs.34 a litre, dropped to Rs.18. The consumer, on the other hand, was still buying milk at Rs.42 a litre. Crops like mustard, gram and pulses for which minimum support prices had been fixed, were sold at lower rates in the grain markets. “The government should procure in a big way and distribute dry rations free of cost instead of allowing the harvest to rot in the fields. There has been a bumper crop. There is no need to collect donations from people. Instead of converting crops to fuel, they can be distributed to the needy. The rich in any case are not interested in rations. It is such an irony. The small trader cannot open his shop but the liquor vendor can,” he said. One positive development was that the government resumed work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme and enhanced the wages slightly.

Amra Ram said poultry was another sector that was badly hit with no buyers for eggs, even at the rate of Rs.1 each. The sale of meat and that of livestock dropped following sustained communal campaign linking the minority community with the spread of COVID. This was following the Tablighi Jamaat event held in New Delhi, several days before the lockdown was announced. “The government did little to counter this. There was 24/7 news coverage of Tablighis as the main carriers of the virus. The government should have aggressively countered this as facts on the ground proved otherwise. The virus does not have a religion. There were videos warning people not to buy from Muslim vendors. No first information report was registered against such persons. One news channel repeatedly referred to the Muslim-dominated Ramganj area in Jaipur as an area inhabited by traitors. The Congress took part in the clapping of hands and clanging of utensils at the behest of the Centre,” he said.

In the first week of April, the Rajasthan government discontinued the special reference it was using to denote the attendees at the Jamaat Markaz in its COVID bulletins after civil society organisations objected to communal profiling. In any case, it was clear that the Markaz attendees and their contacts accounted for a small percentage of the total number of infected persons.

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