Tamil Nadu

Fumbling along

Print edition : May 22, 2020

At Mappedu in Tiruvallur district, Tamil Nadu, on May 7 when retail liquor outlets were opened. Photo: B. Jothi Ramalingam

When a few shops were opened for business after 40 days of lockdown, at Triplicane in on May 5. Photo: K.V. Srinivasan

The Tamil Nadu government’s lack of planning in addressing the pandemic and issues relating to it is glaring.

A lockdown within a lockdown, consistent denial of the emergence of new clusters of infections until the number of in the State blew up, and absence of forward planning factoring in the worst-case scenarios marked Tamil Nadu’s response to the COVID pandemic in April and early May.

Yet spokespersons of the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) continued with their refrain since early April that no one can be prepared for a pandemic of this scale and that the government was doing all that it could. Facts on the ground speak otherwise.

The State government’s response from the beginning has been to look to the Centre for responses. For instance, as the first phase of the lockdown was coming to an end in mid-April, many in the State were eagerly waiting for the Tamil Nadu government to make an announcement early enough on what lies ahead. Some States had already announced plans to continue with the lockdown. But it was just a day before that phase ended that the State government announced that the lockdown would continue until April 30. It added a rider: this will be subject to what the Central government decided on the issue. Soon after, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced an extension of the lockdown.

This overdependence on the Centre for all decisions has resulted in not having a concrete plan for different case-load scenarios that would pan out. The second is the Chief Minister’s reluctance to take charge of a unified response despite the Health Minister, C. Vijayabhaskar, known for his media management skills, repeatedly misreading the severity of the pandemic.

Although the 1.2 lakh employees of Tamil Nadu’s health care delivery system are working tirelessly across the State, they are let down by the poor decision-making. The only act with foresight the government seems to have done is the requisitioning of all convention halls, educational institutions and some hotels to be converted into isolation centres when needed. Barring this, and the deployment of a few efficient officers in some places, the government’s lack of planning is glaring.

Order after order

To add to the confusion and mismanagement, much like the Central government’s 4,000 plus orders, the Tamil Nadu government has released multiple orders on a variety of subjects. In some cases clarifications followed the orders too.

For instance, much confusion prevailed over the government’s decision to open retail liquor vending outlets. It announced on May 5 that all retail outlets would be open from May 7. Following protests from the opposition, the government amended the order saying that all the outlets except in Chennai, where the number of cases are high, would be open on May 7. Then came a whole new set of rules as to which age group can buy alcohol at what time, and so on. Another “rule” was that at a time only five people could buy alcohol.

On May 6, the northern region’s Inspector General of Police passed an order warning that anyone travelling from Chennai to buy alcohol in the neighbouring districts would be arrested.

Above all, in an order on May 6, the Madras High Court too gave the government directions regarding delivery of online orders of liquor and said that the outlets should give two bottles of alcohol to anyone making an online digital payment. It further said that only one bottle of 750 ml should be given to a person making a payment at the counter and that person could only buy two bottles in a week. Reports coming in from different parts of the State indicated that none of these orders or instructions was being followed.

Koyambedu cluster

Meanwhile, every day since April 30, the number of (161 cases) has been going up in Tamil Nadu. It was 203 on May 1, and 231 on May 2. The next day (May 3) saw a total of 266 new positive cases. On May 4, there was a spike in the number of cases to 527. May 5 saw the numbers remaining high at 508 new cases. On May 6, the number rose to an alarming 771, taking the total positive count in the State to 4,829, and deaths to 35. The government claimed that this was because the rate of testing was high in Tamil Nadu.

In reality, the government had several gaps in its COVID strategy. One, it did not screen anyone coming into Koyambedu, Chennai’s main market for fruits and vegetables. The spread from this one market took the infection to at least 10 districts. The Koyambedu cluster was responsible for the late April and early May surge in the number of cases.

Opposition political parties fear that the opening of retail liquor stores will create new hotspots across the State. But with inadequate Central allocation to fight the pandemic, the State is left with no choice.

In another desperate move, it has increased the retirement age of government staff to 59. This follows orders freezing the Dearness Allowance (DA) anulling annual leave encashment.

An order of the Personnel and Administrative Reforms Department dated May 7 (G.O. (Ms) No.51) with regard to retirement age said: “This will apply to all those who are in regular service as on date and due to retire on superannuation from May 31, 2020. This order shall also be applicable to all teaching and non-teaching staff working in aided educational institutions and employees of all Constitutional/Statutory bodies, public sector undertakings including all State Corporations, Local Bodies, Boards, Commissions, Societies etc.”

Reacting to the decision, P.K. Ilamaran, State president, Tamil Nadu Teacher’s Association, said that it was good for those who were to retire now because their DA would remain frozen. “Retirement a year later will mean that the pension will not be affected. But lakhs of youth who are waiting for a job will be hard hit. Already there is unprecedented unemployment. This move will mean one more year’s wait for them,” he said.

Prof. J. Jeyaranjan, Director, Institute of Development Alternatives, and economist saw this as a desperate move. “The State has limited means to raise resources. Even a postponement, such as this one, is welcome as far as it is concerned,” he said. If the same situation continued, given the lack of space for any financial manoeuvrability, more desperate measures, such as deferring part of the salary of government staff, as was done in Kerala, and opting for a ways and means advance will be resorted to, he said.

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