Among central Indian States ravaged by the novel coronavirus, Chhattisgarh is an outlier. Its low rate of infections—86 positive cases, 59 recoveries and no deaths so far—can in part be credited to its low population density (189 per square kilometre). Most States that have escaped the worst of the virus spread in India are the less populous ones. However, the State government’s early intervention and its discerning approach in tackling lockdown-related issues too helped avert tragic outcomes.
The Bhupesh Baghel-led government took proactive steps in the initial days of the outbreak itself, with a tailored approach of testing, tracing and isolation. Going over and above the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) guidelines, the State has apparently tested 933 per million population. Based on their travel history and symptoms, more than 77,000 people were quarantined. Chhattisgarh was one of the first States to identify community transmission of COVID in March end even as Central government functionaries were in denial.
For instance, a senior official in the Union Ministry of Health suggested a ban on the use of the term “community” in government communications to “avoid confusion”. He insisted that there was only “local transmission” in the country and no community transmission.
Just before the nationwide lockdown was announced, Central agencies of the Enforcement Directorate and the Income Tax Department raided 25 locations of Baghel’s top aides across Chhattisgarh.. This was seen as an act of vindictiveness by the Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled Central government against the Congress government in the State.
Baghel emerged unscathed from the raids and was praised for his effective tackling of the pandemic. In what was seen as an attempt to embarrass the Prime Minister for his secrecy in the use of the PM CARES Fund, Baghel shared the account of the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund publicly. “From March 24 to May 7, the total amount of Rs.56,04,38,815 has been received from various donors in the fund. Out of this, Rs.10,25,30,000 has been released to all districts of the State for the prevention of corona and assistance to the needy,” he tweeted.
Baghel also blamed the Centre for failing to stop inbound flights to the country, which, he said, could have averted a spread of carriers to the community level. “The Union government should have stopped all international flights as early as possible and all inbound passengers should have been mandatorily quarantined. This could have prevented the spread of the virus,” he said. Chhattisgarh put 2,100 foreign returnees under quarantine and tested 90 persons who had come back from the United Kingdom after many from there tested positive.
Return of migrants
The rate of infection, after being low during three phases of the lockdown, began to rise steadily with migrants and other travellers returning to the State. For the fourth phase of the lockdown after May 17, the State government relaxed various norms, but continued with the imposition of Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC), prohibiting the gathering of more than four people, across all its 28 districts until August 16 or further orders.
Chhattisgarh has a large migrant population—1.5 to 2 lakh people—that is stranded in other parts of the country at the moment. Many are in distress, having lost their jobs, incomes and accommodation, and are trying to make their way back home. Thousands who migrate seasonally to work in Telangana's chilli fields return in May to tend to their small farms in Bastar. But this year, they are stuck and will be unable to sow seeds for the next crop cycle.
Heart-rending stories like that of 12-year-old Jamalo Madkam, who died while walking back from Telangana, are rife. A couple, Krishna Sahu and Pramila, were mowed down by a speeding vehicle in Lucknow (Uttar Pradesh) when they were cycling back to Chhattisgarh. Their children, aged 3 and 4 years, survived the crash.
The infections in Chhattisgarh are bound to rise when the migrants return. While Baghel said that State borders should not be opened for non-essential travel even during the fourth phase of lockdown, he requested the Centre to deploy 28 point-to-point trains for the safe return of migrant workers.
Mindful of the dangers of re-infection following the migrants’ return, Baghel said, “Can we allow our own people to remain away from their homes for months?” but added that allowing migrants to walk miles without food, water and safety was a “worrisome and a wrong practice”.
Based on projections by experts, the State is preparing for the worst case scenario where there might be 6,000 casualties, according to State Health Minister T.S. Singh Deo. In a bold decision, Chhattisgarh ordered the takeover of all private hospitals in the State to fight COVID-19, but within a few hours, rescinded it. Finally, only the Raipur Institute of Medical Sciences was taken over under the Chhattisgarh Epidemic Disease COVID-19 Rules.
Baghel is in favour of slowly reopening economic activities with adequate precaution. Even under the lockdown, the State had allowed farming while maintaining social distancing norms and the selling of harvested produce. This ensured adequate supply of vegetables and poultry in urban areas. The government also launched a web portal for home delivery of liquor in green zones of the State to avoid crowding at wine shops.
Employment under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) continued unhindered, which provided work to five lakh workers every day. Baghel said the livelihood of over 62.5 lakh persons was dependent on the scheme, which made it essential that the work continued in this hour of crisis. He asked the Centre to allow payment of MGNREGA wages in the form of foodgrains. Self-help groups were encouraged to sell face masks, soaps and sanitisers.
Baghel has asked for a Rs.30,000-crore package from the Centre over three months to bring the State’s economy back on track. The State government sanctioned 70 kg of rice for two months to below-poverty-line (BPL) families, besides free ration to all, even those who do not have a ration card, through the public distribution system for a month.
While these measures provide temporary relief, for vulnerable communities residing in forests and not covered by welfare measures, the months following the lifting of the lockdown would be critical. Some forest rights groups have written to the Ministry of Tribal Affairs to support tribal and forest communities and provide them immediate relief, ensure the dissemination of information and awareness, provide health care and testing facilities in tribal areas, and support collection and sale of minor forest produce (MFP).
The State registered 1,549 first information reports, arrested 1,346 persons and seized 2,294 vehicles for violation of lockdown norms. While some say it is required in unprecedented times as these, some others believe that once the country limps back to normalcy on the back of a broken economy, thousands of people will be left to deal with police and court procedures.
Reportedly, the Maoists too are in support of the government’s lockdown and announced a unilateral ceasefire in April. In a statement circulated to the media, secretary of the Malkangiri Koraput Visakha Divisional Committee, Kailasam, said the Communist Party of India (Maoist), the People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army (PLGA) and other organisations would desist from attacking security forces unless in retaliation. In handwritten notes pinned to trees in Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh, the Maoists urged people to wash their hands regularly, maintain hygiene, wear masks, drink boiled water, avoid shaking hands and gathering in groups, keep distance from vulnerable groups like the elderly, and seek medical help if anyone had symptoms like cough and fever.