The political machinations that unfolded in Madhya Pradesh in the second week of March, just as the coronavirus crisis began to set in, continues to constrain the State’s battle against the pandemic. This perception is seconded by the Congress, which was unseated from power in the State on March 20. Expressing its concern over the alarming spread of COVID in Indore, the State’s financial hub, the party believes that crucial time was lost as Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan ran a one-man show for nearly a month after assuming power on March 23.
As on May 18, the State recorded 4,977 positive cases and 248 deaths.
The chaotic scenes witnessed at Sendhwa, at the State’s border with Maharashtra, on May 14—hungry and frustrated workers on a reverse migration went on the rampage over the administration’s failure to make arrangements for food, shelter or transport—showed that the government did not have a plan or vision to deal with the crisis.
Shivraj Singh Chouhan assured the labourers that the government would arrange free transport, conduct medical check-up and provide food. The Congress was, however, convinced that the BJP government would not be able to deliver on these promises as the party was overwrought by factionalism, particularly after the entry of Jyotiraditya Scindia into its fold and his likely induction into the Union Cabinet. Political observers said the power Scindia might wield in the BJP’s State unit left party satraps scrambling to safeguard their own interests rather than attending to the needs of the people.
Abbas Hafeez, Congress’ spokesperson in the State, speaking to Frontline , said: “The BJP has been dealing with internal squabbles at a time when it ought to be on the front line in the battle against the coronavirus. They felled a democratically elected Congress government driven by their sheer lust for power, and then they were unable to appoint a Health Minister for a month. The Health Department remained dysfunctional for the longest time amid the pandemic anywhere in the country, as the staffers were themselves infected. That in a nutshell speaks of the government’s attitude.”
The Gwalior-Chambal belt, where Congress candidates were elected hands down in the November-December 2018 Assembly election, has become leaderless after most of the party legislators resigned to support Scindia. Aryan Swadesh Sharma, a young leader from Gwalior and the party’s spokesperson, said the region was paying the price for “the BJP’s self-indulgent politics”. “In Gwalior, the BJP had only one legislator—from Gwalior rural. The two other elected legislators from Gwalior were Scindia loyalists and they have resigned. In Morena, the Congress had won all the six Assembly seats, but now five of our legislators have resigned. The situation is no different in Bhind. The BJP’s adventurism has left the Gwalior-Chambal region without its elected representatives. The administration is running the show without any mentoring or direction,” Sharma rued. He claimed that government officials were largely missing from the scene and it was mostly Congress’ ticket aspirants like him who were at the forefront of relief work.
In Indore, senior Congress leader Aminul Suri said the BJP’s “transfer spree” was the reason for the lack of health care preparedness. “After Shivraj Singh Chouhan came to power, the District Magistrate and the Senior Superintendent of Police [SSP] were replaced. There was no coordination or team management. The Chief Minister was aware that this would be detrimental at a time when we were neck deep in crisis, but he had his way,” he told Frontline over phone from Indore.
Travails of migrants
The continued sufferings of migrant workers returning to or passing through the central Indian State corroborate much of what Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s critics are saying. The State has become a largely unattended hotspot depicting the travails of migrant workers. On the morning of May 14, eight labourers died and 54 were injured when the truck in which they were travelling from Mumbai to Unnao in Uttar Pradesh was hit by a speeding bus at the bypass in Guna. On May 9, five migrant workers died when the truck ferrying them met with an accident on the highway in Narsinghpur district. On May 12, in an incident that swung the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) into action, a woman worker, who along with her husband was walking from Nashik to Satna, gave birth to her child on the road. The local media reported that barely two hours after child birth, the couple continued to walk to cover the remaining 150 kilometres of their journey. The NHRC described the incident as “indignity to motherhood” and issued notices to the Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh governments.
Abbas Hafeez said the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government was indifferent towards migrant workers. “No arrangements were in place for migrant labourers at Sendhwa, although the government was aware that they were moving in large numbers. They were made to sleep in the open at night. Neither food nor transport was arranged for them. The next day the labourers and their family members waited under the scorching sun for hours before their patience ran out,” Hafeez said. The Chief Minister should resign, he said.
The virus cases are spiralling in the State. The death rate of Madhya Pradesh, at 5.9 per cent as on May 11, was higher than the national average of 3.24 per cent. What has set the alarm bells ringing is the fact that over 41 per cent of the 161 patients who died until May 3 did not have any co-morbidity. The Health Department, which submitted an analysis of the COVID deaths, stated in its findings that 30.77 per cent of the deaths were reported on the first day of hospitalisation whereas 68.69 per cent patients died within the first three days of hospitalisation.
The medical fraternity in the State has admitted that the late admission of patients was a cause for concern. Indore’s Chief Medical and Health Officer, Pravin Jadia, recently told the media that “while the administration has launched a massive campaign for screening all the people, we are repeatedly making an appeal to people to immediately consult the Health Department on the numbers publicised in case they have any [COVID-19] symptoms...” As on May 18, Indore reported 2,565 cases and Bhopal 992 cases.
By the time the government appointed Narottam Mishra as Health Minister on April 21, the Health Department was already a shambles with over 100 officials and workers testing positive. The Department’s lackadaisical attitude was demonstrated by the fact that most of its staffers who were infected were not front-line warriors but stationed within the supposedly safe premises of the Secretariat. Initially, Indian Administrative Service officers Pallavi Jain Govil and J. Vijay Kumar, who were managing the affairs of the Health Department, were blamed for this. They were accused of concealing the travel history of their family members but an internal inquiry has now absolved them of this charge. The inquiry concluded that the virus was carried into the department by an official in the rank of Deputy Director who had returned to Bhopal from Indore, the epicentre of the disease in the State.
The cash-starved State economy has been hit by the lockdown. The tax collection, both State goods and service tax (SGST) and integrated goods and service tax (IGST) put together, recorded poor returns. In April, the tax collection dropped by 85 per cent. Anurag Jain, Additional Chief Secretary, Finance, in a recent media briefing said: “We collected around Rs.250 crore, which is around 15 per cent of the amount collected for the corresponding month last year.” The Centre has cleared only part of its GST arrears to the State for December 2019 and January 2020. The remaining dues are outstanding.
However, the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government has begun its pro-poor drill with an eye on the byelection to the 24 Assembly constituencies, 22 that fell vacant after Scindia loyalists resigned and two following the death of Congress and BJP legislators. The government is incentivising the poor and distributing sops to people, a feature of his previous stints in power always done with electoral calculations. The Chief Minister recently credited Rs.451 crore into the accounts of more than 1,78,000 beneficiaries of the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana-Rural. Similarly, more than Rs.82 crore was transferred to the accounts of over 8,000 beneficiaries under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana-Urban. He has reintroduced the Sambhal Yojana for unorganised workers, which was scrapped by the previous Kamal Nath government, and transferred Rs.41 crore to the beneficiaries.