Losing ground

Print edition : June 05, 2020

Migrants waiting to enter the Lalgarh Junction station to board a special train to Gaya (Bihar), in Bikaner on May 20. Photo: PTI

After winning praise for its early initiatives, Rajasthan has had to contend with a burst of COVID cases, errant private hospitals, spread of infection to new districts, attacks on Dalits, and, of course, sending stranded migrants home while preparing to receive those returning to the State.

On May 11, the Congress government in Rajasthan issued an order reiterating the one it had issued on April 30. The order warned private hospitals, nursing homes and clinics located outside containment zones not to deny outpatient, inpatient and emergency services. It directed hospitals to follow prescribed protocols and take precautions to avoid coronavirus infection. All patients and their attenders were advised to wear masks while the hospitals were instructed to disinfect and fumigate procedure rooms, labour rooms and the operation theatre. The hospitals could not refuse to test or treat people with symptoms for COVID or those suffering from flu and influenza-like illnesses. The government warned that action would be taken against the hospital managements if they were found denying treatment and care. The latest order pointed out that the government’s previous order was not being followed. Rajasthan has 56 hospitals dedicated to COVID treatment of which 21 are private health care providers.

The Ashok Gehlot government came in for a lot of praise for the manner in which it had “contained” the spread of the virus in Bhilwara, an industrial township. But its handling of migrants and its inability to crack down on the strong network of private hospitals have been significant drawbacks. As in Haryana, the initiatives taken by some individuals, some political parties and citizens were proving to be crucial in mitigating the plight of the migrant population.

Rajasthan went in for a complete lockdown on March 22, three days before the nationwide lockdown began. This was because the earliest coronavirus cases in north India were reported from the State as early as March 14. Jaipur reported three cases. As of May 19, there were 5,629 confirmed cases of which 2,271 were active. The number of deaths stood at 139, the sixth highest after Maharashtra, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal and Delhi.

Rajasthan faces a big challenge as new cases are being reported from districts that had previously reported negligible number of cases. This is being attributed to the return of migrants from Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Delhi in the second week of May. Dungarpur, Pali, Nagaur, Churu and Udaipur reported an increase in cases. Sawai Madhopur, Hanumangarh, Karauli, Pratapgarh and Baran districts have fewer than 20 cases each. Bundi and Ganganagar have not reported a single case. Fresh cases were recorded in Sirohi and Jalore. The emergence of new cases in Jaisalmer and Dungarpur, which is tribal-dominated, has been a matter of concern.

Jaipur accounted for the highest caseload (28.87 per cent) followed by Jodhpur (19.03) Udaipur (7.3 per cent) Kota (5.88 per cent), Nagaur, Bharatpur and Bhilwara. Bhilwara, which had reported a cluster of cases before containment measures were adopted, now accounts for only 1.42 per cent of the State’s caseload. As a whole, Rajasthan accounts for 5.56 per cent of the national caseload.

On May 16, the Health Department reported that 125 prisoners, including the Superintendent of Jaipur district jail, tested positive. Reacting to this, a social activist said: “There is community transmission. How did the virus enter the highly secure jail unless someone from outside who was already infected brought it in. Clearly the norms of screening are not being followed.”

Another issue that has caused concern is the spate of attacks on Dalits in Jodhpur, the home constituency of Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot. Sanjay Madhav, State joint secretary of the All India Kisan Sabha, said four cases in connection with murder of Dalits and violence against them were filed in four police stations in the district, but no inquiry was held. He said, “Even during the lockdown cases of atrocities are increasing. In one case, members of a Dalit family were beaten up by upper-caste men when they were returning from the police station after attempting to file a complaint against a sarpanch.” Madhav is an office bearer of the Dalit Shoshan Mukti Manch. In another instance, a Dalit youth from Bedu village in Jodhpur, was illegally confined for 26 hours and beaten up by the station house officer at the Matauda police station. There is already some resentment in the community as the cases filed against Dalits during the Bharat Bandh on April 2, 2018, called to protest against the dilution of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, have not been withdrawn. The Gehlot government had promised to withdraw the cases in January 2019.

Stranded migrants

Gehlot told a news agency that it would take months before the inbound and outbound migrants reached their destinations if they depended only on trains. The Centre should arrange other vehicles to ferry them, he said. This was more in response to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s criticism of Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s meeting with migrants as a “drama”.

Sanjay Madhav said many migrants from West Bengal, Bihar and Jammu and Kashmir were stranded in Rajasthan without transportation. The government was not deploying State-owned buses to ferry them. “Four days ago [May 10], they came out in large numbers on the road demanding that they be either sent back or given food. The workers live in cramped accommodation and with no regular supply of food, so they were compelled to come out and protest. The government said the receiving States were not giving permission, but how is it that private buses are taking these workers by charging them exorbitant fares? The government should intervene. We have pointed out these things to them,” he said.

A good number of students from Jammu and Kashmir were stuck at the National Institute of Medical Sciences, a private university. Even after the Union Territory gave permission for their transportation, the students were unable to find transport. Exorbitant amounts were demanded to arrange for their travel in a group. “Yousuf Tarigami, four-time legislator of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) from Kulgam in Jammu and Kashmir intervened and with his help we were able to help these youngsters,” said Madhav. The helpline number 181, he said, was of no use in seeking assistance for stranded workers. Migrants continued their journey on foot on Agra road.

Farmers, too, were in a bad shape, he said. Grains were being procured at 30 per cent less than the minimum support price. Mohana Mandi in Jaipur, the biggest grain market in the State, was shut down following a COVID scare. Distress selling was the norm. The economic crisis for the urban working poor was worse. The government allowed push cart sellers and autorickshaw drivers to ply on select routes but did so in a pick-and-choose manner which created more problems.

“Barbers, cobblers, paanwallahs and rickshaw pullers have been pushed to the brink in these past two months. These are the self-employed, aatmanirbhar sections that have been managing on their own without any government help. And where people were employed, appeals of the Union government not to cut wages fell on deaf ears. A leading industrialist, heading an industry association, wrote to the government asking for permission to sack workers who were not coming to work,” said Madhav.

As in the case of other States, Rajasthan, too, has suffered huge economic losses. The State’s revenue from tourism is expected to decline sharply this winter. Gehlot recently ordered the setting up of online employment exchanges. The Congress leadership has been supportive of labour reforms, but first the government should help the working population that stayed back and the migrants who have returned so that they can get back on their feet.