Madhya Pradesh

Shifting priorities

Print edition : June 19, 2020

COVID-19 patient who recovered leaving the Aurobindo Hospital in Indore, on May 27. Photo: PTI

A railway employee providing drinking water to migrants in Jabalpur on May 21. Photo: PTI

The BJP government begins preparation for the Assembly byelections, which will decide its political fate, instead of strengthening its efforts against the pandemic.

As on June 1, Madhya Pradesh had 8,089 COVID positive cases, with Indore accounting for 3,486, and 350 deaths. In its May 27 health bulletin, the government declared Bhind, Morena and Gwalior, the three districts in the Gwalior-Chambal region, as green zones (with no confirmed cases) despite there being more than 158 active cases there.

But the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) appeared to have shifted its focus from responding to the pandemic to preparing for the crucial byelection to 24 Assembly seats, most of them falling in the Gwalior-Chambal region. The BJP with 107 seats in the 230-member Assembly must win at least 9 seats to remain in power. The date for the election, which has to be held before September 10, has not been finalised.

The opposition Congress accused Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan of paying more attention to shoring up the party’s fortunes and leaving farmers, migrant workers and daily wage earners in the lurch.

Farmers are reportedly queuing up at crop procurement centres across the State in large numbers. Kamal Nath, who was ousted from power on March 20 after Congress Member of Parliament Jyotiraditya Scindia along with his loyalist MLAs defected to the BJP, has appealed to the government to extend the deadline for selling crops. He tweeted: “Farmers are facing great difficulty in selling their produce due to the lockdown. Despite the unbearable heat, they are queuing up outside procurement centres. But at many places officials responsible for weighing the produce or making the payment are missing. The government must extend the deadline and also make proper arrangements for storing the crop to save them from the monsoon.”

The absence of a road map for a phased relaxation of the lockdown became evident when the government on May 30 declared its inability to resume economic activities without waiting for the Centre’s guidelines regarding easing of restrictions from June 1. It extended the lockdown to June 15, which was expected to be as stringent as before. But in his address to the people on May 30, Shivraj Singh Chouhan said: “After Lockdown 4 ends, the fifth stage of lockdown will be Unlock 1.0 phase. We will fully follow the guidelines of the Government of India. We will also conduct economic activities in a phased manner in the State.” The government said the lockdown would remain in force in containment areas until June 30.

The BJP’s continued membership drives, in the midst of the pandemic, has provoked outrage. According to local media reports and Congress leaders, the BJP has been organising conclaves sporadically to enthuse its cadres and block-level leaders and step up membership drive ahead of the byelection. Drawing attention to one such event, Kamal Nath came down heavily on the government on his official twitter handle on May 23. “In the BJP headquarters [in Bhopal] today, in the presence of you [Shivraj Singh Chouhan] and your other responsible colleagues, a heavily attended programme took place despite the lockdown. Rules are being scoffed at, and social distancing is not being followed at all. This has happened several times earlier,” the former Chief Minister tweeted.

The Congress’ State spokesperson Abbas Hafeez told Frontline: “The government has no clue as to how to check the spread of the disease. Positive cases are increasing at an alarming rate. The government is busy preparing for the byelection. The BJP is regularly holding outreach programmes with 100 or 200 cadres moving around without any thought to maintaining physical distancing.”

Fifty-one of the State’s 52 districts have reported COVID cases. On May 30, a staffer at a wheat procurement centre at Khajuria Ranku in the hinterland of Bhopal district tested positive raising fears regarding the possibility of the virus spreading to nearby villages. The government stalled the procurement process at Khajuria Ranku. The employee who was responsible for weighing the crops had reportedly come in direct contact with farmers.

Hafeez said the government did not establish an alternative procurement system nor did it postpone the exercise, given the large congregation of farmers expected at the centres. Criticising the mismanagement at quarantine centres, he said: “In Bhind, insects were found in the meal served to patients. Earlier, we saw people quarantined in toilets. The scene at Sendhwa [on the State’s border with Maharashtra] is moving. Even basic amenities are not provided to returnee migrants.” On May 14, chaotic scenes were witnessed at Sendhwa. Hungry and frustrated workers on reverse migration went on the rampage, protesting against the administration’s failure to make arrangements for food, shelter and transport.

Congress leader Siddharth Tiwari, who lost the 2019 Lok Sabha election from Rewa, told Frontline that the government’s handling of the pandemic, in particular its response to the poor and the dispossessed, exposed the real face of the BJP. Speaking to this reporter over phone from Rewa, he said: “In the name of beautification, the administration on May 9 bulldozed over 20 shanties that were built in Rewa’s Ratahra neighbourhood. Hundreds of labourers became homeless overnight. What was the need for an encroachment removal drive when an unprecedented health scare is looming large? This was inhuman and mindless.” “On May 16, in Chakghat area close to the Madhya Pradesh-Uttar Pradesh border, hundreds of starving migrant labourers who were holding demonstrations demanding food were beaten by the police and driven away,” he said.

Tiwari criticised the government for giving undue importance to the Assembly byelection and de-prioritising COVID response. He said the BJP was a divided house and Shivraj Singh Chouhan was unable to have a fully functional Cabinet. “For a month after assuming charge, the Chief Minister was unable to appoint a Health Minister as factionalism is at its peak in the BJP. Narottam Mishra was finally given charge of Health and Home portfolios. The government does not realise the seriousness of the situation we are in,” he said.

Faced with increasing criticism of his handling of the health crisis, Shivraj Singh Chouhan on May 30 issued warnings to erring medical staff. At a video conference to take stock of the pandemic situation, he asked senior doctors to visit COVID-19 wards in hospitals on a daily basis to ensure that patients were treated well. He said strict action would be taken if any lapses came to light. According to a public relations department official, the Chief Minister had said at the meeting that “even the slightest negligence and lapses in treatment will not be tolerated and strict action will be taken against the medical staff”.

The government intensified its sops distribution drive. Even as schools and colleges remain shut due to the lockdown, the government sent security allowances to students in place of midday meals, in order to ensure that they had enough money to purchase food and ration. The government claimed that Rs.146 crore was transferred to the bank accounts of 66 lakh beneficiary students. In a televised address on May 18, the Chief Minister said he was committed to providing relief to the underprivileged. “The State’s economy has collapsed due to coronavirus, but we have transferred more than Rs.16,000 crore to the poor, labourers, farmers, children, among others, so that no section of society has to face any problem,” he said.

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