Rajasthan

Uneasy comfort

Print edition : July 17, 2020

Inside a factory in which cardboard beds are made for COVID-19 patients at Bhiwadi in Rajasthan. Photograph taken on June 25. Photo: MONEY SHARMA/AFP

Rajasthan has managed to keep its COVID fatalities low, but there are continuing concerns about a possible spike in rural areas, where returning migrants face a crisis of income and livelihoods.

When reports appeared in early March about COVID-19 infections in some districts in Rajasthan, there was justifiable concern that there could be an explosion of cases in the State in the following weeks. Now it is ranked sixth among the States with the largest number of confirmed cases, after Maharashtra, Delhi, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh. However, the number of deaths caused by COVID-19 has been under 500, with a far better recovery rate than some of the other States in northern and north-western India. Testing rates are also good in comparison with those in neighbouring States.

The districts that carry the heaviest burden of cases are Jaipur, Jodhpur, Bharatpur, Pali and Udaipur, accounting for almost 60 per cent of the infection load. Interestingly, the industrial hub of Bhilwara, which had reported an infection cluster as early as March, seemed to have controlled the initial spurt with strict containment and isolation methods. Unfortunately, the containment experiment was successful in only one district. Within weeks, the infection spread to all the districts in the State. Jaipur and Jodhpur in particular have been consistently showing an increase in the number of infections.

Between June 18 and June 25, the number of infections grew by an average of 2 per cent every day, as it did in Gujarat, though this was lower than Delhi’s 6 per cent and Uttar Pradesh’s 3 per cent. Rajasthan’s testing figures averaged close to 10,000 per million of the population, compared with Gujarat’s 5,006, Uttar Pradesh’s 2,682, and Madhya Pradesh’s 3,830. Of around 16,000-plus infections, almost 4.408 infections have been attributed to migrants who returned from other States.

Cautious approach

As of June 26, a total of 379 people had died in the State from COVID infections. But the mortality rate, at 2.33 per cent, was lower compared with 4.28 per cent in Madhya Pradesh, 3.36 per cent in Delhi, 5.99 in Gujarat, and 3.05 per cent in Uttar Pradesh. While no single factor can be pinpointed to explain the low mortality figures, the State government has been cautious about “re-opening” places where people gather in large numbers. It has not, for instance, opened up places of worship, as some States have done.

The government issued strict guidelines for a “cautious resumption of normalcy" by adopting "adequate precautionary and safety measures at workplaces, public places and public transport and on the premise of responsible self-regulation by the public at large.” It maintains that there has been no community spread—which is not entirely true—but it has ordered that strict protocols will continue to be observed in containment zones and on their perimeters, without any relaxations. Except those providing essential goods and services, people were not allowed to move around in these areas. Movement of individuals for non-essential activities was prohibited from 9 p.m .to 5 a.m all over the State, with exemptions for government officials and doctors on duty, IT and ITES workers on night shifts, pharmacy owners, factories with night shifts, factories with production of a continuous nature, and construction activities. Metro services, international travel, educational institutions, shopping malls, hotels, restaurants and even religious places were to remain closed. Violations of public safety measures, such as not wearing a mask, spitting in public, not maintaining physical distancing, consumption of alcohol or tobacco in public, were punishable with a fine. Shopkeepers were not allowed to serve customers not wearing a mask. All government offices were to operate with full strength while the “work from home” option was given to the private sector. The Common Safety Prescriptions are to be enforced by the District Magistrate under the Rajasthan Epidemic Diseases Ordinance 2020 and the Disaster Management Act 2005. Violators could invite penal action, including fines.

On June 10, the State government issued an order observing that there was an “unprecedented surge in COVID-19 positive cases since the phased opening of the lock down from June 1”. The order noted that “persons had travelled outside the State under the prevailing system of free movement and before their reports could be received, they tested positive, posing a threat...” No one would be allowed to travel out of the State or enter it without a pass duly issued by designated government officials. The exempted categories included those who need to attend cases of “death” and health emergencies such as hospitalisation or “accidents in the immediate family”. Barring these categories, every other individual desirous of moving out or moving in needs a “no objection certificate” from a designated government authority.

In less than a week, on June 16, the conditions for inter-State travel were rescinded as it became clear they were impractical. Admitting that people had been hugely inconvenienced, the government said that an NoC or a pass would no longer be required because infections had stabilised and recovery rates had improved. However, screening at the checkposts was a must for everyone.

On June 18, a fresh order under the Rajasthan Epidemics Diseases Ordinance 2020 was issued instructing heads of offices in government and private sectors and malls and shopkeepers to display “safety from Corona” messages at the entry and exit points of their institutions. Educational institutions and places of worship were to remain closed until further orders. There were reports suggesting that some relaxations could be expected in educational institutions and places of worship after July 1.

“Virtual campaign for rural areas”

The State government launched a “virtual” 10-day awareness campaign from June 21 to June 30 and claimed it was the only State to have done so. Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot, while launching the campaign, referred to the “high rates of recovery” and “low death rate” in the State. The virtual campaign aimed to contact 11, 500 gram panchayats with safety messages about how to prevent getting infected with the underlying motto that “self-help” was the best help.

The general opinion in the State was that this campaign should have been undertaken in the early stages of the spread of the virus. Almost every district had reported infections. With migrants starting to return after the lockdown was announced, there were concerns that the infection would spread to rural areas. The government campaign consistently stressed that people should isolate themselves if they developed mild or moderate symptoms of infection and get tested at a government facility if the symptoms persisted. Yet such facilities were not always available, as most district hospitals had only rudimentary facilities.

Locust menace

The locust menace added to the difficult situation. According to Sanjay Madho, joint secretary of the All India Kisan Sabha’s (AIKS) State unit, the State government was paying scant attention to problems faced by farmers following the large-scale devastation of crops caused by an invasion of locusts. It began in the third week of May, when crops were still being harvested, he said. “The rabi and the kharif crops have suffered huge damage, increasing the economic burden on farmers who had anyway resorted to distress selling during the lockdown. They need to be compensated for this,” he said. The State government was yet to do a survey to assess the damage.

Sanjay Madho said that the return of migrants presented fresh challenges. He blamed the Centre’s “complete lack of planning” before declaring the lockdown. Rajasthan was among the six States that had received the maximum number of migrants back. Around 18 lakh migrants had returned from other States, almost three times the number of those who left it. The majority of the returnees were in need of income support and work.

The recent hikes in petrol and diesel prices put immense pressure on the farming community. The State government on its part had issued electricity bills running into thousands of rupees to city-based consumers. “With no source of income, how are people expected to pay this? We have demanded that the government should waive electricity bills for at least six months for both domestic as well as agricultural consumption,” he told Frontline.

He added that the Central government should enhance the amount earmarked for farmers under the Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi to Rs.18,000 a year from the present Rs.6,000. The AIKS has demanded that at least for six months families that do not pay Income Tax should be given Rs.7,500 a month as financial support. It has also demanded that there should be an unemployment allowance of Rs.5,000 and that all registered workers in the labour department should be given Rs.5,000 a month to tide over the income and livelihood losses during the lockdown.

Another AIKS demand is for the increase of man-days under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) to 200 days and of daily wages Rs.600 at least. The State government has also appealed to the Centre to increase the number of man-days under the scheme.

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