COVID-19 Update

Uttar Pradesh: Casual approach

Print edition : September 11, 2020

Union Minister Prahlad Singh Patel (left) meets Mahant Nritya Gopal Das in Ayodhya on July 31. The Mahant, who presided over the ground-breaking ceremonies for the Ram temple attended by the Prime Minister on August 5, has caught COVID infection. Photo: PTI

Chetan Chauhan, the former cricketer who served as a Minister in the Yogi Adityanath government, has succumbed to the coronavirus infection. This photograph is from April 2012. Photo: Shanker Chakravarty

Uttar Pradesh becomes the first State to hold an Assembly session following the outbreak of COVID-19, but complaints grow about the government’s casualness in handling the crisis.

On the morning of August 20, Uttar Pradesh became the first State in India to start a session of the Legislative Assembly, nearly six months after the outbreak of COVID-19 was officially acknowledged by the Union and State governments in March. Throughout this six-month period, the pandemic raged on in the country’s most populous State, with cases and casualties increasing by the week. The Yogi Adityanath-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, meanwhile, made periodic proclamations through the media and other forums lauding its own “contributions in COVID combat”.

The run-up to the three-day Assembly session from August 20 was marked by an unprecedented rise in the number of cases and casualties. On August 19, the State government announced the detection of 5,156 new cases in the preceding 24 hours—the highest single-day spike recorded in the State until then. On August 18, Uttar Pradesh recorded the highest number of deaths in a single day (77). On the eve of the Assembly session, the total number of cases was 1,67,510.

The opposition, especially the Samajwadi Party (S.P.), went all out to draw public attention to these distressing figures. Protesters were out on the streets even before the session started officially on August 20. S.P. leaders and legislators, many of them wearing PPE kits in a symbolic gesture meant to indicate the seriousness of the situation, marched through the streets of Lucknow, demanding more proactive action by the government to control the pandemic and address economic hardships caused by it. The S.P. leadership pointed out that farmers and agricultural labourers were in deep distress and lacked even the means of subsistence. The protesters also called attention to the short supply of fertilizers and demanded that the State government ensure supply of urea and other fertilizers and that the Union and State governments continue with the cash transfer scheme for the poor. Proceedings of the Assembly were stalled several times on account of the protests on August 20.

By the evening of August 20, the State government apparently agreed to hold special discussions on the COVID situation on either August 21 or 24. State Health and Home Department authorities, however, indicated to Frontline that the ruling party would cite statistics in the Assembly session to defend the government’s handling of the COVID crisis. The highest single-day recoveries on August 19 (5,520) was by all indications a major weapon in the government’s arsenal. This number exceeded the number of new cases detected on that day. The government was also gearing up to emphasise that a total of 1,15,227 people had recovered and been discharged from hospitals. On August 19, the active number of cases was under 50,000, at 49,645. The State’s case fatality rate (CFR) was also steadily coming down and was 1.57 per cent as of August 19, marginally below the national average of 1.97 per cent.

Affected politicians

Yet, sections of Health and Home Ministry officials admitted that the government’s response to the pandemic, especially that of the political leadership, was characterised by a sort of casualness and failed to address the different aspects of the pandemic’s impact, including in the medical and social sectors. Some officials pointed out that political leaders had also been afflicted with COVID, which reflected the overall drift in handling the situation. As many as nine State ministers had tested positive, and two of them—Kamal Rani Varun on August 2 and the former cricketer Chetan Chauhan on August 16—succumbed to the virus. On August 19, Atul Garg, Minister of State for Health and Family Welfare, tested positive.

Mahant Nritya Gopal Das, chief of the Shri Ram Janmabhoomi Teerth Kshetra Nyas, the trust formed to oversee the construction of the Ram temple at Ayodhya, contracted the infection. So did Pravin Nishad, BJP MP from Sant Kabirnagar, and Manvendra Singh, BJP MLA from Dadraul.

The case of Mahant Nritya Gopal Das created a stir because he had presided over the Bhumipujan (ground-breaking ceremony) for the Ayodhya Ram temple on August 5, which was attended by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) sarsangachalak Mohan Rao Bhagwat. Many political, social, and religious leaders from different parts of northern India had attended the function. According to some officials in the State Health and Home departments, although all those who had come in contact with the Mahant needed to be screened, they had no clue about whether anything was being done about it at all. These officials felt that the political leadership was quite indifferent to the public health-related ramifications of the Ayodhya event.

S.P. president Akhilesh Yadav said that this casualness had marked the government’s handling of the crisis throughout. “It has failed to address every single aspect of COVID-19 and its impact, be it public health, economic hardships, agrarian crisis and the plight of the migrant labour. The government has been stumbling from one inept response to another, all the while trying to cover it up by using sectarian and communal politics,” he told Frontline.

However, the government has laid down some strict regulations for the Assembly session. Legislators above 60 (and there are some 60 of them in the 403-member Assembly) have been prohibited from physical attendance. Legislators have also been asked to get their drivers tested for COVID-19. The MLAs are not allowed to carry briefcases or bags inside the Assembly campus. Special WhatsApp groups have been formed for members to communicate with the Assembly Secretariat. All MLAs have been sent a special digital link which they can use to participate online in the Assembly discussions. The live pictures of those participating virtually would be shown on a screen inside the Assembly.