'Bihar may be a poor state but…': Nitish Kumar explains his Covid-19 strategy
Ensuring relief and rehabilitation of lakhs of Bihari migrants is high on the list of priorities of chief minister Nitish Kumar. On the prospects of them returning home, he told Vinod Sharma that when curbs on their movement are lifted, the host governments in other states must undertake their "health screening' before letting them travel. Excerpts:
The incidence of Covid-19 cases aren't as alarming in Bihar as in states such as Maharashtra, Delhi and Tamil Nadu. But your administration cannot be complacent as the disease has footprints in 13 of the state's 38 districts. How well prepared are you?
As on 27th April (5pm), there are 329 Covid positive cases from 25 districts. However, 57 patients have been cured and discharged. So far there are 270 active cases. The chain of contacts was quickly indentified by the administration and tests were done. We have started door-to-door active health screening on the lines of Pulse Polio Campaign. This is a huge exercise and till date we have screened more than 40 millon people in 7.5 million households. We have six testing facilities at present and sufficient number of Covid hospitals, health centres and Covid Care centres. We also have sufficient isolation and quarantine facilities. We are aware of the ground realities and trying our best to fight the pandemic. We have also requested the central government to provide ventilator and help us enhance our capacity and testing facilities.
Siwan and Munger have the reported 120-odd cases. Are there any particular reasons for that in terms of the topography and population mix of these districts?
Answer - Initial Covid positive cases started from the foreign travellers and the infection spread through their contacts. Some cases were found in people who came in contact with Tablighi Jamaat. However, a new trend has been observed wherein new cases have been detected in migrant population who individually have returned from other states. At present, Munger has 90 and Siwan has 30 cases. In fact Patna has 38, Nalanda has 34, Buxar 25, Rohtas 15 and Kaimur 14 cases. These are among the districts having more cases. Siwan has only 12 active cases as on date and 18 patients have been cured and discharged.
As of now, your bigger challenge apparently is in being true to your social justice plank by ensuring relief and sustenance for Bihari workers stranded in other parts of India, notably Delhi, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Punjab. What is your message for them? Can you reach out to them with help directly or do you have to depend on the Centre and the host governments?
We always say that disaster-affected people have first right on state's exchequer. A lot of our people are working in other states and are stranded there. We have developed a system of taking feedback from these Bihari people stranded outside Bihar. The disaster management department control room and help lines are fully geared up to get their feedback and coordinate with the concerned state governments and district administration for proper arrangement of food, shelter and medical facility for them. I have appealed to them to follow the lockdown norms and stay wherever they are. We may be a poor state, but we are leaving no stone unturned to help our people who are in distress.
I directed CM secretariat officials to contact these people and get their feedback. Over 3,000 calls were made to talk to these people. Based on their feedback, I decided to give a special assistance of Rs 1,000 to all migrants stranded outside Bihar from Chief Minister Relief Fund and through the disaster management department. We have already released Rs 250 crore from Chief Minister Relief Fund. Nearly 2.5 million people have applied for it. Rs 1,000 has been transferred in the account of around 1.6 million people. I asked Bihar Foundation to provide meals, dry ration and shelter to the extent possible to our stranded people in other states. Bihar Foundation is running 55 relief camps in 12 cities of nine states and have served food to more than 1.2 million people and provided shelter to many.
We have not left anybody. Many of these stranded people have families in Bihar. We have a commitment to help those distressed families in Bihar and for this all possible steps are being taken. We decided to give Rs. 1,000 rupees to all the ration card holder families in the state. We have also directed the district administration to revisit all pending cases of ration card applications to find out eligible beneficiaries. Besides, we are getting the survey done by Jeevika (self -help group) in rural areas and NULM (National Urban Livelihood Mission) in urban areas to find out eligible non-ration card holder families. We shall also help them and provide ration card thereafter.
The disaster management department is operating more than 200 Aapada Rahat Kendra in different districts for labourers, rickshaw-pullers, daily-wagers and other needy people. More than 70,000 people are being given food, shelter and medical facilities at these centres every day. Many of these beneficiaries are people from other states but are stranded in Bihar.
What's the estimated count of the migrant Bihari population in India?
The numbers of Bihari migrants are high compared to any other state in India. We don't have the exact number of migrant Bihari population, but you will get an idea from this: during the crisis, with a view to facilitate and help migrant workers from Bihar, the government of Bihar started operating two 24x7helpline/call centres in the office of resident commissioner, New Delhi, and the department of disaster management, Patna, beside a dedicated centre in the Chief Minister's Office. We have received more than one lakh phone calls and messages of migrants stranded outside Bihar, and as per real time information, more than 2.5 million migrants have applied for immediate relief of Rs 1,000, which is being provided from the Chief Minister Relief Fund through the disaster management department. We expect this number to rise to more than 3 million.
The proposed lifting of curbs in some states might find them jobs but the remaining could return home. Have you drawn up plans for their temporary or permanent rehabilitation as leaving them to their devices could be dangerous and short sighted?
At present, Bihari migrant workers who are engaged across the country in construction, garment manufacturing, mining and agriculture sectors contribute to the local economy in a big way. After the lifting of the curbs, presence of these migrant workers would be essential to kick-start factories and enterprises in these sectors. We have already started working on it and are creating job opportunities for them in Bihar. We have emphasised employment creation in rural areas. Schemes under Jal-Jeevan-Haryali Abhiyan, Saat Nishchaya (Har Ghar Nal ka Jal, Har Ghar tak Pakki Gali-Naliyan), Flood Protection Works and MNREGA works have been started with adequate social distancing norms.
We have also released Rs 578.42 crore for agriculture input subsidy for farmers whose crop was damaged due to untimely rain and hailstorms in February and March.
We have given Rs 3,102 crore to 10.8 million students through Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT) for various welfare schemes of the education department. We have also given three months' advance pension to all the pensioners of the state under different pension schemes, which include Mukhyamantri Vriddhajana Pension Yojna, disability pension, widow pension and old age pension. A total of Rs 1,017 Crore has been transferred to 8.47 million beneficiaries.
We have taken a decision to do procurement of wheat through PACS (Primary Agricultural Cooperative Societies) at panchayat level so that farmers don't have to resort to distress sale and they get minimum support price within stipulated time. This will benefit farmers a lot.
Unlike your UP counterpart, you haven't sought the return of Bihari students held up in Kota. Are your hands forced by your commitment to social justice? You seem apprehensive that special treatment of a set of citizens could beget a class/caste backlash from the less privileged.
The Union home ministry issued the consolidated guidelines on April 15 under the Disaster Management Act, 2005, and prohibited inter-district and inter-state movement of individuals except for medical reasons and permissible activities across the country for the lockdown period until May 3. All states and Union Territories have been directed to ensure strict implementation of the guidelines and we are following and enforcing these directives only. There have been demands from students in many cities and migrants from many states to return home. More than 2.5 million people stranded outside Bihar have applied for special assistance from Bihar Chief Minister Relief Fund. This will give you an idea about the number of people stranded outside Bihar. We are sympathetic to their cause and have apprised the central government accordingly. If the order issued under the Disaster Management Act is relaxed to allow such movements, then we have no objection to that. The concerned states should do health screening of such people and allow them to travel if they are found fit.
As the BJP's ally at the Centre and in the state, are you satisfied with New Delhi's anti-Covid strategy? A BJP MP from Bihar is the junior health minister at the Centre. Did the PM consult you before the pan-India lockdown starting March 25?
The central government is the repository of all information on the coronavirus pandemic. Since it's a national crisis involving people from all states and Union Territories, the central government is in the best position to take necessary steps. After reviewing the situation in Bihar on March 13, the state government took a number of steps including closing educational institutions; transfer of midday meal money and Anganwadi centre benefits to the beneficiaries/parents' accounts; closure of zoos, parks and museums; and suspension of all sports and cultural programmes. Then, on March 22, Bihar ordered a state-wide lockdown till March 31. Once the central government ordered a national lockdown from March 25 and issued guidelines for the same, we implemented those measures. Since the central government has all the information, it's essential that all states and Union Territories follow the Centre's guidelines and fight the pandemic together.
What has been the Centre's response to Bihar's financial needs? Are you in agreement with other states for expeditious payment of their GST (Goods and Services Tax) share.
We all are aware that the coronavirus pandemic has adversely affected the global economy and the Indian economy has also been impacted by it. The lockdown is bound to impact the economic and industrial activity adversely. The national lockdown has reduced the revenue collection of the central government as well as state governments. This has also affected our fiscal space and financial flexibility. We have shared our financial concerns on GST share, raising of borrowing limit under FRBM (Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management) Act with the central government. We are sure that together we shall overcome this coronavirus pandemic challenge.
Shouldn't the Centre announce a special economic package for MSMEs and migrant labourers rendered jobless by the lockdown?
You are aware about the reduced fiscal space of central and state governments. We have transferred Rs 1,000 to accounts of around 1.6 million migrant labourers stranded outside Bihar. We have given priority to those sectors that help the rural population such as farmers, daily wage earners, unskilled and skilled people and migrant labourers. The Bihar government has started works in rural areas so that more people could get employment. The departments of rural development and water resources have taken up a large number of schemes under Jal Jeevan Hariyali Abhiyan. Construction works have been taken up by engineering and works department with proper social distancing techniques. Any package given by the central government for MSMEs would be welcome and would help mitigate the problems of the migrant labourers.
(Inputs and image from hindustantimes.com)