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'Some misunderstanding': After MHA letter, Kerala govt denies dilution of lockdown guidelines

Some misunderstanding: After MHA letter, Kerala govt denies dilution of lockdown guidelines

The Ministry of Home Affairs has shot a letter to the Pinarayi Vijayan-led government over its decision to ease curbs for the phase-II of the Covid-19 lockdown, saying lifting of certain restrictions amounted to dilution of the Centre's guidelines. The state government, however, said there was some "misunderstanding" and that they share the same stand with the Centre to fight the pandemic.

This is the first such instance of a state and the Centre clashing over COVID containment measures since the first lockdown was announced on March 24. The Centre's communication to the office of the Kerala chief minister was sent on April 19, a day before the measures were supposed to come into effect.

Earlier, sources in the ministry had told The Sunday Express that some elements of Kerala's guidelines — including the way the state wants to organise containment zones and hotspots, and give relaxations to certain service sectors, and use private and public transport — could be seen as a dilution of the Centre's guidelines and emerge as a point of dispute.

In the letter to the Kerala government on Sunday, the Centre said the decision to reopen restaurants and book shops is in clear violation of the lockdown measures issued by the home ministry and violation of its April 15 order issued under the Disaster Management Act 2005.

The MHA letter signed by Union Home Secretary Ajay Bhalla read, "The Government of Kerala (GoK) vide their Order No. 78/2020/GAD dated 17.04.2020 has circulated revised guidelines for lockdown measures to all departments, District Collectors, Superintendent of Police and other Heads of Department of Kerala. On examining the said order, it is observed that the GoK has allowed opening of activities which are prohibited in the aforesaid Order dated 15.04.2020 of MHA. Such additional activities allowed by GoK, inter alia, includes opening of local workshops; Barber shops; restaurants; book stores; MSMEs in municipal limits; bus travel in the cities/ towns for shorter distance (upto 60 km); two passengers in the back seat of four-wheeler; pillion riding on scooters. This amounts to dilution of guidelines issued by MHA and violation of MHA Order dated 15th April 2020 issued under the Disaster Management Act 2005."

In non-hotspot areas, the state guidelines allow services of domestic helps, opening of barber shops (non-AC and without cosmetic and beauty therapies), dine-in restaurants (till 7 pm), and local workshops, repair shops for electrical/electronic gadgets and machines. None of these found any mention in national guidelines. In fact, dine-in restaurants and domestic helps are understood to be prohibited.

The letter added that the government has also failed to abide by the regulations by allowing bus travel in towns, pillion rider on two wheelers and two passengers in the back seat of a car.

Contrary to the Centre's guidelines that all public transport, barring those engaged in carrying healthcare workers or essential services, would be prohibited, Kerala has banned only "inter-district and inter-state" public transport. This would mean plying of public transport within a district (not falling in the Red Zone of COVID containment) would be permitted.

In fact, the guidelines have gone on to specify that "bus travel for short distance within a city or town may be permitted subject to strict discipline", which includes no standing passengers, mandatory wearing of masks, availability of hand sanitisers, not more than 60 km of travel, and social distancing inside the bus.

The state guidelines further relax national guidelines by allowing two passengers besides the driver in a four-wheeler. They also allow a pillion rider on a bike if he is a family member of the driver. The Centre's guidelines allow only one passenger besides the driver in a car and only the driver on bikes.

The April 19 letter also reminded the state of the provisions of the Disaster Management Act which say that a state cannot dilute the guidelines issued by the Centre. It has told the state that its April 15 order also expressly mentioned that states can make the COVID containment measures stipulated by the Centre stricter but cannot dilute the same.

"I would urge you to rectify the guidelines of GoK in line with the consolidated revised guidelines dated 15th April and 16th April 2020 without any dilution and to ensure strict compliance of lockdown measures," the letter said.

It has also reminded the Kerala government that the Supreme Court had asked all states to abide by the directions of the Centre in efforts to fight the virus pandemic.

"Your attention is also drawn to the Order dated 31.03.2020 in the Writ Petition (Civil) No 468 of 2020, in which the Hon'ble Supreme Court is pleased to observe that (quote) "we trust and expect that all concerned viz. State Governments, Public Authorities and Citizens of this country will faithfully comply with the directives and orders issued by the Union of India in letter and spirit in the interest of public safety" (unquote). The observations, which must be treated as directions of the Apex Court, was conveyed in my DO letter of even no dated 1st April 2020 to all States/ UTs Governments," the letter said.

Responding to this, State Tourism Minister Kadakampally Surendran said. "We have given relaxations in accordance with the Centre's guidelines. I think there is some misunderstanding,based on which the Centre has sought an explanation. Once we give an explanation, it will all be sorted out. The Centre and the state have the same stand with regard to fight the pandemic. There is no contradiction in the stand taken. It's just a misunderstanding we will clear it."

He added that the lockdown and easing the protocol was a new thing for the state and the country and the state government will clear the doubts in a few hours.

Kerala on Sunday reported two positive cases of COVID-19 in the state, taking the total number of affected to 401 while the health department announced that 13 people were cured.

MHA sends letter to states

Besides this, the Centre also wrote to various state governments and Union Territories, and the violation of lockdown measures could risk the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The situation is "especially serious" in Mumbai, Pune, Indore, Jaipur, Kolkata and a few other places in West Bengal, it added.

The home ministry also said there have been several incidents of violence against COVID-19 frontline healthcare professionals, complete violation of social distancing norms and movement of vehicles in urban areas. These should be stopped, it said.

The central government said it has constituted six Inter-Ministerial Central Teams (IMCTs) to make on-spot assessment of the COVID-19 situation in these places and issue necessary directions to the four states — Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and West Bengal — for redressal.

The teams will submit their report to the central government in the larger interest of the general public, the ministry said.

"The IMCTs will focus on compliance and implementation of the lockdown measures as per guidelines, supply of essential commodities, social distancing, preparedness of health infrastructure, safety of health professionals and conditions of relief camps for labourers and poor people," a home ministry spokesperson said.

(Inputs and image from theindianexpress.com)

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