Amarinder Singh on COVID-19 crisis: ‘Centre can’t leave states to fend for themselves at this point’

Manoj C G
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Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh. (File Photo/Representational)

Coronavirus (COVID-19): Punjab CM Amarinder Singh speaks to Manoj C G on challenges states are facing in the fight against COVID-19 and why the Centre needs to step in.

The lockdown has been extended. Has the Prime Minister been frugal with details, about the next course of action, about how to keep afloat businesses and trade, about the mechanism to tide over economic challenges, about the migrants issue?

There really have been no details offered or discussed with the states, except for the COVID-related measures being taken. The only details we saw were the advisory that the Home Ministry issued the day after the lockdown was announced. And as you can see it didn’t really give any way forward or details on reviving business/trade. In fact, we had asked the Centre to allow us to open some of the industries and manufacturing units which were accommodating migrant labourers and taking care of them while ensuring safety. But even that came much later.

As an administrator, you would appreciate that even the Centre's revenues have shrunk. How do you think the Centre can help in all the demands being raised by states? What options would you suggest the Centre to explore?

Nobody believes that the Centre is bankrupt. They can easily borrow from the national reserves to meet this unprecedented national health crisis. The states need money, we are at a crisis point. We have no way of generating revenues and the Centre has to come forward. They should make a policy. We are facing the worst crisis since the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic which took millions of lives. This is a unique situation. The Centre has to find ways to help out the states. They cannot leave the states to fend for themselves at this point. I have written to the Prime Minister and the Union Finance Minister to find innovative ways to tide over this crisis.

And what options is Punjab exploring on the revenue front. In the absence of a package from the Centre, what is Punjab going to do to raise revenue to run the state and the challenge posed by COVID-19?

Yes, it is a problem with the Centre failing to come out with any special relief package for the state. We have no money to handle this crisis. Our revenue sources have dried up, there is no excise duty or taxes coming. We have not even received the full arrears of our GST share yet. And in the coming quarters, we are looking at much lower GST returns.

It is a difficult situation. And frankly, we are just grabbing at straws right now. We are trying to cut expenses across departments to meet the cost of medical care and essentials. We have formed a finance sub-committee to think out of the box on revenue generation. We are also going to set up a high-powered committee under an economic expert to formulate a strategy for revival of business/industry and economy post the lockdown period. It is going to be a long haul, and we are just at the beginning of the long-term crisis that we are staring at.

Had the central government started screening and isolating those who came in from abroad at the airports early on, say in February, do you think the spread of the disease could have been checked.

Of course it would have made a huge difference. The first reports of the virus spreading came from China in December 2019. Had the screening and testing at airports started in January-February I think we would have been much better placed today and could have checked the spread of the pandemic, perhaps even stopped it from entering India.

Do you think the Prime Minister should interact with the Chief Ministers more often?

Definitely. It is a national issue. We have a health emergency in the country. And the entire nation is facing an economic collapse. There have to be continuous talks between the Centre and the states on these issues. We have to work together more closely to find solutions. The states need a lot of help, and unless the Prime Minister interacts with us more frequently, they will not fully realise the enormity of the problem we are facing in the states.

Why should a small trader, a businessman, a manufacturer pay the same wages and perks of daily wagers as earlier without any let-up in his rental costs? How can his liabilities be cushioned by the state? The Prime Minister had spoken about national solidarity but is that sufficient?

That’s correct. In fact, I have already written to the Prime Minister on this issue. The big industries might survive but for the small trader/businessman/manufacturer, it is a case of being stuck between the devil and the deep sea. As I said earlier, we have no funds to help out these businessmen etc at present. The Centre has to step in. The Prime Minister has to show national solidarity on the ground. In fact, even the permission for allowing some industries to operate with the migrant labour also came in from the Centre a couple of weeks after we proposed it. They have to be more proactive. India is in the midst of an unprecedented crisis. It is a make or break situation, and if the Centre does not help out the states we will find it difficult to survive this crisis.

What would be your suggestion to Chief Ministers like Uddhav Thackeray and Vijay Rupani who are facing anxious migrants now?

As you know, we in Punjab did not face any problem with the migrants. We took several steps long back to ensure that they are taken care of. We ensured that they had enough food and shelter. We asked the industry to take care of them so that they did not have to rush back home for a matter of just 2-3 weeks after which we needed them for harvesting etc. Other state governments should have also done something similar. If a man is starving and has nowhere to go, day after day, he will revolt. You can’t expect him to stay put in such trying conditions. If he has to die, he will obviously think it better to die with his family back home, or even in trying to get back there.

Then there are also these reports of the migrant crisis in these states being triggered by rumours. I don’t know if that is correct, but it is important to check fake news/information or rumours going around in these critical times. My instructions to the Punjab Police on this count are very clear. Other states should also take this very seriously.

How has been the central support in beefing up health infrastructure -- testing kits, PPEs, ventilators, ICUs? What needs to be done by the Centre?

Unfortunately, we have not received any central support at all in these testing times. The only thing we have received is 10000 of the one lakh rapid testing kits we had ordered. Other things we have been procuring from the open market at whatever cost. Our Procurement Committee set up for this purpose has a free hand to take decisions in the interest of the state and our people. And I am happy to say that several manufacturers in Punjab have pitched in with their own designs which have got approval – especially for PPE kits, apart from ventilators and masks. So by God’s grace, we have enough to meet our needs for COVID medical facilities. But for testing, we are still way short of what we need. We have even raised inquiries in the open market for rapid testing kits. The Centre has to help us out. WHO says test, test and test. But how do we do that without sufficient kits?

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