Statescan en Sat Jun 22 12:01:58 IST 2019 grave-concerns <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>There is a deep fear attached to the funerals of Covid-19 casualties, and the chimneys of the crematoriums in Bengaluru are alleviating this. As the electric furnaces reduce the bodies into ashes, the chimneys send out the visual proof.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Around the time Bengaluru became a Covid-19 hotspot, a few videos went viral—they showed families keeping vigil beside bodies kept on the streets, waiting for ambulances to arrive. Ambulance drivers, gravediggers and volunteers are now toiling to give proper funerals to those who have succumbed to the virus. Personal protective equipment (PPE) has become the new dress code at funerals, irrespective of religion.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The fear often borders on paranoia. Residents near a Christian cemetery in Vishwa Nagar, outside Bengaluru, stopped an ambulance carrying the body of an 86-year-old man who had tested positive for the virus. The police and civic authorities tried to reason with them, but the residents would not budge. The family eventually buried the body in a cemetery on Hosur Road.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Taking into consideration all these challenges, the Karnataka government recently earmarked 35 acres outside Bengaluru as an exclusive cemetery for Covid-19 victims.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“Almost 90 per cent of the bodies I transported were of people above 55,” said Naveen Gowda, an ambulance driver in his early 20s, as he leaves the Hebbal crematorium. “I do up to four trips a day, sometimes ferrying two bodies on a trip.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The fear generated by social distancing has evolved into a stigma towards burials and cremations. Charitable organisations like Mercy Mission are working to eliminate that stigma. Their volunteers, called mercy angels, have helped more than 200 families across religions bid adieu to their loved ones, free of cost and by following protocol.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>At the end of the day, the elements of nature do embrace the departed souls without discrimination.</p> Fri Aug 07 11:46:22 IST 2020 the-grand-slum <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>Dharavi has an</b> inherent spirit to fight all odds with its camaraderie. A few months back, in April and May, it was the hotbed of Covid-19 infections in Mumbai. And now, as on July 29, Asia’s largest slum has just three active cases.</p> <p>Incidentally, a record number of Covid-19 survivors from Dharavi are coming out to donate their blood plasma to help fellow beings. “Most of the essential services workers from Dharavi were found Covid-19-positive, and, among them, almost 75 per cent were in the age group of 20 to 50,” says Kiran Dighavkar, assistant municipal commissioner of G/South ward which comprises Dharavi. “They did not have comorbidities, and hence, their plasma was found to be good with a high load of antibodies [that can be used for plasma therapy to treat the infected]. All the 2,100 discharged patients were asked if they were willing to donate their plasma, and almost 400 to 500 agreed.” The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation authorities have identified 50 to 60 eligible candidates from Dharavi for plasma donation, and among them 15 have already donated it. “We are quite excited about the number of volunteers who are coming forward to volunteer for this effort,” says Dighavkar.</p> <p>The snaking roads of Dharavi now wear a particularly clean and refreshing look. Its narrow, confined alleys look freshly washed, and its heaps of garbage have disappeared. Almost everyone wears mask, and the slum seems unusually quiet with fewer people around.</p> <p>Crouching outside her tenement, Lakshmi Kamble, a third-generation resident of Dharavi, lauds the aggressive cleaning and disinfection efforts that happened in the area. “Because of one virus suddenly everyone seems to be taking interest in Dharavi,” she says. “Why did they neglect and ignore us for so long?”</p> <p>Covid-19 reached Dharavi on April 1, when a 56-year-old man died on the very day he tested positive for the coronavirus. Soon, the numbers spiked and contact tracing became an enormous challenge for the authorities. “[In Dharavi,] a community toilet is usually shared by 300 to 400 people. That one factor was enough to strike off the concept of contact tracing, as was being applied elsewhere in the city,” says Dighavkar. What followed then was an aggressive effort of proactive tracing, tracking and testing through multiple fever camps, and prompt acquisition of facilities for quarantining and isolating patients.</p> <p>At the time when the pursuit of the virus was at its peak in April, there were only eight health posts in Dharavi, each manned by an assistant medical officer and a few nurses, and supported by 200 community health volunteers and 50 odd coordinators. This was not enough for the densely-populated slum. More hands were needed in distribution of essentials, too. And, that is where Dharavi’s strong community engagement came into the picture.</p> <p>At a time when most private clinics and hospitals remained shut in Mumbai, 24 private doctors based in Dharavi came forward to lend a helping hand to fight Covid-19. They screened close to 48,000 people within the first week itself in six high-risk zones. And an additional 350 clinics, which had shut down, started screening people for Covid-19, and they coordinated their efforts via WhatsApp. “We thought it was better to serve our own people than remain cooped up indoors,” says Dr Yusuf Khan, president, Dharavi AYUSH Doctors’ Association. “The people here believe us. So, when we say that ‘yes, you must get quarantined’, people obey.”</p> <p>As with doctors, the BMC also got abundant volunteers to do the legwork for various other things. “People from within the community came forward to work for the community, and manpower was never an issue,” says Vanessa D’Souza, who helms the NGO SNEHA that works with the residents of Dharavi. The World Health Organization, too, lauded this very aspect in Dharavi’s fight against Covid-19. “Children, almost 50 of them, from the community came over asking for work, and we paid them 1300 per day for distributing food,” says Dighavkar. “We had no shortage of manpower; when we advertised for 50 ward boys, 450 people queued up outside my office.”</p> <p>Money, too, was available as a number of people, including many celebrities, contributed towards salvaging the crisis in Dharavi. “Everyone wanted to donate to Dharavi only,” says Dighavkar. “We acquired a few private hospitals in the area, including the 51-bed Sai Hospital and Prabhat Nursing Home, and a number of other facilities including lodges, hostel rooms, marriage halls and hotels. So, logistics was never an issue, and we were equipped to have an instant end-to-end solution in Dharavi itself from treatment to discharge.” By the first week of June, a 200-bed hospital was set up complete with oxygen supply machinery, some of which were donated by Bollywood celebrities.</p> <p>Measures such as appointing community coordinators from within Dharavi to be in-charge of sealed-off containment zones worked well, too. “There was a sense of belonging and ownership among these coordinators, and that is why we observed that there was strict adherence to rules,” says D’Souza.</p> <p>After witnessing high numbers in April and May, it was only on and after June 3 that the community started witnessing a dip in Covid-positive cases. And, now, Dharavi is inching towards zero active cases. But the fight is not over.</p> <p>“It is too early to celebrate,” says Vinod Shetty of ACORN India. “The government can now seriously think about upping the hygiene and sanitation levels in Dharavi so as to improve the living conditions of people there.”&nbsp;</p> Thu Jul 30 17:20:39 IST 2020 a-hero-lives-on <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>Not even death</b> could stop Anujith from caring for his fellow beings. The 27-year-old from Kerala’s Kollam district crashed his motorcycle on July 17 while swerving to save a pedestrian; he succumbed to his injuries three days later. But Anujith’s heart now beats in another man’s body, his arms went to a young boy who lost his hands in a mishap, his small intestine now functions in a young woman, his kidneys have saved the lives of two people and his eyes have given new light to two others. The magnanimity of a single donor has transformed the lives of seven recipients.</p> <p>Anujith had registered himself as a donor with Mrithasanjeevani, Kerala government’s organ transplant programme, and had made his family and friends promise that they would donate his organs in the event of his death. “He always lived for others. He had made me swear that I would donate his organs,” said Anujith’s wife, Princy. “It was my duty to fulfill his wishes.”</p> <p>Anujith’s sister Ajalya echoed the same sentiments. “I am sure this is what my brother wanted. He would be very happy now,’’ she said. But fulfilling Anujith’s wishes was not easy for them because of the increasing number of Covid-19 infections in Kerala. “We tried our best to convince them that it was not advisable to do this in the time of Covid. There were many technical and medical issues involved to do organ transplants during this time,’’ said Dr Noble Gracious, nodal officer of the Mrithasanjeevani programme.</p> <p>Another problem was that the eligible recipients were spread across the state, while Anujith’s body was in Thiruvananthapuram. “But his family and friends were determined to see to it that Anujith’s organs reached the needy. It was very rare to see such commitment,’’ said Gracious.</p> <p>The family and friends approached Health Minister K.K. Shailaja’s office for help. After she alerted the chief minister’s office, permission was granted to use the police helicopter for transporting the organs. Covid tests were subsequently performed for Anujith, the intended recipients and the medical staff involved. All, luckily, tested negative.</p> <p>After a five-hour-long surgery, the heart, the hands and the small intestine were airlifted to Kochi. One kidney was transported to Kollam, while the second kidney was transplanted in a patient in Thiruvananthapuram. The corneas, too, were donated to patients in the capital.</p> <p>Anujith’s heart started beating in the body of 55-year-old Job Mathew (name changed as per protocol) after a four-hour-long surgery. Mathew has been suffering from dilated cardiomyopathy since 2012 and his heart function was reduced to 15 per cent. “We don’t know how to thank Anujith and his family. We want to meet them once my father is out of hospital,’’ said his son. The patients who received Anujith’s forearms and small intestine are also recovering well. Doctors said hand transplants were rarely performed because family members of the dead usually did not like to see the body without hands.</p> <p>“All the patients are doing well and have been shifted out of ICUs, thanks to the coordinated effort of the medical teams involved in the mission. But none of this would have happened without the love and determination of Anujith’s family and friends. This is an unforgettable experience in our professional lives,’’ said Gracious.</p> <p>Anujith’s friends and family said there was no better way to honour a person like him who always lived for others. “He was a rare soul,” said Ajith, one of Anujith’s close friends. “There is not a single person in our village who had not received some help from him.’’</p> <p>No wonder help came pouring in following Anujith’s accident. It was friends and acquaintances who took care of the expenses during his hospitalisation and burial. Now they are trying to repay the loan he took last year to build his house.</p> <p>Saving lives, in fact, was nothing new to Anujith. Back in 2010, he saved hundreds of lives when he stopped a local train by waving his red school bag after he found a crack on the tracks. Next day, the picture of him carrying his tattered bag was carried by all newspapers. “I saw the reports and admired this guy who saved so many lives,’’ said Princy. Admiration turned gradually into love, but religious differences stood in the way. The young lovers, however, did not budge and got married despite the challenges.</p> <p>“We had just begun our life,” said Princy. “He was such a nice soul, helping everyone around him. Why did this happen?’’ Speaking of her husband’s sacrifice, Princy believes that all who received Anujith’s organs will turn out to be healthy. “I want to meet all of them, especially the person who received his hands. I want to hold those hands,’’ she said. Gracious said the meeting might happen once the recipients had recuperated fully. “What is more important is the fact that the donor’s family comes to terms with the loss. Such meetings are quite emotional for both the donor’s family and the recipients,’’ he said.</p> <p>Princy, meanwhile, tries to find solace in the fact that Anujith’s heart is still beating. “I tell my son that his father is not dead, that he is living through many others. I do not know whether my son understands anything. But what I said did make him smile,’’ she said.</p> <p>The three-year-old may or may not have understood the enormity of his father’s sacrifice. But many others certainly have. Inspired by Anujith, 110 young people from his village have pledged to donate their organs. And, as Princy would love to believe, “He is happy up there, knowing that he has helped seven others even in death.”&nbsp;</p> Thu Jul 30 17:10:13 IST 2020 the-good-doctor <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>In the late 1970s</b>, little Ajoy Mistry was a household help to a wealthy family in Hanspukur village in South 24 Parganas district, West Bengal. One day, he was sent to the local market to do the family’s shopping. Ajoy, who was 12, spent 10 paisa on a sapodilla plum (chikoo). The sweet taste was short-lived, as his employers thrashed him over the missing 10 paisa.</p> <p>“No one rescued me even though I was crying profusely,” said Mistry, 55. “The locals knew the story behind my thrashing, but no one supported me.” Today, the little boy is Dr Ajoy Mistry and life has come full circle. He is now seen as the saviour of the villagers who had once turned their backs on him.</p> <p>Covid-19 hit Hanspukur hard in May, a few days after super cyclone Amphan swept through South 24 Parganas. Mistry led relief operations across the area. Wearing personal protective equipment, Mistry ferried food, medicines, masks and sanitisers in an ambulance. Within a month, he reached around 4,000 patients, including pregnant women.</p> <p>Bishnupur town, under which Hanspukur falls, is a major hotspot in South 24 Parganas. The spike in cases has been linked to the large number of migrant labourers who had returned home. Pathar Pratima, Kakdwip and Namkhana are also emerging as hotspots in the district. Mistry runs a 50-bed hospital in Hanspukur—Humanity Hospital—and a clinic-cum-hospital at Pathar Pratima.</p> <p>Mistry’s mother Subhasini, 75, has been credited with founding Humanity Hospital with her meagre earnings as a vegetable vendor. Several news reports echoed this when she was awarded the Padma Shri in 2018. But, Mistry said there was more to the story than what was reported. “My mother’s hard work has always been my strength,” he said. “But the hospital was the result of my relentless struggle, [through] torture and insult. It is completely different from what people know.” Subhasini, too, said her dream of starting a hospital for the poor became a reality only because her second son became a doctor.</p> <p>Today, the two hospitals give hope to thousands. Humanity Hospital is a government-approved Covid-19 hospital. It even has an intensive care unit, a rarity in any part of West Bengal, let alone a rural area; only half-a-dozen hospitals outside Kolkata have ICU facilities.</p> <p>Bishnupur MLA Dilip Mondal said that he held a meeting with the local administration before designating Humanity Hospital as a Covid-19 centre. “Dr Mistry agreed; we are grateful to such people as they never questioned our decision,” said Mondal. “The doctor’s story is a guiding force for all of us. Moreover, the hospital is run efficiently.”</p> <p>Mondal, who is a member of many health committees of South 24 Parganas, said: “Since this hospital has oxygen and other related facilities, we have decided to admit not only mild patients but also severe cases here,” he said. “We will shift them to Kolkata only if the situation worsens.” He added that though the hospital had necessary facilities, the administration would supplement it with more doctors and equipment.</p> <p>On July 16, when THE WEEK spoke to Mistry, he was busy treating critical patients. “We have to fight day and night to save lives,” he said. “So, it is difficult to talk to you.” The rush of patients is forcing Mistry to stay at the hospital around the clock. “More patients are coming in every day, making it difficult for me to go out with my ambulance like I did at first,” he said.</p> <p>But, he has already made a huge difference in the district. “He has travelled all over (the district) to track people with Covid-like symptoms,” said Sukumar Mondal, a panchayat member in Kakdwip. “He also gave people advice on how to cope with the disease. He gave nutritious food to poor mothers and pregnant women.”</p> <p>Said Mistry: “I have felt poverty and humiliation; it prompted me to try to make a difference in society. I could have joined a good hospital and made money, but I did not do that.”</p> <p>Mistry was four when he lost his father, Sadhan, to an abdominal infection. Sadhan had lost his land because he could not pay tax, and the family had no means of livelihood. Subhasini got Mistry a job at a tea stall as a dishwasher. “One day I broke a glass,” he said. “The owner hit me on my head and cheeks. I was crying, but the man had no heart. I also lost the job.”</p> <p>His mother then found work for him at several households. Mistakes were punished in the same manner—public thrashings. His ragged clothes earned him the moniker “dustbin boy”. While everyone ridiculed him, no one bought him clothes, said Mistry. “I belong to a scheduled caste,” he said. “Perhaps, if I belonged to the upper caste, people would have helped me.”</p> <p>The turning point came when he was admitted to an orphanage at Bishnupur. The man who ran the orphanage took him under his wing. “It was the greatness of Jyotish Chandra Ray, who I used to call uncle,” said Mistry. “He allowed me to stay at his home and study in school.” Mistry excelled at studies. “I not only used to study, I used to work in villages and go to remote places to bring many boys like me to the same orphanage,” he said.</p> <p>Meanwhile, after leaving her son at the orphanage, Subhasini and her two daughters went to Tiljala near Park Circus in Kolkata to earn a living selling vegetables. Mistry completed his schooling with distinction, cleared the all India medical entrance examination and received a scholarship from a German organisation. He moved out of the orphanage and started tutoring the nephew of a rich farmer, who was childless. He was given accommodation and food in return.</p> <p>Thanks to Mistry’s efforts, the boy who used to fail exams started scoring more than 90 per cent. His uncle was pleased and wanted to give Mistry one of his many houses in the area. Mistry saw a chance to build a hospital for the poor and put forth the idea. The man accepted, but later backtracked because his relatives felt that Mistry was trying to grab his land. “One day, they beat me up while I was going to write an examination in the medical college,” he said. As per the advice of his professors, he lodged an FIR against them. “But, they were in positions of power in the panchayat; the police did not take any action,” said Mistry.</p> <p>Instead, he was attacked again on his way to college. But this time, he retaliated. “As a result, a police complaint was lodged against me as well,” he said. As his enemies were linked to the Congress, he got the support of the local Communist Party of India (Marxist) leaders. As his education progressed, he began tutoring more students to make ends meet. In the early 1990s, he bought a small patch of land in the village. The CPI(M) leaders told him that they would build a hospital and name it after his father. But, he refused. “I told them I have no desire to name it after my father and it would only be for humanity,” said Mistry.</p> <p>He built a thatched-roof hut and brought his mother to stay with him. By that time, his elder brother had started a small business and his sisters were married. On December 31, 1992, while he was still in medical school, he declared he would see patients free of cost from his hut. It made local communist leaders angry. The potential threats were dealt with when, with the help of one of his professors, Mistry brought then health minister Prasanta Sur to lay the foundation stone of the hospital.</p> <p>Soon, he received donations from many people and was able to build a permanent structure. He completed his MBBS from Calcutta Medical College and Hospital in 1995 and his MD from the same college two years later. Many of his former professors also began frequenting his hospital as guest doctors. It took 20 years to get the hospital going in full swing. However, he could not save his elder brother who had congenital heart disease. He refused to undergo surgery as he felt it was too risky and died two years ago.</p> <p>What about the people who called him “dustbin boy” or thrashed him? Mistry said he sees them looking at him while he is working. “Some give threatening looks,” he said. “Others have apologised, but I tell them they are not guilty. I was the victim of a society which taught them to do so.”&nbsp;</p> Thu Jul 30 17:05:11 IST 2020 we-will-avoid-the-politics-of-opposing <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>EVER SINCE</b> he launched the agitation in 2015, demanding quota for Patidars, Hardik Patel has been in the limelight for his fiery speeches and the sedition charges levelled against him. He openly supported the Congress in the 2017 Gujarat assembly polls and joined the party in 2019. Now, Patel, 26, has been appointed working president of the Gujarat Congress. Apparently, this was done to clip the wings of president Amit Chavda, who is considered ineffective, and also to infuse new blood into the party. Patel’s elevation also aims to balance caste equations. While Chavda is an OBC leader, opposition leader Paresh Dhanani is a Leuva Patel and Hardik is a Kadva Patel.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In an exclusive interview with THE WEEK, Patel talks about his challenges and plans:</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Were you expecting to be appointed as state working president?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ It happened suddenly so I was a bit worried, too. It is necessary to shoulder this responsibility as, perhaps for the first time in its history, the party has given this [role] to a 26-year-old.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>For me, it is not happiness. It is a responsibility. I will surely succeed. But, for this, I will have to start work from now. My target is to have 50 strong youth in each of the 16,000 villages of Gujarat. They should fight for the party, die for the party. They will be used in the 2022 assembly elections.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>We will also keep away from the politics of ‘opposing’ and focus on solving problems. For example, if there is an electricity problem in a village, we do not have to go there and hurl abuses at Narendrabhai (Prime Minister Modi) or the Gujarat government. The idea is to see how the government solves the problem.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>If someone asks about the growing unemployment, I would say that it is because of the wrong policies of the government. First fill up three lakh posts that are vacant; that will help three lakh families.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ How do you feel?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ It is nice that a farmer’s son has got this opportunity after just five years of public and social life. It is a big thing that Rahulji and Soniaji have kept faith in me. Priyankaji has also supported [me]. When I met Soniaji, she told me, “Youth like you are needed in the party.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ What are the challenges you face?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ The biggest challenge is to bring people (into) the party. My first responsibility is to bring in youth between 18 and 24. They have never seen Congress rule.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ What else do you plan to do?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ Politics is of two types—table and field. I am not one for table politics. I will go to villages. I will sit on someone’s cot and eat and sleep at someone’s place. If I speak to them, I will get to know the real issues.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It is necessary to bring back enthusiasm among the youth by winning all the seats in the byelections. (Byelections to eight assembly seats are likely to be announced soon). It will also be about giving prominence to the party worker who has been fighting the BJP rule for 30 years. He may be weak, financially and socially. But give him an opportunity as he has remained with the party.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ The Gujarat model of development is being highlighted. Do you agree with it?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ There is a need to prepare a list of problems in Gujarat. When you are part of a television debate, and if a minister says that Gujarat has witnessed development, then we should show details about villages that have not been developed.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Gujarat’s health care infrastructure stands exposed during the Covid-19 [pandemic]. There was no need to kill [gangster] Vikas Dubey in an encounter. Instead, he should have been admitted to Ahmedabad’s Civil Hospital. His last rites would have been done and nobody would have known. Things are that bad.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Is health care the only sector that is lacking?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ Look at education. It is the primary responsibility of the state government, and more than 170 schools have shown very poor results [in the recent state board exams]. What development have you done? If you say that you have made bridges and a riverfront in Ahmedabad, then that is not development.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>If laying roads in Ahmedabad and Surat is the definition of development, then what will happen to the people in villages? Development means progress for each person. [Enough development that] he gets good money for his yield in the fields, does not need to take a loan and can marry off his children. If parents spend 80 per cent of their money on children’s education, then the children should have jobs. Where are the jobs?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ The Congress does not accept outsiders easily.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ Even in a house, children have a difference of opinion with their parents. Yet they stay in the same house, eat together, sleep together. My case is similar. We will discuss, fight, work for the people and form a government. I do not believe in factions or camps. My faction will be that of the people.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I would like to tell the masses that they have reposed faith in the BJP for 30 years in Gujarat, and yet there are issues. At least put your faith in the Congress one time. Send us back to the opposition if we fail. We do not have public relations companies. We will go to the villages and solve problems faced by the people.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Do you think the cases against you can damage the Congress?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ They will send me to jail. They will not allow me to contest elections. [But] they will not be able to take my life. They cannot take away my courage and determination.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ How will you stop more Congress MLAs from joining the BJP?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ A mother keeps a child in her womb for nine months, the parents bring up the child and still they are sent to old-age homes. If a mother cannot read her children’s mind then we also do not have that capability. We need people who speak up, who can go into the chief minister’s chamber and fight.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Some state Congress leaders are unhappy with your appointment.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ Half an hour before my appointment was announced, all the senior leaders called to wish me. They said the party had done some good for the first time.</p> Fri Jul 24 10:53:13 IST 2020 on-a-temple-trail <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>IN THE 1850s</b> or so, a series of unusual events rocked Perumallapadu village on the River Penna, which empties into the Bay of Bengal. One day, the village, which was then part of the Madras Presidency, woke up to the news of a village elder’s death. Mourners carried Vemana Narsapa Naidu’s body to the cremation grounds outside the village. Legend has it that, just before lighting the pyre, a relative whispered a few words in his ears as per Hindu custom. Suddenly, Naidu sprung back to life. He then told the mourners that he had received divine instructions to restore a Shiva temple built by Parasurama. In the years that followed, Naidu reconstructed the temple, which came to be known as the Sri Nageswara temple.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“He restored the temple, dug a koneru (pond) and reared a tamarind grove with his property. The temple is in the shape of a tower. Nandeeswara is installed in front of this temple,” reads an excerpt from a 1961 manual, which is in the possession of the state archaeology and museums department.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Lore has it that around 60 years ago the Penna river changed course after a flood. The temple itself was buried by the sand and debris carried by the floodwaters. The floods forced the villagers to shift 1km away. Over time, the 800-odd villagers forgot the location of the temple.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Cut to 2020. Till early this year, Potugunta Vara Prasad was busy developing software at an IT firm in Stockholm. And then the pandemic struck. Prasad, 36, was given the option of staying put in Sweden or returning to India and working from home. He chose the latter, wanting to be with his parents, wife and son in Perumallapadu, in Nellore district of Andhra Pradesh.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Growing up, Prasad, like most of the villagers here, had heard the legend about the temple. “Deep in my heart, I always wished to see the temple. I wanted to find it in my lifetime,” said Prasad. While Naidu’s decision to restore the temple was a divine calling, Prasad decided to look for the temple after his spiritual guru from the adjoining village told him to do so around five years ago. Every time he visited the guru, he would remind Prasad about the temple. Prasad, perhaps, never had the time earlier, but the pandemic provided him with the perfect opportunity.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>On his return from Stockholm in March, Prasad quarantined himself for a month. Like him, around 50 young men had returned home owing to the pandemic. “After the quarantine period, I felt lively, meeting my friends, family and walking around the village,” he said. “We spent the initial days playing cricket and gossiping.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Soon, Prasad broached the topic of the temple with the young men. When he got their support, he approached the village elders. “They had a lot of doubts. I came back with a plan and presented it to them,” he said. “Then we sat together and brainstormed. Finally, there was a consensus on going ahead with the excavation.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>According to the villagers, previous attempts to find the temple had failed, and they had little hope of success this time, too. Nonetheless, Prasad, like Naidu, decided to fund the exercise. “We approached the local endowments department and sought permission,” said Mannem Manohar, 21, an engineering graduate who had returned to the village from Nellore city. He was part of the group that held discussions with officials. “We explained the importance of the temple,” said Manohar. “A few days later, they gave us oral permission.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>On June 15, the villagers gathered at the spot where they thought the temple once stood. Eyewitnesses said that the atmosphere was festival-like. Prasad’s spiritual guru was also present. An earth-mover was rented and, after an elaborate prayer session, the excavation began. Hours passed, but there was no sign of the temple. By evening the villagers were demoralised. The turning point came just as they were getting ready to throw in the towel.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“A shepherd who lives on the outskirts of our village came to us,” said Manohar. “He said that we should dig at a particular spot. We did not take him seriously. But he was insistent.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The next morning, the villagers gathered at a new location. At around 7am, the excavation started. In an hour, a pointed structure was unearthed. It was the tip of the entrance tower of the long-lost temple. “I had tears in my eyes. It was an unbelievable feeling,” said Prasad.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As the villagers celebrated, the young among them posted photos and videos on social media. Soon, the posts went viral and hundreds of people from different parts of the district streamed to the site. While some wanted to click pictures, others came to pray. Government officials, too, reached the site.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“The area has been designated as a containment zone and such crowds cannot be allowed during a pandemic,” said mandal revenue officer Geetha Vani, who was among the first officers to reach the spot. “We held discussions with the villagers and immediately stopped the activity. We barricaded the site and secured the place so that it does not turn into a picnic spot. It is dangerous for people to go inside the structure as it can collapse anytime. We have to ascertain the facts related to this temple. We have written to the collector and endowments department.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Currently, only a quarter of the temple has been excavated. The outer walls and the top portion of the temple have sculptures of goddesses. A narrow passage hemmed in by sand mounds leads to the main entrance. There is visible damage to the structure; the woodwork and bricks are exposed. According to locals and officials, all idols and ornaments from the temple were shifted to another temple just before the floods had hit the region.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Meanwhile, officials of the state archaeology and museums department, who were unaware of the existence of the temple, are trying to find out the age, history and the significance of the structure. “Preliminary examination has revealed that stones were not used in the construction,” said assistant director O. Ramasubba Reddy. “Only lime mortar, wood and bricks were used. This structure does not seem to have the influence of the Pallava-Chola style of architecture, which is found in other temples in this region. It is difficult to tell the age of the temple till we have a closer look at the inscriptions.” On his visit to the temple on the first day, Reddy spotted something strange. “The tiles in one section inside the temple were dug up,” said Reddy. “It is strange and we have to find out why.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The village youth now take turns to visit the site every day to make sure there are no trespassers. Prasad and his team are now waiting to discuss with officials the next step in the restoration process. Prasad came to know about Naidu’s temple restoration initiative only after the team found the structure. And, to his utter surprise, one of Naidu’s descendants—Vemana Dasaradha Rama Naidu—is his neighbour. In his 70s, Dasaradha had walked all the way to the temple when the excavation began. “It was a different feeling seeing the temple as my ancestors built it,” he said. “I faintly remember playing inside the temple as a child. My grandparents told us stories about the temple and the village, when it was situated on the riverbank. All I want to do is go inside the temple and spend time there.”</p> Thu Jul 23 17:32:25 IST 2020 capital-punishment <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>On March 24,</b> the day the nationwide lockdown was announced, a video shot near Chennai’s Spencer Plaza went viral. The video showed a cop managing traffic appealing to commuters with folded hands to stay indoors even as reports came in from many parts of the country that policemen had to resort to force to enforce the lockdown.&nbsp;</p> <p>A few months later, however, the image of the Tamil Nadu police lay in tatters. The custodial torture and the death of a father and son in Sathankulam, a small town in southern Tamil Nadu’s Thoothukudi district, has brought to the fore the flaws within the home department, which is headed by Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami.</p> <p>On June 24, as massive protests broke out in Sathankulam demanding justice for 58-year-old Ponraj Jayaraj and his 31-year-old son, J. Bennix, Palaniswami was in Coimbatore, reviewing Covid relief work. “The father died of respiratory illness and the son died of heart attack,” said the chief minister.</p> <p>It all began on June 18 after Jayaraj kept his mobile phone store open beyond the permitted time during the Covid-19 lockdown. After he allegedly questioned the police, he was taken to the police station the next day. Bennix, who went to the station looking for his father, too, was taken into custody. Eyewitness accounts said Jayaraj and Bennix bled from their anuses after the police roughed them up. According to a handwritten statement from the Sathankulam government hospital accessed by THE WEEK, there were multiple marks of violence on Jayaraj’s and Bennix’s buttocks. The son had a sulcus (depression) on the right knee.&nbsp;</p> <p>“On June 20, we were asked to bring lungis for them, as they were being taken to the magistrate. They were bleeding from their buttocks,” said Rajkumar, a relative of the deceased. Jayaraj and Bennix succumbed to their injuries on June 22. The Madurai bench of the Madras High Court took suo motu cognisance of the incident and asked the revenue department to take over the Sathankulam police station. It ordered a magisterial inquiry into the deaths and instructed the Crime Branch Criminal Investigation Department (CBCID) to investigate. The CBCID arrested inspector Sridhar, sub inspectors Balakrishnan and Raghu Ganesh and eight policemen.&nbsp;</p> <p>But the government subsequently handed over the case to the CBI, prompting senior DMK leader Kanimozhi, who represents Thoothukudi in the Lok Sabha, to say that the AIADMK was trying to help the police.</p> <p>The People’s Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL) has, meanwhile, written to the chief minister to cancel the order transferring the case to the CBI. “In earlier cases like the Thoothukudi Sterlite firing case and the suicide case of IIT student Fathima Latheef, the CBI probe did not go forward. Moreover, the CBI does not have the manpower and infrastructure compared with the CBCID. So, the investigation might not move forward and turn in favour of the accused,” said PUCL state general secretary K. Saravanan in his letter. The CBI’s performance in cases such as the 2009 Madras High Court attack case and the death of DSP&nbsp;Vishnupriya has invited a lot of criticism.&nbsp;</p> <p>Human rights activist Henry Tiphagne said the Sathankulam case was unusual in the history of Tamil Nadu. “For the first time ever, a court ordered revenue officials to take control of a police station,” said Tiphagne, founder of People’s Watch, a Madurai-based human rights organisation. “The judges spoke to head constable Revathy, [who gave a statement about the custodial torture], as she feared for her life for telling the truth. The police in this case had to give protection to their own constable.”</p> <p>The alleged involvement of four members of a community policing programme, Friends of Police, came in as yet another embarrassment for the police. FoP state administrator G. Lourduswami, however, said the four men were not part of the initiative and were volunteers enlisted by the local police for Covid-19 relief work. There were also allegations that the FoP at the Sathankulam station had links with Seva Bharati, an RSS-affiliated organisation. B. Rabu Manohar, the state secretary of Seva Bharati, however, denied the charges. Following the controversy, the FoP programme was banned by the government on the basis of a report by the director general of police.</p> <p>The Tamil Nadu police saw a major reshuffle after the deaths. All 24 police personnel serving at Sathankulam station were transferred out in a single order. More than 50 senior officers were transferred statewide. Thoothukudi superintendent of police Arun Balagopalan was replaced by Villupuram SP S. Jeyakumar. He will serve with S. Murugan, the new south zone inspector general. Jeyakumar was the subject of a CBI probe in the 2018 gutkha scam; Murugan is under investigation in a sexual harassment case filed by a female IPS officer.&nbsp;</p> <p>Sources in the police department said senior officers were chosen according to the whims and fancies of the ruling dispensation. A senior IPS officer, who was transferred from a high-profile post in a southern district to a low-profile post, said he did not want any prominent post under this government. “It will only add black marks to my career,” he said.</p> <p>A senior officer who was shunted out of Chennai said there was no rationale behind his transfer. “There were many differences among the DGP, the intelligence and the chief minister regarding the final list,” he said. “The transfer, I feel, was done just by rolling the dice.” Sources said the transfer file was pending with the chief minister for a fortnight, and changes were made based on requests by AIADMK leaders.&nbsp;</p> <p>“The transfers were a curious exercise,” said former DGP R. Nataraj, the current Mylapore MLA. “A particular system is followed by the home department for transfers, unlike in any other state.”&nbsp; </p> Thu Jul 16 17:26:42 IST 2020 there-is-suspicion-that-aiadmk-is-trying-to-help-the-police <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>Q</b>/<b> Do you think the Sathankulam case has been blown out of <br> proportion?&nbsp;</b></p> <p><b>A</b>/ I think every case of custodial torture and death should get this kind of attention. In this case, the father and son were middle-class businessmen who had no disputes with the police or anyone else. There are several other cases, which have not received attention. For instance, tribal people living outside the villages are picked up by the police when there is a minor issue… or after a protest. But we don’t get to know. At times, there are protests against such torture. Sometimes, we let it go and feel that it is justified. The brutality and the consequent actions show that this could happen to you and me, so (the Sathankulam deaths) struck a chord with a lot of people.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q</b>/<b> Do you think there is a growing sense of impunity among the police in south Tamil Nadu?&nbsp;</b></p> <p><b>A</b>/ I will not say that this happens just in Tamil Nadu and that the Tamil Nadu police is wrong. This is happening across the country, but Tamil Nadu is second in India when it comes to police excesses, according to data from the National Crime Records Bureau. The police have to be aggressive at some point, but they have to understand that they are not the ones to inflict punishment.</p> <p>About the police in south Tamil Nadu, I will say that caste divisions in this region, particularly Thoothukudi, Tirunelveli and Kanyakumari, have been increasing because there are not many employment opportunities in this region. Despite getting a good education, the youth do not see an opportunity for a better life. This leads to caste clashes. To address this issue, [former chief minister] M. Karunanidhi appointed the Ratnavel Pandian Commission, which gave recommendations to bring down the caste clashes there. But successive governments did not take it forward.&nbsp;</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q</b>/<b> The Sathankulam case has been handed over to the CBI. Many <br> people, however, say the CBCID probe was progressing well. &nbsp;</b></p> <p><b>A</b>/ I want the investigating agency and the government to make sure that justice is done to the family. When the CBCID inquiry began, it was monitored by the court and there was pressure from the people on authorities which helped get some kind of justice.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q</b>/<b> There are allegations that the ruling AIADMK is protecting the police and that the case was <br> transferred to the CBI only to save the accused policemen.&nbsp;&nbsp;</b></p> <p><b>A</b>/ The local minister from the Thoothukudi region spoke out in favour of the police and said it was not custodial death. There is strong suspicion that the ruling party is trying to help the police. But with the CBI taking over, I feel justice will be done.&nbsp; </p> Thu Jul 16 17:21:10 IST 2020 thorny-throne <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>When Shivraj Singh Chouhan reached Delhi for the second time in a week on July 5, the rumour mills began churning. Though the Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister was “officially” there to meet Union ministers about developmental work in his state, it was widely seen as a visit to get the BJP leadership’s nod for the allocation of portfolios to his recently inducted cabinet ministers. The fact that he met with Union Home Minister Amit Shah and BJP president J.P. Nadda only bolstered the rumours.</p> <p>Apparently, Jyotiraditya Scindia, who got 11 of his aides into the cabinet of 34, apart from three other former Congress MLAs, was pressuring Chouhan for portfolios of his choice. Knowing that his loyalist ministers would have to face byelections soon, Scindia wanted departments that had a direct connect with the people, said sources. Chouhan, too, wanted these departments, either for himself or for the original BJP members.</p> <p>However, wanting to avoid a tussle, Chouhan had once again deferred to the central leadership, said sources.</p> <p>The portfolios were assigned on July 13, 11 days after the cabinet expansion. And though a balance was struck, the Scindia camp looks more dominant, having gotten the departments of its choice.</p> <p>Congress leaders were quick to point out Chouhan’s “helplessness” as a chief minister, and brought up rumours that he might be replaced, at the first opportunity, by someone like Union Minister Narendra Singh Tomar or Madhya Pradesh Home Minister Narottam Mishra.</p> <p>Political watchers, too, said that Chouhan was no longer the BJP’s supreme leader in Madhya Pradesh. The challenge for the mild-mannered Chouhan comes from within, they added. He would not only have to watch out for Scindia, but also mollify the party’s old guard.</p> <p>Chouhan would now have to prove his mettle by ensuring that the party wins enough seats in the byelections, not just to get a majority in the house, but also to get the public’s approval on the political coup that the BJP staged in March, getting 22 Congress MLAs to jump ship.</p> <p>Chouhan was somewhat of a nobody when he was made chief minister in 2005. The young leader, 46 then, clawed his way to the top strategically and confidently. He was called ‘<i>paaon paaon waale bhaiya</i>’ because of his frequent foot marches in his parliamentary constituency of Vidisha, and later became the well-loved ‘Mama’ (maternal uncle) of the masses. He continued to be on the ground, mingling with voters and speaking their language.</p> <p>Chouhan managed to win the 2008 and 2013 state elections, despite facing corruption charges in an alleged scam related to the purchase of four dumpers in 2007, and later the Vyapam recruitment scam, which got national attention.</p> <p>Even though the BJP lost the 2018 assembly elections, it got 109 of the 230 seats and a higher vote share than the Congress, despite facing anti-incumbency of three terms. The credit for this went to Chouhan’s lone campaign against the formidable Congress trio of Scindia, Kamal Nath and Digvijaya Singh.</p> <p>However, that slim margin of loss seemed to have changed everything. “A chief minister is usually the first among equals,” said political author Rasheed Kidwai. “But with the latest developments, Chouhan cannot claim to be first among equals anymore. He had no direct role in the entire episode (the Scindia-led defection); that was scripted by central leaders and the chief ministership came to him as a favour. This is different from getting the post after leading from the front to win an election. And now, he is being made to pay a price for that. I believe that the [recent developments] might not be one-offs, but part of a list of big challenges that Chouhan will have to face.”</p> <p>He added that the byelections to 25 seats would be tricky as 14 ministers (former Congress MLAs) will be in the fray. “It is being said that the BJP might like four or five of these ministers to lose so that those left out in the party could be accommodated as ministers,” said Kidwai. “Technically, the BJP requires just nine seats to get a majority in the house, but prestige is at stake and the party might look to win about 20. In my view, 18 is the benchmark. Anything less will reflect poorly on Chouhan and the party.”</p> <p>Said political analyst Manish Dixit: “If Chouhan has to rush to Delhi [for] even such things, the situation is tough. This is the first time this is happening to him. It looks like he wants to stick to his post at any cost, which is not a comfortable situation for a leader who has enjoyed unchallenged leadership for 13 years.”</p> <p>However, he added that Chouhan had an inherent capability to bounce back from tricky situations and to best his opponents, such as BJP national general secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya, former chief minister Uma Bharti, BJP national vice president Prabhat Jha, or even ministers Narottam Mishra and Gopal Bhargava. “It will be interesting to watch out for his moves in this context,” he said.</p> <p>Kidwai, however, said that Scindia would be a far tougher customer as he had a direct line with the central leadership, a clear national image of his own and was quite media savvy, too.</p> <p>Looking ahead, political analyst Aman Namra said Chouhan would have to work hard to run a government made up, in part, of Congress rebels. “The rumours of Mishra or Tomar getting command making the rounds when Chouhan was in Delhi is an indicator that even if the tiger is alive, his roar does not have the same echo or his claws do not have the same power,” he said. “This time, the crown of power has more thorns.”</p> <p>Chouhan’s position, said former Congress minister Jitu Patwari, could be gauged from the fact that he did not have even a single minister of his choice in his cabinet. “This does not augur well for the state and its future looks dark if this government continues,” said Patwari.</p> <p>State BJP chief spokesperson Deepak Vijayvargiya, however, dismissed such readings. “The BJP is in no trouble,” he said. “The Congress has still not been able to absorb the shock of having the rug pulled from under it. It should pay attention to finding some stability, rather than commenting on the BJP.”&nbsp;</p> Thu Jul 16 17:00:43 IST 2020 good-cop-bad-cop <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>In August 2008, an unexpected judicial pronouncement was made at a fast-track court in Sitapur. It announced rigorous life imprisonment for 14 policemen for killing three young people in Sarsai village of Sitapur district. But it was hardly fast, for it had taken 27 years and 200 hearings for the judgment to be reached at the special court. Six of the policemen and nine of the witnesses had died by the time the judgment came.</p> <p>The Sarsai judgement is almost an aberration in a state where 6,126 encounters have taken place since March 2017, when the present government came to power, in which 122 criminals have been killed and 13,361 put behind bars. Magisterial inquiries are mandatory in all encounter cases, and only 74 have been completed so far. In all 74, the action of the involved police personnel has been held correct.</p> <p>The Vikas Dubey encounter may be just another number, but it is proving to be a problematic one in a state where Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath has announced that criminals who shoot at the police should expect bullets in return. In its crudest form, this is labelled the <i>thok do</i> (shoot them) policy.</p> <p>The Dubey encounter has raised many questions—the most important of which is why he would have attempted to escape when he surrendered of his own will in Ujjain. His surrender in a different state could have been prompted by the swift police action in nabbing and killing his associates while also razing his house in Kanpur.</p> <p>Those doubts will now be investigated by two bodies. The first is a three-member Special Investigative Team (SIT) that will, among other things, look into the larger networks that had ensconced Dubey despite the 60 criminal cases against him. The composition of this body, experts say, is legally unsound as section 155(2) of the Code of Criminal Procedure specifies: “Investigation includes all the proceedings under this Code for the collection of evidence conducted by a police officer or by any person (other than a magistrate) who is authorised by a magistrate in this behalf.” The SIT instead is headed by a bureaucrat. Of the other two members who are police officers, one is J. Ravinder Goud, who was charge-sheeted in a suspected case of fake encounter in 2007.</p> <p>A one-man judicial commission headed by retired judge Shashi Kant Agarwal will look into the ambush at Bikaru, which left eight policemen dead on July 3, and the encounter on July 10, in which Dubey was killed while being ferried from Ujjain to Kanpur. Agarwal served at the Allahabad High Court between 1999 and 2005, after which he was transferred to Jharkhand.</p> <p>Judicial commissions in the state anyway have little impact. Take, for instance, the one-man Nimesh Commission set up to probe the police version of the arrest of two alleged terrorists Khalid Mujahid and Tariq Qazmi responsible for the 2007 bomb blasts in Lucknow, Faizabad and Gorakhpur. The commission was formed in 2008 and its report tabled in the assembly in 2013. It called into question the police version of the arrests, but remained vague about pinning any responsibility.</p> <p>Ram Das Nimesh, the author of that report told THE WEEK, “It is never in our hand to ensure what action the executive will take on a report”. The report, without any concrete findings, is believed to have earned him the chance to head yet another commission to look into the violence in Tappal, Aligarh, in 2010. This one, too, gave a clean chit to the local administration for the flare-up that left five dead.</p> <p>Kumar Askand Pandey, associate professor of law, Dr Ram Manohar Lohia National Law University, Lucknow, said that most inquiry commissions are set up to fail. “Commissions and more commissions seem to be the norm in almost all cases which point to possible wrongdoing on the part of the police,” said Pandey. “All commissions work independently with no communication among them. Thus, larger issues always remain unaddressed. In the last three years, commissions in the state have been notorious for giving clean chits. The whole matter appears very murky.”</p> <p>Vikram Singh, former director general of UP Police, said there seemed to be an ‘epidemic’ of questioning any action by the police. “I have no reason to disbelieve the version given by the UP STF (Special Task Force) and the UP Police based on my real-time exchange of fire with hazardous criminals,” said Singh. “Lame excuses are being given such as that he (Dubey) had a rod in his leg and thus could not have outrun the police…. The right to private defence by use of proportionate force is enshrined in the law and is established standard operation procedure.”</p> <p>In 2013, Mujahid died while being ferried from a court in Faizabad to a Lucknow jail. An FIR was lodged by Mujahid’s uncle against 42 policemen and intelligence personnel, including Singh, who had by then retired and was more than 500km away in Haridwar when Mujahid died. “So many policemen languish in jails and die on such trumped up charges,” said Singh. “Not one armchair activist or any member of the candle-light gang sides with them.”</p> <p>Another top cop, Brij Lal, who was then additional director general of police and later became the state’s DGP, was also named in the same FIR. Now retired and a BJP member, Lal, who is credited with bringing down 19 criminals through encounters, said: “Encounters have happened even before independence. Dreaded criminals do not yield themselves to easy arrests. They will fire till the last bullet. The police fire in retaliation.” Lal believes the police version but adds that the operation could have been better planned. “My first concern was always that the fewest number of people who needed to know about an operation should have knowledge of it,” he said.</p> <p>A group of lawyers have written to the chief justice of the Allahabad High Court on July 11, asking him to take suo motu cognisance of the alleged extrajudicial killing of Dubey and order a “court-monitored CBI enquiry of the entire incident”. The letter raises 20 important queries related to the encounter.</p> <p>Anurag Dixit, former vice president of the Central Bar Association, who co-wrote the letter, said that the state had sponsored a PIL against itself, a day later, to lend credence to its actions. “On July 12 (a Sunday) a hurriedly drafted PIL was filed before the Lucknow bench of the Allahabad High Court,” said Dixit. “This was immediately taken up on Monday and dismissed as it called for constituting a judicial commission headed by a former or sitting judge to probe the police encounter, a step which the government had already taken. The state thus has for itself a judicial nod for how it is going about to probe the matter. This also renders infructuous any other PILs in the matter till some fresh cause arises.”</p> <p>For now, however, there are enough old questions to answer in one of the state’s most dramatic encounters.&nbsp;</p> Thu Jul 16 16:35:37 IST 2020 golden-opportunity <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>On July 12, Kerala saw a car chase that would put Formula 1 races to shame. It started at 11.30am at the Walayar border in Palakkad and ended at 1pm in Aluva, Ernakulam. The route was the NH544; the distance covered was 138km. The participants were three police vehicles and a bevy of media cars.</p> <p>Inside one of the police vehicles were Swapna Suresh and Sandeep Nair, the second and fourth accused in the gold-smuggling case that shook the state earlier this month. The NIA had nabbed the duo from Bengaluru the previous night; they were about to escape to the northeast. The chase ended in Kochi after they underwent Covid-19 tests in Aluva. Both were presented before the NIA court and were remanded to 14 days custody.</p> <p>The duo has been booked under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and had been, according to the NIA, using the diplomatic channel to smuggle gold for the past one year. The luggage that was nabbed at the Thiruvananthapuram international airport on July 4 was addressed to Rashed Khamis Ali Musaiqri Alshemeili, charge d’affaires at the UAE consulate in Kerala. The 30kg gold was “camouflaged” amid eatables. According to the customs department, Suresh had been using her contacts as a former UAE consulate official to run the smuggling network with Sarith Kumar, a former public relations officer at the UAE consulate. It is still unclear who paid for the gold and for whom it had been sent.</p> <p>Apart from the diplomatic angle, the highlight of the case is the connection between Suresh and M. Sivasankar, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s principal secretary. Though the IAS officer was immediately removed from the post, the opposition alleged that Vijayan was trying to protect him. “The buck stops with the chief minister. Removing the secretary will not be enough,” said opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala. “The chief minister is afraid that his office will be investigated, so he is trying to save face by removing the secretary.”</p> <p>Vijayan, on his part, maintained that the government had nothing to hide. “If someone has made a mistake, they will pay for it,” he said. “We will not protect anyone.” Vijayan had written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, requesting a coordinated investigation by all central agencies as the matter was “extremely serious”, and had implications for the nation.</p> <p>But the opposition was not ready to buy this, and there were protests across the state demanding Vijayan’s resignation. The Congress-led United Democratic Front has announced that it would move a no-confidence motion against the state government.</p> <p>The involvement of Sivasankar, whom Vijayan had handpicked as his principal secretary, is certainly a huge setback to the chief minister’s image. It has also led to criticism of his centralised style of functioning.</p> <p>“The issue is not Sivasankar, but the neoliberal capitalist policies being pursued by the left government,” said political observer M.N. Pearson. “All these deviations are part of that.” He added that the left government had lost its moral high ground.</p> <p>A senior LDF leader, who did not want to be named to avoid “precipitating the matter further”, said, “Sivasankar may have been a good officer, but ever since he was appointed as personal secretary to the chief minister, he had been acting in a high-handed manner. He has committed many mistakes in the past four years. But because of his proximity to the chief minister, others were hesitant to point them out.”</p> <p>Other parties in the LDF are also critical of Vijayan for not suspending the IAS officer despite the customs questioning him.</p> <p>Communist Party of India (Marxist) leaders, however, insisted that Vijayan was not someone who plays to the gallery. “The government has already appointed a committee headed by the chief secretary to look into the matter,” said CPI(M) state committee member M.B. Rajesh. “Its report will be out and action will be taken accordingly. The left government has nothing to worry.”</p> <p>What it does have to worry about, some left leaders admit, is the new lease on life the Congress has received because of the case. The party had seemed listless of late, especially in the face of the goodwill the government had earned for its effective handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.</p> <p>As for the left, Suresh’s call records, gathered by the investigators, have further complicated matters. Among the people Suresh called was State Higher Education and Minority Welfare Minister K.T. Jaleel. The minister, however, said the calls took place when Suresh was executive secretary at the UAE consulate general office. “It was the consulate general who himself asked me to get in touch with Swapna in connection with Ramzan relief. I have nothing to hide,” Jaleel said while releasing details of the WhatsApp conversation and calls.</p> <p>On July 14, the customs department questioned Sivasankar for nearly seven hours. The agency is expected to question him again as Suresh’s call records indicate close links between them. Customs seems to be certain that Sivasankar was also close to the other accused.</p> <p>Meanwhile, the customs department, which is also investigating the case, has arrested T. Rameez, a Malappuram-based businessman. According to the NIA, Rameez is the crucial link in the smuggling case and had been doing this for nearly a decade. His family ties with Indian Union Muslim League leaders has added fuel to the already raging political fire.</p> <p>“The case has tarnished the image of the Pinarayi government, while also exposing the smuggling links of the Muslim League,” said BJP leader Sandeep Warrier. “The BJP has no political agenda in this case. But we are sure that the people of Kerala, who are fed up with both the fronts, will come closer to us.”</p> <p>Pearson agreed. “The BJP will use this case to prove that the Muslim politics in the state is totally funded by the Gulf,” he said. “Till now, all these were mere allegations, but now they will create the proof.”</p> <p>BJP president J.P. Nadda, while addressing a virtual gathering in Kasargod on the day Swapna was brought to Kochi, said, “We all know how the LDF and the UDF have joined hands to fight the idea of the BJP in Kerala, but our <i>karyakartas</i> are determined to see that, in times to come, there will be <i>kamalam</i>, <i>kamalam</i> and <i>kamalam</i> (lotus, lotus and lotus) not just in Kasargod, but throughout Kerala.”</p> <p>However, the BJP might also have some explaining to do. Customs has questioned Hariraj, a cargo clearing agency owner, on the suspicion that he had tried to get the baggage with the smuggled gold cleared at the airport. He has been linked to the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, an affiliate of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Hariraj, however, has denied the association.</p> Thu Jul 16 16:30:52 IST 2020 besieged-and-vulnerable <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>ON JULY 1,</b> Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray went to Pandharpur, a pilgrimage town in Solapur district, with his wife and son Aditya, minister of tourism and environment. It was Ashadhi Ekadashi, a holy day for Hindus. Thackeray prayed for a miracle that would help not just Maharashtra—the Indian state worst affected by Covid-19—but the whole of mankind to get rid of the pandemic. Later, he reiterated this sentiment on Twitter, saying that man was down on his knees and there was no cure for the disease, yet.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The chief minister, who had in the past maintained that the state was doing extremely well in its fight against Covid-19 and assured people victory over the virus, showed the first signs of fatigue and resignation with his entreaty for divine intervention. As of July 5, over two lakh people had been infected in Maharashtra and close to 9,000 had died. With over 84,000 cases, Mumbai accounted for 41 per cent of the total.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The heavy showers in the state’s Konkan regions could compound the problem as monsoon-related illnesses would overload the already strained health infrastructure. “Our biggest worry is how we will differentiate those with malaria, leptospirosis and dengue from those with Covid-19,” says Dr Harshad Limaye, internal medicine specialist at Nanavati Hospital in Mumbai. “We are also expecting a few cases of swine flu. The already acute bed-availability crisis might worsen anytime now.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>After a steep spike in cases during Unlock 1, the chief minister decided to restrict movement in Mumbai. The police imposed a new rule asking citizens to move only within a 2km radius from their homes; only office-goers were exempt. The sudden enforcement of the rule caught many unawares and evoked strong reactions from those who were fined and had their vehicles seized.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party—partners in the ruling alliance—expressed displeasure that ministers from the allies, including Home Minister Anil Deshmukh of the NCP, were not kept in the loop by the chief minister’s office before asking Mumbai Police to enforce the blockade. Similarly, a 10-day lockdown was imposed in Thane, despite a difference of opinion between Housing Minister Jitendra Awhad of the NCP and the Shiv Sena’s Eknath Shinde, minister for urban development and public works. After ministers from the NCP complained to party chief Sharad Pawar that they were not being taken into confidence by the chief minister, Pawar met Thackeray and the periphery blockade in Mumbai was withdrawn. But, the chief minister was adamant that strict restrictions were needed in the corporations neighbouring Mumbai.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Meanwhile, shortage of health care personnel is leading to extreme working conditions. “There is burnout and confusion among civilians and frontline workers,” said Swati Rane, vice president, Clinical Nursing and Research Society. “I know of a nursing hostel in Pune where bouncers were sent to ensure that nurses kept working for 12 hours at a stretch, despite their protests. The government continues to face staff shortage and many have to work for inhuman hours. IAS officers alone cannot manage Mumbai, especially when those in the wards have no idea what to do.” A structure is lacking and decentralisation is the need of the hour, she adds.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Most experts and health activists agree that Mumbai’s Covid-19 numbers have stabilised to an extent over time. But, the relentless rise in cases in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR) is adding to the city’s case load. These fringe towns, which include Navi Mumbai, Mira-Bhayandar, Ulhasnagar, Kalyan Dombivli, Thane, Ambernath, Badlapur and Bhiwandi, have contributed over 15,000 cases so far. “These towns do not have the infrastructure to fight a pandemic,” says Brinelle D’Souza, assistant professor at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, and co-convener of Jan Swasthya Abhiyan’s Mumbai chapter. “Covid-19 patients from these areas are coming to the city’s hospitals and testing facilities. So one cannot actually say that Mumbai has gotten over the pandemic unless the other corporations, too, report a decrease in numbers. Right now, there seems to be a lack of coordination between MCGM (Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai) and the eight other corporations of the MMR, which share boundaries and depend so much on each other for human resources.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In a bid to get a grip on the situation, the government deputed four IAS officers with medical backgrounds as municipal commissioners. Sudhakar Deshmukh, municipal commissioner of Panvel Municipal Corporation (PMC), told THE WEEK that 90 per cent of the infections in PMC were from Mumbai. “Residents here go to Mumbai for work and catch the infection because of lack of social distancing and spread it here,” he says. Seven of the nine municipal corporations in the MMR are now in lockdown and the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) is hoping to build giant Covid-19 care facilities on the city’s periphery.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Additional chief secretary, S.J. Kunte, who is in charge of tackling Covid-19 in the MMR, says that this situation was expected because of the unlocking and restarting of local trains to ferry passengers for essential services. “Now, the point is to trace, track and test cases and minimise the spread,” he says. “We are trying to manage, but we have no manpower,” says Kunte. “They (doctors) ask for a lot of money to serve and we are asking corporations to pay up to Rs1.10 lakh, instead of the Rs75,000 per month stipulated by the National Health Mission. That is the only way.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>On July 4, the cabinet secretary held a meeting in which he stated that the fatality rate should be brought down to 1 per cent. Mumbai’s fatality rate is close to 6 per cent; the state average is 4.49 per cent and the national average is 2.9 per cent, according to the Medical Education and Drugs Department, Maharashtra.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The BMC had already come up with a nine-point strategy—Save Lives—on June 30 to reduce Covid-19 fatality. It includes closer monitoring of critical patients, including video surveillance by heads of units and heads of hospitals, among other aspects.”The number of positive cases are declining, but the city’s ICUs remain largely full,” says Dr Om Shrivastav, member of the state Covid-19 task force. “In the next few weeks, we will know how effective it (Save Lives) is.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Another important initiative has been Project Platina—a convalescent plasma therapy trial, which will be free of cost in 17 medical colleges across the state—launched by the chief minister on June 29.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Even as Mumbai continues to report over 1,000 cases a day, there is a silver lining. Dharavi, which was once a Covid-19 hotspot, reported significantly fewer cases at the start of July. The load has now shifted from the slums to the city’s high-rises as residents step out of their homes and get house help back in. For instance, housing complexes in the city’s D Ward, which includes “posh” localities such as Malabar Hill, Gamdevi and Nepean Sea Road, witnessed a surge in cases in June.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>To make things worse, even as people desperately try to save their loved ones, private hospitals continue to charge a premium for hospital beds and present the patient’s families with exorbitant bills. This has not gone unnoticed and, on July 4, Santacruz police registered an FIR against Nanavati Hospital for allegedly charging Rs2 lakh per bed per night.</p> Sun Jul 26 16:24:12 IST 2020 fatality-rate-is-high-because-of-urbanisation <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>AJOY MEHTA,</b> a 1984-batch IAS officer was at the helm of the Covid-19 response in Maharashtra as the chief secretary. After his term ended on June 30, Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray created a new post—principal adviser to the chief minister—to keep him on board. Mehta talks to THE WEEK about the state’s fight against Covid-19 and why private hospitals continue to overcharge patients. Edited excerpts:</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>What is your take on the Covid-19 situation in Maharashtra? There are over two lakh cases now.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In one line, we are very much in control. Yes, there are some hotspots where we are working to bring down the number of cases. But, in most places we have plateaued. I would not say it is coming down, because we are also opening up. As you open up, there is bound to be an increase. But the increase should be within the control of your health system. Today our health system is not swamped [as] our reopening is calibrated. We are building health infrastructure, too.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Has Maharashtra entered the community transmission phase?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>No. We are far from it. When community transmission starts, you will see geometric progression; 6,000 will become 12,000 the next day and 12,000 will become 24,000. Also, in community transmission, one is not able to trace the index cases. But today, we are able to trace the index cases and that, too, in containment zones and hotspots.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>The opposition has alleged that the government is underreporting deaths.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Covid-19 deaths must be notified under the Epidemic Act, which was not done in the rush of things when we started. Our people were involved in saving lives and that did not get reported. So, all figures were reconciled over the state. Yes, the death rate went up, but at least we have told the people the truth.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>The state’s fatality rate is very high in comparison with the national rate.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The rate is high because we are undeniably the most urbanised state and Mumbai has the highest level of urbanisation. And unfortunately this disease has been an urban phenomena. Social distancing in public transport is not possible today. The trains in Mumbai carry 6,000 passengers. Our offices, shops, sabzi mandis... we have just not thought about social distancing. It is a new concept and it will take time to put all these things in place. Our work ethics, social ethics and a lot of things will have to change.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Is the state nearing a second peak?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Monsoon tends to lower your immunity and brings along certain diseases, including dengue and malaria. So we are now making huge efforts to keep monsoon-related illnesses in control. Because a combination of these with Covid-19 will become deadly.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>There have been instances of overcharging in private hospitals.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>This situation existed about a month back; we were fighting it. Today, 80 per cent beds have been taken over. We have also got auditors now in each hospital , looking at their billing section. We also have a complaints mechanism in place and as a result we filed an FIR against the CEO of a very renowned hospital in Mumbai for overcharging patients. This is the first of its kind in the country. We have conveyed very strongly that we need everybody’s support during this crisis. And if you support us voluntarily it is fine, else we have the backing of the law.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>The 80:20 bed ratio was confusing and many hospitals came out with their own versions of it.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>At the start, we converted government hospitals across the state into Covid-19 hospitals. Then we made the Mahatma Jyotiba Phule insurance applicable to everybody—12 crore people. Thousands of private hospitals and 900 procedures came under that umbrella. But, hospitals were not ready to treat patients at insurance rates. That is when we asked for 80 per cent of their beds for treatments covered under the insurance. While some hospitals offered 80 per cent of the 10 per cent charity beds, others showed some beds to be unoperational.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>[We said] that we will send a person and count all the beds, and I want 80 per cent of the total beds available. So, to counter this, hospitals began overcharging with, for example, personal protective equipment costing 010,000 and other consumables. So then we fixed charges of PPE and said we could supply them to the hospitals, too, and asked them to display the rates on a board outside. So as hospitals came up with new things, we [stepped in].</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>For the full interview, log on to</b></p> Thu Jul 09 18:54:36 IST 2020 all-that-glitters <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>ON JULY 4,</b> a diplomatic consignment from Dubai arrived at the Trivandrum International Airport. It was addressed to Rashed Khamis Ali Musaiqri Alshemeili, charge d’affaires at the UAE consulate in Kerala. The “diplomatic bag”, which weighed around 50kg, contained dates, oats, butter cookies and noodles, as per the consulate’s order. However, it also had something that was not ordered, at least officially-30kg of gold.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The customs department, which had been tipped off about gold being smuggled in a “diplomatic bag”, was waiting for the recipient. Eventually, Sarith Kumar, a former public relations officer at the consulate, came to collect the bag. He was immediately arrested and remanded to custody by customs officers. It was reportedly the first time that such a case—in which diplomatic exceptions were used for smuggling—had been registered in India.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A diplomatic bag is used for carrying official correspondence or other items between a diplomatic mission and its home government or diplomatic, consular and other official entities. It has certain legal protections. A customs official told THE WEEK that, as per the Customs Act and Diplomatic Relations (Vienna Convention) Act, two types of objects are exempt from inspection: Articles for office use and the personal baggage of a diplomatic agent. “We had to seek permission from higher authorities to check the consignment as it was brought in as personal baggage,” he said.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Upon interrogation, Sarith Kumar revealed that Swapna Suresh, his former colleague at the UAE consulate, was at the centre of the smuggling ring and that this was not the first consignment that had reached Kerala this way. Suresh, a contract employee with the Kerala State Information Technology Infrastructure Limited (KSITIL), under the IT department, was immediately sacked.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Suresh’s career has been a story of spectacular growth. She was born and raised in the UAE and apparently started her career as a front-office manager of a dance bar in Dubai. After getting married, she lived in Thiruvananthapuram for a while, but separated from her husband after her daughter was born, and went back to Dubai.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>She returned to Kerala in 2017, soon after the UAE started its consulate there, and was appointed executive secretary. Her knowledge of Arabic and her pleasing manners were well noted at the consulate, which is where she met Sarith, the prime accused in the case. She used to organise all major events at the consulate and invited several political leaders to these, slowly making her way into the power circles of the state capital. She was apparently close to leaders of both the ruling and opposition fronts.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The story took a dramatic twist when Suresh’s close ties to M. Sivasankar, principal secretary to Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, came to light. Apparently, Sivasankar was a frequent visitor at her apartment, and it was after first meeting Sivasankar at the consulate that Suresh quit the job and joined the IT department on contract. She organised events and hobnobbed with leaders there, too.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Apparently, protocol was not followed in her appointment to KSITIL; at the time, the crime branch was investigating her for allegedly framing an employee of Air India’s ground handling crew in a sexual harassment case. Suresh is now absconding.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Also in the cross hairs is Sivasankar, who was also the IT secretary, one of the most powerful bureaucrats in the state; he always had Vijayan’s ear. In fact, Sivasankar’s had been one of the first appointments by the current Left Democratic Front government. “He was a surprise choice for many in the party because of his Congress connections,” said a CPI(M) leader. “But the chief minister went ahead as he was apparently impressed by the fact that Sivasankar was a good taskmaster.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The day after the gold was seized, Sivasankar was removed from both posts. However, the controversy kept snowballing. Both the Congress-led United Democratic Front and the BJP are baying for Vijayan’s blood. “The chief minister cannot wash his hands [of the case] by removing the IT secretary. Sivasankar was removed because the chief minister feared the investigation would reach him,” said opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala. Demanding Vijayan’s resignation, he added, “The influence of the smuggling cartel in the chief minister’s office and the nexus between politicians, government officials and the smugglers point to a grave situation.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The BJP has also trained its guns at Vijayan. The party’s national spokesperson Sambit Patra tweeted a photo collage featuring Vijayan and Suresh, captioning it “gold”. In the state, the BJP leadership has announced a series of protests demanding Vijayan’s resignation.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The chief minister, however, looks least perturbed by the developments. “The state government has nothing to hide or fear as it has got nothing to do with the case,” he said. “Sivasankar was removed from all the posts the very day the allegations came up. If he has done something wrong, he will have to pay the price for it. The left government will not try to save any culprit.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>He added that he welcomed any sort of investigation by Central agencies. “In fact, we would like the Central government to investigate the case thoroughly so that all the links in this case are exposed,” he said.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>His cool demeanour notwithstanding, it is clear that the controversy has tarnished the state government’s image. “Kerala is a very sensitive state, politically. Even a minor tremor could cause large repercussions,” said senior journalist Jacob George. “The controversy has come at a time when the left government has earned a good image nationally and internationally for its effective handling of the Covid-19 situation. A small drop of kerosene is enough to destroy a well-cooked&nbsp;payasam.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>George also said that the incident had given a fresh lease of life to the UDF, which was struggling to find its feet. And if there is anyone who should be especially happy about the controversy, it is former chief minister Oommen Chandy. Many have already drawn parallels between the current case and what happened to the previous UDF government towards the end of its term. There, too, was a woman—Saritha Nair—whose links with the chief minister’s office had hurt the government. In fact, it could be argued that the ‘solar panel scam’ effectively demolished the UDF’s chances of re-election. The Left Democratic Front had, at the time, gone hammer and tongs to sully Chandy’s image. The solar case is still under investigation. “I am a believer. I have no complaints,” said Chandy. “Many are praying for me.... The truth will prevail.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Meanwhile, amid complaints about lapses on its part, the UAE consulate in India has issued a statement condemning the attempted use of diplomatic channels for smuggling, and has promised full cooperation with customs authorities. “Smuggling has happened many times,” said a customs official. “The fact that they (consulate) never checked the weight marked on the cover of the parcel is surprising. Also, how can they send someone who is no longer part of the consulate to collect a diplomatic bag?”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The authorities in the UAE have also launched an internal investigation to find out who sent the cargo containing gold to the consulate in Kerala.</p> Thu Jul 09 17:53:31 IST 2020 return-game <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>FOR SOME TIME</b> now, Edappadi K. Palaniswami has been trying to establish himself as a leader tall enough to take on DMK president M.K. Stalin. And yes, for a while, he seemed to have won over the people with his policies, before Covid-19 struck. In the months since, he has been accused of coming up short, especially in the fight against the pandemic.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>And now, he has to contend with the possibility of meeting a ghost from the past sooner than he had thought. On June 25, BJP member Aseervatham Achary tweeted: “Mrs Sasikala Natarajan is likely to be released from Parappana Agrahara Central Jail, Bangalore, on 14th August 2020. Wait for further updates.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Sasikala, confidante of former chief minister J. Jayalalithaa, was convicted in a disproportionate assets case, and has been in jail since February 2017. Her sentence ends next February.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>When THE WEEK asked Achary to elaborate on his tweet, he refused, saying, “I cannot divulge anything more on this. But I am sure about the date of release.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Achary is known to be close to BJP leader Subramanian Swamy, who, of late, has been talking about Sasikala’s release and how she cannot be excluded from Tamil Nadu politics.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Sasikala completed 40 months and 16 days in prison at the end of June. Her term is 48 months. She had done time for the case in 1996 and 2004, for 13 and 22 days respectively. However, she was out on parole in October 2017 and March 2018, for five and 15 days, first to see her ailing husband, Natarajan, and later to attend his funeral.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A prisoner is eligible for remission only after serving two-thirds of the sentence. Generally, per prison rules, a reduction in sentence is based on conduct and employment in prison. In certain states like Karnataka, learning Kannada is also taken into account. According to the Karnataka Prison Rules 1974, a convict is eligible for six days of ordinary remission a month, or 72 days a year.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>So, at the end of June 2020, Sasikala would have been eligible for 240 days of remission. Add to this the 35 days she had spent in jail earlier, in the same case, and Sasikala should be able to walk out of jail at least 275 days before February 14, 2021, the day her sentence ends.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Her advocate N. Raja Senthoor Pandian told THE WEEK: “By all means, Sasikala is eligible for a premature release. The eligibility came up in December 2019 itself. I have been continuously working for it. I met her on March 7 this year, before the lockdown began. [Since then], we have not been able to strategise as I have not met her.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Even if she is granted early release, Sasikala would have to pay a fine of Rs10 crore, as per the Supreme Court judgment that put her in jail. Also, the allegations that Sasikala had bribed prison officials for preferential treatment, which IPS officer Roopa Moudgil had levelled, could also come up while Sasikala’s release is being considered.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“We are ready to pay the fine of Rs10 crore whenever we are asked to,” said Senthoor Pandian. Regarding allegations made by Moudgil, he said that the enquiry committee set up to investigate them, headed by IAS officer Vinay Kumar, had found no violation of prison rules.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Regardless, another stumbling block for Sasikala would be the Karnataka prison guidelines of 2014, which do not allow for the early release of a person booked for an economic offence, along with a handful of other crimes.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Also, in an RTI reply to Bengaluru-resident T. Narasimha Murthy on June 6, the office of the chief superintendent of prisons said that “Multiple norms are encompassed to calculate the date of release for any given convict prisoner. For example, the date of release changes based on the fine payment status. Hence, we are unable to provide you with a precise date of release.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In October 2019, while handing over the sanction papers to prematurely release 140 lifers at the Parappana Agrahara prison, N.S. Megharikh, then Karnataka DGP (prisons), had told a television channel, “The prisoners now being released belong to a different category of convicts; Sasikala was different as she was convicted under the Prevention of Corruption Act.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Apparently, he was implying that the tag of “good conduct” would not be enough for Sasikala’s early release. Commenting on social media posts that hinted at Sasikala’s early release, he had said, “These are all motivated and false news.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Senthoor Pandian, however, insisted that any prisoner who has completed two-thirds of the jail term becomes eligible for early release. “As per the Karnataka Prison Manual, the rights are bestowed on all prisoners,” he said. “[What has to be decided is] whether it is special remission or ordinary remission. There is no bar on remission for prisoners retained under the Prevention of Corruption Act. If suppose such a bar is sought to be imposed, the High Courts and the Supreme Court have intervened in the past to maintain parity for all prisoners.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>If she does walk out early, Sasikala could muddy the waters in a state facing elections in less than a year. On March 7, at a news conference in Coimbatore, Subramanian Swamy had said, “There will be changes in Tamil Nadu politics after her release. It will be difficult to exclude her from politics. She has experience, talent and a whole community behind her.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Sasikala is said to know the pulse of the AIADMK cadres as she had steered the party from behind Jayalalithaa for two decades. Also, there is the image of Palaniswami and his deputy O. Panneerselvam, tears in their eyes, requesting her to take over the party at Poes Garden in 2016.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“Sasikala’s return will definitely bring about big changes in Tamil Nadu politics,” said former MLA P. Vetrivel, who is now with T.T.V. Dhinakaran’s Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam, which was formed as a breakaway faction of the AIADMK in 2018. “She, along with T.T.V. Dhinakaran, can be the strong leaders who can give a tough fight to the DMK during the elections.” Incidentally, Dhinakaran, who is also said to be expecting his aunt Sasikala to return soon, did not react to Achary’s tweet. Sources said that Dhinakaran, now in Puducherry because of the lockdown, has not spoken to anyone on the legality of Sasikala’s remission.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“She will be a strength to the AIADMK,” said political analyst Tharasu Shyam. “But it depends on whether there will be pressure from the BJP or whether the existing AIADMK will accept her.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The AIADMK has changed a lot since Sasikala went to jail. Both EPS and OPS, as co-coordinator and coordinator, have taken over all the powers vested in the party general secretary. “There will be no political impact when she comes out of prison,” Fisheries Minister D. Jayakumar told THE WEEK. “Be it the cabinet ministers or party executives or district secretaries or branch secretaries, at every level in the party, we have decided to do away with Sasikala and her family. [Anyway,] the Karnataka prison authorities have denied her early release.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>AIADMK sources said that, even after Achary’s tweet, no one in the party has bothered to talk about Sasikala. A senior minister from one of the prominent southern districts, who was once an ardent Sasikala supporter, said he wanted her to come back, but also that the party had been performing well in the past four years. “I do not know if her comeback would bring any changes in the party,” said the minister. “EPS will never want to give up his post or work under her.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Besides, the AIADMK seems to have more urgent problems. The faction feuds have become more pronounced, and EPS, said sources, is struggling to keep the flock together. Even Stalin pointed this out at a recent news conference, saying that “the ministers should shed their egos”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As for Sasikala, even an early return does not necessarily mean re-entry into active politics. She still faces a slew of other cases and, according to the Supreme Court sentence, cannot contest elections for another six years. “Sasikala’s alienation was a well-thought-out strategy by [Narendra] Modi and the BJP,” said political observer Raveenthran Duraisamy. “There will not be any going back. Sasikala is not a proven political force. In 2024, there may be a compromise between Dhinakaran and the BJP, excluding Sasikala. But no major change will happen in the run-up to the 2021 elections.”</p> Thu Jul 09 17:32:06 IST 2020 missed-congeniality <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Just before the Lok Sabha elections in May 2019, Amit Shah, who was the BJP’s president then, claimed that his party would win 23 of 42 Lok Sabha seats in West Bengal. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said he was daydreaming. While it was clear that Banerjee and the Trinamool Congress were struggling with an eroding support base, her popularity had remained intact. No state leader of the BJP was a match for her, and she was pinning her hopes on this to sail through.</p> <p>Banerjee, however, failed to see the undercurrents. A week before the last phase of the polls in Bengal, THE WEEK published a detailed report on allegations about Trinamool leaders in the western and northern parts of the state swindling state funds, and how this would affect the party in the elections. People were clearly upset with Banerjee’s party.</p> <p>In the end, Shah almost pulled it off. The BJP bagged 18 seats and finished second in four by margins of less than 5,000 votes. More importantly, the results indicated that the party had a shot at wresting power from the Trinamool Congress.</p> <p>The assembly elections in Bengal are only 10 months away, and things have not got any better for Banerjee. A large section of the people are unhappy about the relief distribution of Covid-19 and Cyclone Amphan. There are widespread allegations that the money has gone to many undeserved people who were close to the Trinamool. The resentment is so strong that many Trinamool leaders were beaten up and their houses ransacked in different parts of the state.</p> <p>Banerjee, however, has been careful not to repeat the mistakes of the past, and has taken action against dozens of leaders. It is said that she is being advised by poll strategist Prashant Kishor. Many panchayat chiefs have been expelled and many others have been served show-cause notices.</p> <p>In Hooghly district, Manoj Singh, the pradhan of the Garalgacha gram panchayat, was expelled on June 20. Singh had submitted a list of 166 people for Amphan relief—among whom were himself and his wife. He was asked to resign by the Trinamool district president Dilip Yadav. “When he refused to do that, we were left with no other option but to expel him on the grounds of corruption,” said a statement by the party. Yadav added: “Along with Singh, we have received a number of allegations against panchayat chiefs and members. All inquiries will be completed within a stipulated timeframe.”</p> <p>Banerjee’s opponents, however, say this is just eyewash. “The chief minister’s punishments to her party men are laughable,” said CPI(M) central committee member Sujan Chakraborty. “Did she touch the big guns?” Banerjee’s crackdown has so far been limited to measures at the party level. No legal action has been taken against anyone.</p> <p>The government is also being criticised for the mess in the public distribution system. Some 450 ration dealers have been suspended for malpractices. “If so many ration dealers have been suspended, who would give rations? What parallel system does the state government have? If so many ration dealers are held responsible, why is the government silent on the party men who forced the ration dealers to do corruption?” asked BJP state president Dilip Ghosh.</p> <p>Opposition parties allege that dealers were forced to divert foodgrain to the party’s relief channel. Food Minister Jyotipriyo Mullick denied the allegations. “No one in our party would be allowed to take relief materials meant for poor people,” he said. “Stringent action will be taken against them.”</p> <p>A week ago, Banerjee called an all-party meeting to discuss the relief measures for Covid-19 and the Amphan cyclone. The meeting was attended by the leaders of the left parties, the Congress and the BJP. The chief minister wanted to create a committee and CPI(M) state secretary Surjya Kanta Mishra to lead it. But Mishra turned down the offer. A leader who attended the meeting told THE WEEK that Mishra told Banerjee that it was her party which had the mandate to rule. Banerjee agreed and made Education Minister Partha Chatterjee the head of the committee, which has Mishra, Ghosh and a few others as members.</p> <p>Ghosh had initially resisted Banerjee’s proposal to make him a committee member. “I repeatedly told her that I could not be part of such a committee which has no locus standi,” he said. “Such a committee cannot work constitutionally. But the chief minister said she would empower the committee to take decisions on behalf of the government. I have never heard of such a scheme of things anywhere in India.”</p> <p>He said the move is politically motivated. “The government is in the dock. The chief minister is becoming unpopular. So she wanted all of us to be part of that mess. Now she would go and campaign that she wanted to take everyone with her but the opposition refused,” he said.</p> <p>Banerjee, for sure, has political motives, and her main goal is to stop her rivals from taking advantage of the volatile ground situation. The state has been witnessing many incidents of mob violence over relief distribution. The BJP said Trinamool party men were behind the violence. “They attacked our party men at different places when we reached there with relief materials,” said Ghosh. “We have to do this because the government has failed miserably.”</p> <p>One of Banerjee’s intentions behind constituting the committee was to make a charter of demands to the Central government. She wanted Ghosh to be the bridge to the Centre rather than Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar. If Ghosh fails, she will be able to pin it on him and the BJP.</p> <p>Dhankhar, however, has already created a report. “It is sort of a scam in the making,” he said. “Ruling party workers, though not entitled, got benefits, giving rise to protests and violence at many places.” He said he had advised the government to use proper channels to distribute relief money. “People complained to me that in the name of relief it is daylight loot and plunder by the ruling party workers with the support of the local administration.”</p> <p>The Trinamool has been critical of the governor for not supporting the chief minister’s demands for more funds from the Centre for relief work. Banerjee has demanded a 010,000 crore package and requested the opposition leaders to jointly put pressure on the Centre for it. Dhankhar, however, denied that the government had proposed any such demand to him and said it was Banerjee’s political ploy. “I am all for a considered and deserved relief package for the state. For the chief minister, it is virtually a daily rhetoric with an eye on the political radar,” he said.</p> <p>It remains to be seen if Banerjee’s new initiative is going to work. Especially because of the opposition leaders’ mistrust of her and their refusal to make any commitment. But her political game is certainly on.&nbsp;</p> Thu Jul 02 19:39:40 IST 2020 blood-brothers <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>It was raining heavily when Vineeth Ravi got the call from Dr Shinaz Babu, the nodal officer for Covid-19 at Government Medical College, Malappuram. “I picked up the phone thinking it was a casual call,” said Ravi. “He calls me up regularly to check if I am OK, though it has been almost a month since I had become Covid-19 negative.”</p> <p>But this was more than a regular call. Babu had a request. “Doctor told me that a Covid-19 positive patient was very critical, and asked me whether I was ready to give blood for administering plasma treatment,” said Ravi, 23. “I immediately said yes. How could I say no to a doctor whose medical team risked their lives to save mine?”</p> <p>Ravi, who holds a diploma in mechanical engineering, had contracted the virus during his stay in Chennai. “The situation in Chennai was so bad that I rushed back to Kerala immediately after the lockdown was lifted,” he said. “I tested positive and was admitted to the medical college. I am alive now because of the care given to me by Dr Shinaz and his team.”</p> <p>When the request came, Ravi did not think twice, but Babu insisted that he get the permission of his parents before going ahead with it. Ravi asked his mother and she agreed. “She told me that it was my responsibility to repay those who saved my life,” he said. “She also told me that there is nothing greater than saving another life.”</p> <p>Though Ravi’s home is 60km from the hospital, he reached the hospital within two hours of the call. “I told Vineeth that I would send a vehicle for him. But he said he would come on his motorbike,” said Babu. “It was raining heavily. I got worried seeing him as it had been only 22 days since he had been discharged. But Vineeth showed no signs of weakness and gave the required amount of blood.”</p> <p>That blood has now saved a life.</p> <p>It was M.K. Sainuddeen Bhaqavi, who works as an ustad in a mosque in Oman, who received Ravi’s blood. Now, Bhaqavi has been discharged, becoming the first Covid-19 patient in the state to recover after receiving plasma treatment.</p> <p>Bhaqavi comes from a family of traditional ustads (religious scholars). All of his eight brothers are ustads in various mosques in Malappuram. Only Bhaqavi had gone abroad and was working at a Sunni centre in Buraimi, Oman, for more than a decade. He was the president of Santwanam, a charitable society that helps NRIs. He returned to Kerala on June 6 and went straight to the medical college as he felt feverish. He tested positive for Covid-19; his condition worsened due to comorbidities and he was shifted to the ICU. But his health deteriorated further.</p> <p>It was then that Babu called Ravi. “Bhaqavi’s condition was very bad,” he said. “We went for plasma treatment as the last hope.”</p> <p>Malappuram district has one of the highest number of Covid-19 cases in the state, thanks to its NRI population. Two of the patients that the medical college had tried plasma treatment on before did not respond to the treatment. But it worked well for Bhaqavi.</p> <p>“He told us that the hospital staff looked after him like a mother would look after her kids,”said Bhaqavi’s brother Sharafuddeen, seated next to him. It had only been a day since Bhaqavi’s discharge and he was not in a position to talk much. “He used to reassure us over phone that there was nothing to worry as he was in safe hands,” said Sharafuddeen.</p> <p>When Bhaqavi came to know that it was Ravi’s blood that saved him, he wanted to meet him. Babu arranged for it and the duo met on the day Bhaqavi was discharged. “He held my hands for a few moments and told me that there is no greater thing than saving lives,” said Ravi. “I thought of my mother then as she too had told me the same. She had prayed every day for the person who was now thanking me.”</p> <p>Bhaqavi gifted Ravi some chocolates, too. “I had no idea for whom I was giving blood. Blood has no religion and it was proved once again when I met him,” said Ravi.</p> <p>According to Babu, the meeting was a great experience. “We develop a special bonding with all the Covid-19 patients by the time they are discharged and it was great to see someone who got cured from here coming back to help cure others,” he said.</p> <p>The government medical college has done five plasma treatments so far. While two showed no response, others responded well, the doctor said. The state has so far done seven plasma treatments. So how do they choose blood donors?</p> <p>“We keep track of every patient even after their discharge as part of the protocol,” said Babu. “Plasma can be taken from those who have turned Covid-19 negative and fall in the 18 to 50 age group. Also, they should be having no comorbidities. So, whenever blood is required, we contact the patients who meet the requirements. We have received only positive responses from them so far.”</p> <p>Shahul Hameed, another former Covid-19 patient in Malappuram, said that anybody who received treatment in the medical colleges in Kerala would say yes to the requests. “Such is the care we have received from the medical team here,” he said. “Right from the doctor to the sweeper, all of them have taken pains to save our lives. We owe our life to them.”</p> <p>Hameed, who works in a transportation company in Abu Dhabi, had returned on May 7. He tested positive while in the state-run quarantine centre, and was immediately shifted to the medical college. “When one is in isolation, one has limited contact with others, and the way those few treat you matters a lot,” he said. “It is the love, care and the food provided at the hospital that has brought me back to life. Donating blood is my small effort to repay those who helped me. Also, I understand the insecurities of a Covid-19 patient very well as I was also one.”</p> <p>It was one Rajeev Kumar (name changed) who received blood from Hameed. An assistant sub-inspector with Delhi Police, Kumar tested positive two days after his family reached Kerala on June 17. He received blood from Mohammed Basheer, too. According to doctors, Kumar is showing good improvement after receiving plasma treatment.</p> <p>“When the doctor told us that two of his former Covid-19 patients had agreed to give blood to my father, we were so relieved,” said Kumar’s son. “I immediately asked for their numbers and called them up to thank them. That Hameed and Basheer readily agreed to give blood to someone whom they have not even seen, immediately after recovering from an illness, is a great act of love.”</p> <p>“I felt so happy when I got the call from the son of the patient to whom I had given blood,” said Hameed. “That call has made my life more meaningful.” Ravi feels the same. “That my blood was useful in saving somebody’s life has made my life worthwhile,” he said.</p> <p>Both hoped that these tales of love from Malappuram would help clear the misconceptions about the district. “Ours is a regular district like any other,” said Ravi. “The proportion of one religion may be higher than the other, but that has not stopped us from loving each other.” Hameed, Bhaqavi and Kumar could only concur.&nbsp;</p> Fri Jul 03 19:40:36 IST 2020 testing-has-been-ramped-up-in-areas-of-community-transmission <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>Q</b>/<b> How is the Covid-19 situation in Goa now?</b></p> <p><b>A</b>/ Currently, there are 716 active cases in Goa [as on June 30]. Of the 1,315 people who tested positive so far, 45 per cent have recovered. Three deaths have been reported. These were patients with comorbidities.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q</b>/<b> Community transmission has begun in the state. How do you plan to redesign your containment strategies?</b></p> <p><b>A</b>/ It has come to our notice that community transmission has begun in the state. Testing has been ramped up in presumed areas of community transmission. We have also redrawn the containment and micro-containment zone maps. People who test positive are being admitted to Covid-19 care centres.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q</b>/<b> How is the state dealing with the crisis​?</b></p> <p><b>A</b>/ We have a dedicated 250-bed Covid-19 hospital. By converting hotels into Covid-19 care centres, we have added 1,500 beds to our existing capacity. Besides these, we have institutional quarantine centres as well.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q</b>/<b> Goa is the first Indian state to blend ayurveda with allopathy to tackle Covid-19.</b></p> <p><b>A</b>/ Ayurveda is good for boosting immunity. People in containment zones are being given ayurvedic immunity-booster dose, as per AYUSH guidelines. That said, for people admitted in Covid-19 hospitals, we offer allopathic treatment only. We follow the Indian Council of Medical Research guidelines.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q</b>/<b> Does Goa welcome tourists now?</b></p> <p><b>A</b>/ Hotels and home stays have not resumed operations, yet. But we hope to welcome tourists within a short span of time.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q</b>/<b> What is the financial commitment of the Centre to states like Goa?</b></p> <p><b>A</b>/ States across the country have been affected by the pandemic. The Centre has provided us financial and infrastructural support.</p> <p>Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan packages offer financial assistance for the poor. Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman has announced 020 lakh crore economic relief package. Another package for labourers has also been announced by the government. Besides all these, the Centre has allowed us to use the mineral fund deposited with the state government to deal with the pandemic. That is a great relief for us.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q</b>/<b> How has the pandemic affected the tourism and mining sectors?</b></p> <p><b>A</b>/ The mining sector has not been affected much as transportation was allowed. But tourism has been hit hard—100 per cent loss has been reported in this sector.</p> <p>However, we managed to support the pharma and food industries even during Lockdown 1. Now, all the industries [except tourism] are running at 90 per cent of capacity.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q</b>/<b> How are you providing support to people who lost their livelihood?</b></p> <p><b>A</b>/ It is challenging. We are exploring ways to help farmers and those in the travel and tourism, and mining industries.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q</b>/<b> What are the learnings from the pandemic?</b></p> <p><b>A</b>/ We need to come up with vaccines and immunity-booster doses to fight the infection. As the chief minister of Goa, I believe it is a great opportunity to master the lost art of self-reliant living. Our youth are practising lessons of self-reliance in their farms. We are looking at ways to export more and import less.&nbsp; </p> Thu Jul 02 19:25:00 IST 2020 online-succour <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>A 55-year-old man with chronic liver disease and severe cough was recently rushed to the intensive care unit of the Covid-19 hospital in Karnataka’s Bagalkot district. As he tested positive and his condition deteriorated, doctors feared that he might succumb to the pandemic just like the hospital's first critical patient who was admitted in March. This man, however, survived. A team of specialist doctors from Bengaluru, who are part of the state’s Tele ICU initiative, helped doctors in Bagalkot treat the patient. “The patient was a former alcoholic and was in a critical state,” said Dr Chandrakant Javali, senior specialist physician in Bagalkot. “But Tele ICU helped save the patient. I feel I would not have lost the first patient if Tele ICU had been there earlier.”</p> <p>For doctors in peripheral hospitals who battle limited infrastructure and poor access to treatment protocols, Tele ICU has been a boon. Set up in mid-April, Tele ICU is an online facility to treat critically ill patients in remote areas with the help of off-site experts and technology. The state government has roped in two private hospitals—Columbia Asia and Manipal Hospitals in Bengaluru—to act as the nerve centre of 29 district hospitals designated as Covid-19 hospitals. Tele ICU has pulmonologists, intensivists and critical care experts conducting e-rounds to monitor critical cases in remote areas twice a day.</p> <p>Karnataka has had 1,568 high-risk patients; 749 of them have been discharged and 755 are being treated. Out of the 207 deaths reported till June 15, eight patients were brought dead. A good number of cases were late referrals from private hospitals.</p> <p>“Covid-19 is a unique disease because at least 50 per cent of patients appear very normal, but suffer sudden deterioration because of silent hypoxemia (dip in oxygen level in blood), which can be fatal,” said Dr Pradeep Rangappa, who is heading Tele ICU’s Columbia Asia unit. “As low oxygen in blood goes unnoticed if not tested, we identified certain alarm markers or predictive variables for Covid-19 patients. Blood tests help us monitor these alarm indicators. Early indication helps in early intervention, which in turn reduces mortality.”</p> <p>Dr Trilok Chandra, Tele ICU’s chief nodal officer, said high-risk groups—like the elderly, patients with co-morbidities, children and pregnant women—needed a critical care support unit. But setting up Tele ICU was challenging, as most government hospitals did not have well-equipped ICUs or the expertise to handle a new disease like Covid-19. “First, we standardised the checklist so that all hospitals followed the same set of parameters for investigation, monitoring and treatment,” said Chandra. “We homogenised the care and identified alarm markers. The state-level expert committee came up with treatment protocols and standard operating procedures from time to time. The government also upgraded the ICUs in hospitals to provide bedside dialysis, X-ray and oxygen facilities. During the weekly videoconferences, the specialists guided the remote hospitals to make necessary changes to their ICUs or treatment protocol.”</p> <p>The 257-bed district hospital in Bagalkot, which has 43 ICU beds, 24 doctors and 100 staff nurses, was upgraded. “We procured pulse oximeters and non-invasive ventilators, and trained our staff on safety measures. Tele ICU has dramatically changed the outcomes, as it has helped in constant monitoring and early intervention,” said Javali.</p> <p>Rangappa said the initiative clicked because on-site and off-site experts worked cohesively. “The network of more than 150 doctors working across 29 hospitals subscribed to the concept,”he said. “The knowledge transfer brought transformative change in treatment protocols and practice patterns, empowering bedside doctors to adopt standard operating procedures and train their staff. The involvement of the bedside doctor in decision-making helped shape effective treatment, as patients came in with challenging and multiple complications.”</p> <p>Tele ICUs have helped doctors adapt new technologies; for instance, non-invasive ventilation is more effective than invasive ventilation in critical cases. “We started monitoring all patients with pulse oximeter, as a sudden dip in oxygen levels can be dangerous,” said Chandra. “Patients were monitored using finger clip oximeter, which gives an alert the moment the oxygen level goes below the threshold. This has improved the chances of survival. Our endeavour is to prevent patients from reaching the ventilator stage with early identification and therapeutic interventions.”</p> <p>The Covid-19 death rate in Karnataka is one of the lowest in India. “The Karnataka model of Tele ICU can be replicated by other states reporting high Covid-related mortality,” said Rangappa. “However, deaths can be averted not just by doctors or treatment, but by the behaviour of people as well.”</p> <p>With the easing of the lockdown, the government is expecting a surge in the number of critical cases. It has enhanced facilities in ICUs and isolation wards, and formed district-level “therapeutic committees” involving specialists in private hospitals.</p> <p>“The state is encouraging reverse quarantine—confining only the vulnerable groups to home—children under 10, persons above 55, and those with co-morbidities,” said Chandra. “We are also conducting household surveys to detect the cases early. We are also sensitising private hospitals to refer symptomatic patients to the designated health facility, or follow the standard treatment protocol.”</p> Thu Jul 02 19:17:04 IST 2020 shahs-showtime <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>On June 27, Union Home Minister Amit Shah and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal together inspected a 10,000-bed makeshift hospital for Covid-19 patients that is coming up at the Radha Soami Satsang Beas campus on the outskirts of the capital. On the face of it, the two leaders were a picture of bonhomie. However, scratch the surface, and the political fault lines become evident. Even the run-up to the joint inspection had its share of obvious and not so obvious efforts to claim ownership of the initiative.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Kejriwal had tweeted to invite Shah for the inspection, and requested him to provide health care staff for it from the Indo-Tibetan Border Police Force and the Indian Army. Shah had promptly responded, reminding Kejriwal that it had already been decided at a meeting between them that doctors and nurses from the ITBPF would be deployed at the facility. He also spelt out details of when he expects it to be functional. Shah’s response was evidently aimed at giving the impression that he was in charge of the Covid-containment measures in the capital. On the other hand, Kejriwal wanted to convey the same, and also highlight that he was keen on the Centre’s collaboration.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Shah stepped into Delhi’s Covid-19 scene three months after the coronavirus arrived in the capital, at a time when the situation appeared to be getting out of control. There was a surge in the number of cases and the Kejriwal government was swamped with reports of people failing to get beds in hospitals and finding it difficult to get tested for the virus. Critics said the Aam Aadmi Party regime had slackened its testing and tracing efforts. And, the government’s decision to reserve Delhi’s hospitals for Delhiites was seen as a reflection of the city’s lack of capacity to deal with the disease.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Politically,&nbsp;it presented Shah with a great opportunity to emerge as Delhi’s saviour during an unprecedented health crisis and show the Kejriwal government in a bad light. Just a few months back, Shah had helmed the BJP’s campaign in the assembly polls in Delhi. In that contest, Kejriwal had comprehensively beaten Shah.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Centre entered the scene after Lieutenant Governor Anil Baijal overturned the Kejriwal government’s decisions to reserve hospitals in the city for Delhi’s residents and narrow the criteria for testing. Shah’s first high-level meeting involving Delhi’s stakeholders, including Baijal and Kejriwal, was on June 14, when a slew of measures were announced, primarily with regard to increasing testing, enhancing the number of beds and intensifying tracing, surveillance and containment efforts, and putting a cap on testing and hospitalisation rates.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Shah has since then been actively involved. His surprise visit to the Delhi government-run Lok Nayak Jai Prakash Hospital, a prime Covid-19 facility, was broadcast live on his YouTube channel. The home ministry has been regularly putting out releases regarding the progress made in Delhi.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“The Kejriwal government relaxed the lockdown without the necessary arrangements in place,” said Delhi BJP leader Vijender Gupta. “The Centre had to intervene since the Kejriwal government was more interested in getting political mileage out of the situation.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>However, the politics behind Shah’s initiatives was clear as BJP leaders responded to his visit to LNJP Hospital by asking how many times Kejriwal had visited the hospital. It was apparent that the choice of the hospital was guided by political considerations. The Supreme Court had, taking suo motu cognisance of media reports, said patients were being kept in horrific conditions in the hospital. Delhi’s BJP MPs were despatched to the antigen testing centres in the city to emphasise upon the BJP’s imprint on the enhanced testing.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>For AAP’s political opponents, the Covid-19 crisis is an opportunity to question its claims of having improved the health care infrastructure in Delhi. Shah expressed it in a TV interview: “I am not running Delhi. Let us not use such words.... Arvind Kejriwal is always kept in the loop. He is also involved in decision making. Some political statements may have been made, but no impact on decision making.... [Delhi’s Deputy Chief Minister Manish] Sisodia’s statement [that Delhi will have 5.5 lakh cases by July end] had created some panic. That is not going to happen.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Delhi Congress President Anil Chaudhary said the AAP’s claims on improving the health care infrastructure in the capital stands exposed, and while the Kejriwal government indulges in a blame game with the Centre, the people are suffering. Kejriwal, on the other hand, is playing a balancing act; he is aware that his government needs the Centre’s help in handling the pandemic. “The chief minister believes that the fight against Covid-19 is a massive one, and no one person or agency can deal with the disease on its own,” said Sisodia. “It is with this sentiment that he wants to take everyone along, and he is finding success in his efforts. We can see that the situation is now stabilising.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>However,&nbsp;the unease in the AAP with Shah’s growing involvement in Delhi’s affairs has shown through in its comparison between the BJP government erecting a statue of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and the Kejriwal regime naming the 10,000-bed makeshift hospital after the country’s first home minister. The AAP leaders have called the Baijal’s order on compulsory institutional isolation of Covid-19 patients the “Shah model”, as against the “Kejriwal model” of allowing home isolation for asymptomatic and mild cases. The assessment within the AAP is that the Delhi government gave the Centre an opportunity to rush in. For the time being, Kejriwal and his party have opted to grin and bear it as Shah has his sweet revenge.&nbsp;</p> Thu Jul 02 16:35:09 IST 2020 malady-and-madness <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>ON JUNE 18,</b> a day before Chennai and neighbouring Kancheepuram, Tiruvallur and Chengalpattu districts went into lockdown, the Tamil Nadu government announced that it was withdrawing an earlier order amending the English spelling of 1,018 cities, towns and villages in the state. The order had drawn widespread criticism, and the railways and India Post had not been consulted on the new names.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>This was not the first policy U-turn the government had made amid the Covid-19 crisis. On June 9, Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami cancelled the class 10 board exams, even as the advocate general was arguing in the Madras High Court that the exams ought to be held in mid-June, before the number of infections begins to peak. On June 12, when journalists asked Palaniswami whether the government was planning to lock down Chennai to contain the virus, he asked them not to believe in such “rumours”. Three days later, though, he declared the lockdown.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Later, when journalists asked him about rumours that Higher Education Minister K.P. Anbalagan had tested positive, Palaniswami looked irked. “He himself has said that he is not infected. What more do you need?” he shot back. On June 20, though, Anbalagan told THE WEEK that he had indeed been infected and was being treated at a private hospital in Chennai.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Anbalagan was one of the five ministers overseeing relief work in the Greater Chennai Corporation. After he tested positive, half a dozen ministers who had come into contact with him rushed to get themselves tested. Apparently, all ministers are worried that they have been exposed to the virus. A 56-year-old private secretary in the chief minister’s office, B.J. Damodharan, died of Covid-19 on June 17, a day before Anbalagan was infected. At least seven people in the chief minister’s offices have been infected.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Palaniswami himself has twice undergone tests; the results were negative. He maintains that there is no community spread of Covid-19 in the state. “If you and I get infected, only then can it be called community spread,” he told a journalist. “As of now, there is no community spread; things are under control.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The government, however, seems to be groping in the dark. It had appointed 12 teams of IAS and IPS officers in April to review Covid-19 programmes across the state and recommend changes. But, except for the medical experts team, none of the groups have submitted any report.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The government had also constituted a team under IAS officer J. Radhakrishnan to exclusively handle Covid-19 operations in Chennai. But the five IPS officers in this team have not been handling any Covid-related work. On June 6, the government appointed Pankaj Kumar Bansal, IAS, as special coordinator to oversee initiatives in high-risk zones like Chennai, over and above what it had asked Radhakrishnan’s team to do.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>On June 12, Radhakrishnan replaced Beela Rajesh as health secretary, after it was alleged that the health department was underreporting casualties. “At least 200 deaths were not reported by the Chennai corporation,” said Jayaram Venkatesan, convener of the NGO Arappor Iyakkam. “The family of the deceased were given mortuary cards at the hospitals where the deaths happened. But [the deaths] were not added to the corporation’s record.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The government set up a committee to look into the matter, and the chief secretary issued a strongly worded order to Chennai corporation commissioner G. Prakash to take immediate measures to control the disease in Chennai. It was an unusual order, as corporation commissioners report only to the municipal administration secretary and Prakash is close to Municipal Administration Minister S.P. Velumani, who is referred to as the “shadow Chief Minister” in the ruling AIADMK.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Earlier, on June 1, IAS officer S. Nagarajan was removed as director of the Tamil Nadu Health Systems Project, which was established in 2005 to reform the health care sector. Such bureaucratic reshuffles, however, have not improved the ground situation and the numbers continue to rise in Chennai and other districts.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“The chief minister is not able to take any stern action,” said DMK president and opposition leader M.K. Stalin. “This is because he does not have control over his own cabinet. The ministers should shed their egos and work together to eradicate the virus.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The government says 60,000 people in Tamil Nadu have contracted the virus and more than 750 have died. Though it has maintained that only the elderly and people who have existing health conditions were at high risk, 30 per cent of the dead were under 50 and had no comorbidities.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Stalin said the government should stop fudging figures and reveal the actual numbers of patients and deaths. “The government has an indifferent attitude in handling the pandemic,” said DMK spokesperson A. Saravanan. “The chief minister denying that his own colleague has tested positive is proof that the government is not transparent. The government is just fumbling about in the dark.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Palaniswami says no decision has been taken to extend the lockdown in Chennai. He wants everyone to wear masks and stay indoors for now. “The complete lockdown is like a speed-breaker,” he said. “We have implemented it so that people stay indoors. This lockdown is not to trouble anyone, but to stop the spread of the virus.”</p> Fri Jun 26 12:01:10 IST 2020 trouble-in-paradise <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>EVEN BEFORE THE</b> results of the Rajya Sabha elections were announced in Madhya Pradesh, social media saw a stream of congratulatory messages emanating from the BJP camp. Sure enough, the party won two of three seats on offer. Senior BJP leaders went to the state assembly with winning candidate Sumer Singh Solanki and a representative of the second winner, Jyotiraditya Scindia, who could not be present because he was in Covid-19 quarantine, to collect the winning certificate.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But they were not elated as expected. It seemed as though future tasks were hanging heavy on their hands. Political watchers say that despite regaining power and the high of the Rajya Sabha polls, the BJP’s real test is just about to start. And trouble is likely to emanate from within.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Sources say that when the much-publicised “Operation Kamal” was set in motion in the state in March, the BJP had two objectives—dislodge the 15-month-old Congress government and win two Rajya Sabha seats. Before that, the BJP was not in a statistical position to ensure two Rajya Sabha berths, despite having 107 MLAs in the 230-strong assembly. Both objectives were achieved when Scindia and the 22 MLAs who supported him quit the Congress for the BJP.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Now, with Scindia in the upper house—considered part of the deal—the BJP has to fulfil promises made to his supporters. And this is going to be tough, say political watchers. “Now with Rajya Sabha polls done, the BJP has to set about expanding the Shivraj Singh Chouhan cabinet to accommodate Scindia supporters who have been waiting for three months,” political analyst Manish Dixit says.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>He says that the BJP, which has been stalling the much-awaited expansion, first on the grounds of the lockdown and then the Rajya Sabha polls, has no excuses left. “The patience of Scindia supporters is wearing thin and the bypolls to 24 vacant seats in the state are looming,” says Dixit. “In such circumstances, the BJP has to take a call on the cabinet expansion.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Sources say that as part of the deal, at least 10 to 12 of the 22 defectors have to be made ministers, while the others are to be made chairpersons to boards and corporations. But, if the BJP accommodates all 22 Scindia supporters in such a manner, it will mean fewer opportunities for other BJP leaders. Several BJP leaders who were former ministers or have won multiple elections and are aspiring to become ministers, have already started to show their discomfort.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“Striking a balance between Scindia supporters who are awaiting their reward and original BJP leaders who want their years of loyalty to be acknowledged has certainly put the BJP in a catch-22 situation,” says Dixit. The developments during the Rajya Sabha polls—Guna MLA Gopilal Jatav is rumoured to have cross-voted and Raigaon MLA Jugalkishore Bagri cast an invalid vote—are also being looked upon as signals sent by the upset senior MLAs, though the party and the MLAs have denied any such motive. Dixit also points out that in the past fortnight many BJP leaders, including some prominent ones, have joined the Congress; several Congress members have joined the BJP, too.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Shams Ur Rehman Alavi, political commentator, says that the BJP cannot now wait until the bypolls to expand the cabinet or make political appointments as Scindia supporters will want a strong turf to play on when they seek re-election in the bypolls. On the other hand, upsetting senior leaders could make the situation difficult as the bypolls are the key to the BJP staying in power, says Alavi.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The BJP has to win at least nine of the 24 seats to get a majority. Then, with the support of the non-Congress opposition MLAs, it can comfortably complete the tenure. But the Rajya Sabha polls showed a problem in this aspect, too—the Congress managed to get two additional votes. If the rumour of the BJP MLA cross-voting is false, then the party got the votes of two non-Congress opposition MLAs. And the BJP, with 111 votes, got at least five votes of non-Congress opposition MLAs—as one of its votes was invalid.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Experts say that if the Congress managed to attract one or two non-Congress MLAs during the Rajya Sabha polls despite being down in the dumps, then the role of these seven non-Congress MLAs will become interesting and BJP could not count on them fully. The BJP might actually manage to win more than the required nine, given that it is the ruling party and that the Congress might not find the right candidates to pitch in the regions where Scindia has support, says Alavi.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>K.K. Mishra, Congress spokesman in-charge of the Gwalior-Chambal region (where most of the bypolls are to be held), said that the BJP’s “annual examination” was due. “Like developing the Covid-19 vaccine, the task of expanding the cabinet will be a most challenging one,” he says. “Balancing the aspirations of its own cadre and the honour of those who have not yet been mentally [accepted] as their own will be a daunting task. Parties thrive on the loyalty and hard work of its ground workers, but if they are upset, it is a bad signal.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>BJP state president Vishnu Dutt Sharma told THE WEEK that the cabinet expansion would be done soon and the focus is on the impending bypolls. He said that there were no immediate plans of making appointments to government posts, but steps would be taken when required. As for the leaders or workers of the party being upset at the developments, he said that though some frontline workers might be discontent, there was “no major issue”. “Our party has a culture where all things are resolved through mutual discussions and party workers go by the party line,” says Sharma.</p> Fri Jun 26 12:00:32 IST 2020 online-onslaught <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>The Madhya Pradesh</b> BJP had hoped to take social media by storm on the afternoon of June 10; Union Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari was to feature in the state’s first virtual rally. The aim was to not only publicise the achievements of the Modi government in its sixth year, but also to use the rally as a soft launchpad for campaign mode. The state will soon see crucial byelections to 24 assembly seats.</p> <p>However, just before the rally could begin, a June 8 clip—purportedly of Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan addressing BJP workers in one of the constituencies up for election—went viral. “The (BJP) central leadership decided that the (Congress) government should fall. And was it possible to fell the government without Jyotiraditya Scindia <i>ji</i> and Tulsi <i>bhai</i> (Tulsiram Silawat, former MLA of Sanwer)?” he asked in the clip.</p> <p>Hundreds of Congress-supporting accounts had posted the clip, claiming that Chouhan had openly admitted to the conspiracy to dislodge the Congress government. The clip drowned out the Gadkari rally.</p> <p>Scores of memes and slogans surfaced, and #BJPloktantrapedaaghai (BJP is a stain on democracy) was soon the number one trend—it was featured in more than 52,000 unique tweets and reached 90 million users, claimed the state Congress social media and IT department.</p> <p>Before the furore had died down, another clip popped up. It allegedly featured a female Congress worker from Ashoknagar district talking to Jyotiraditya Scindia on phone, claiming that she had paid 050 lakh to one of his staffers for an assembly ticket for her daughter-in-law.</p> <p>Then came the third audio clip, allegedly of Scindia supporter and former minister Imarti Devi, who is heard threatening a worker for telling her that she was losing support among people in her constituency. Yet another clip appeared, in which a policeman claimed that Scindia was getting him posted in Lahar, the constituency of former Congress minister Govind Singh, allegedly to cause Singh discomfort. The policeman was later suspended.</p> <p>Said political commentator and avid social media user Shams Ur Rehman Alavi: “During these past three months, the party (Congress) has surely sharpened its strategy, managing to impact the public perception regarding the role of the BJP in dislodging its government, [in] probably allowing Covid-19 to spread due to this reason and [in] the consequent failure to prevent the pandemic from exploding in the state and elsewhere.”</p> <p>Also, the Congress seems to have foiled Scindia’s attempts to portray himself as someone the party neglected, by painting him and his supporters as betrayers who flipped for money, added Alavi.</p> <p>Political observer Manish Dixit agreed that the Congress looked far sharper online compared with the BJP, which usually has the edge on social media. “The Congress has [also] taken up issues that directly concern the common people—inflated electricity bills, problems faced by farmers, students forced to appear for exams amid a pandemic, the rising crime rate and so on,” he said. “They managed to generate interesting hashtags like ‘Shivraj <i>atta chor hai</i>’ (Shivraj is a wheat-flour thief) and coin terms like ‘Bikaulal’ (one who is sold), which have been a hit with the people.”</p> <p>Dixit said that, at a time when there is no physical connect with the voter, the Congress has definitely stolen a march on the BJP in the online world. “This constant campaign can definitely have an impact on the voters’ mind, although only a section of them are on social media,” he said.</p> <p>However, Abhay Tiwari, the key man behind the Congress’s online strategy, said that his party would definitely win more than 19 of the 24 seats. “We noticed during the political turmoil in March that social media users were leaning towards the Congress’s stand that dislodging the government was a BJP conspiracy and that huge money was involved in it,” the chief of the state Congress IT department told THE WEEK. “So, we decided to use that momentum and sharpened our attack. We coined terms like ‘Jaichand’ (a historical figure said to have betrayed Prithviraj Chauhan against invader Muhammad Ghori), ‘Bikaulal’, ‘Shri-ant’ (Mr End; Scindia is commonly called ‘Shrimant’) and ‘Panauti’ (bad omen, for Chouhan), and also convinced people that the ex-MLAs had taken 035 crore each for the deal.”</p> <p>The Congress also conducted online polls to gauge the public mood, and even pitted BJP supporters against each other. “For example, we asked who the ‘Panauti’ was and we found BJP supporters voting on the Scindia option and Scindia supporters voting on the Chouhan option,” said Tiwari.</p> <p>“For the past three months, we have been gaining 3,000 followers a day on Twitter (@INCMP had 653k followers as on June 15) and we have surpassed the BJP handle (@BJP4MP had 561k followers),” he added. “During the past two years, we gained five lakh followers; the BJP managed just one lakh. Also, among the Congress state units, we have the most Twitter followers.”</p> <p>The party has posted a WhatsApp coordinator in 58,000 of 63,000 polling booths in the state; these coordinators spread content on non-political groups. Also, the party has a Facebook page and a Twitter handle for each of the 230 assembly constituencies. The Youth Congress and the National Students’ Union of India are an important part of the online strategy.</p> <p>Senior Congress leaders have also been active on social media. “Kamal Nath <i>ji</i> monitors the social media campaign daily,” said Tiwari. Others involved in strategy making and guidance, said sources, include state Congress media cell chairman Jitu Patwari, former minister Sajjan Singh Verma and former assembly speaker N.P. Prajapati.</p> <p>Akshay Hunka, a Congress member who is working to bring together a ‘Twitter activist team’ from among party supporters, said people were organically sharing his tweets on this effort. “This shows people’s inclination to become part of a campaign that seeks to bring out the truth of the BJP’s games,” he said.</p> <p>For his part, Shivraj Dabi, the coordinator of the IT department of the Madhya Pradesh BJP, said there could not be comparisons because the ruling party will always focus on its achievements and future plans, while the opposition will try to find faults. “The Congress campaign is simply focused on distracting people from real issues and thrives on fake information,” he said. “We want to create awareness among people, tell them about welfare schemes and help them. The Congress might be getting a little more visibility because of its irrelevant and false attacks. We do not want to lend credence to everything they say by responding to them. Only when it is about big leaders or sensitive matters do we clarify the situation with facts and figures.”&nbsp;</p> Thu Jun 18 17:05:40 IST 2020 troubleshooter-on-the-throne <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>The Karnataka Congress</b> seems to be taking a leaf out of the RSS-BJP playbook for its revival. The state unit is gearing up for a transformation into a “cadre-based party” with focus on empowering the booth worker and strengthening booths. The party hopes to channel the power of social media by appointing a booth-level social media-in-charge and by using technology to gather traction among the youth.</p> <p>Riddled with electoral debacles, factional feuds, mass defections, a waning support base and a demoralised cadre, the story of the Congress in Karnataka was no different from that in most of the rest of India. But the sudden change of guard on March 11, when Congress president Sonia Gandhi appointed D.K. Shivakumar as the new state president, has brought hopes of a revival.</p> <p>Shivakumar, the party’s troubleshooter, is expected to take charge during “Pratijna Dina”—the official swearing in ceremony that will be livestreamed across 7,800 locations, including the district and block Congress offices in the state. The date of the event has not been confirmed, yet. But, it is expected to mark a new start for the Congress as a tech-savvy party and highlight Shivakumar’s focus on the cadre.</p> <p>Shivakumar has already visited senior leaders to emphasise that the party believes in collective leadership. The factional feuds between the “original” Congressmen and the “outsiders” (identified with former chief minister Siddaramaiah who joined the party in 2007), had triggered the collapse of the Janata Dal (Secular)-Congress coalition government in July 2019.</p> <p>After losing power, the Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee had fallen into total disarray. Following the December 2019 bypolls, when the Congress won only two out of 15 seats, Dinesh Gundu Rao resigned as state chief. But the party high command desisted from naming Rao’s successor fearing a backlash from the overlooked faction.</p> <p>Now, as Shivakumar has the top post, the rival faction got three working presidents—Eshwar Khandre (Lingayat), Satish Jarkiholi (scheduled tribe; Valmiki) and Saleem Ahmed—reportedly to balance the demographic equation. But insiders felt that it was an effort to rein in Shivakumar. The new state chief is focused on uniting the party and bringing it to power. “Rest of the things can wait,” he said.</p> <p>Senior Congress leader V.R. Sudarshan said that Shivakumar understood the need to listen to the party worker. “This is a competitive era and all parties are wooing new voters and the youth,” he said. “If the booths are empowered, pro-active and pro-people, it will appeal to the youth. It is the committed booth worker who needs to be valued to strengthen the party as he is also the voice of the people, the voters.”</p> <p>The exodus of Congress leaders has meant losing experienced hands who wield immense political clout in their constituencies. Moreover, the exit of a leader also translates to losing his supporters—grassroots workers for the party. So, bringing back at least some of the turncoats is also part of the expansion plans. However, a committee has been set up to decide on who gets to join.</p> <p>Any leader hoping to return to the party or new entrants who wish to join it will have to go through the screening committee, headed by MLC and former KPCC president Allam Veerabhadrappa. This panel will consult the block level and district level units to avoid infighting and groupism. “The party will not impose a leader on the cadre, but arrive at a consensus to induct a leader into its fold,” says Sudarshan.</p> <p>The mantra under the new leadership is “perform or perish”. Insiders hinted that the revamping of the state and district units would see new faces, too. All 68 Congress MLAs in the 224-member assembly would be held responsible for strengthening the booth level committees in their constituencies. MLCs will handle two constituencies, and anyone aspiring for a party post should have booth-level experience.</p> <p>Karnataka has seen the majority community lean right in recent years. Though the Congress managed to hold on to a lot of the Ahinda (Kannada term for minorities, dalits and backward classes) votes, the BJP split the votes of the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes and added it to a Hindu vote bank. Chief Minister B.S. Yediyurappa has the support of the Lingayats, who hold sway in over 100 northern constituencies.</p> <p>In the Old Mysuru region, the politically influential Vokkaliga community continues to patronise the JD(S), though Shivakumar, too, belongs to the same community. But,</p> <p>Shivakumar said that he never believed in communal or caste-based politics. “The broad-basing of the party will happen by grooming local leadership and by creating equal opportunities for all,” he said.</p> <p>The Congress will plan its expansion without sacrificing its inclusive ideologies, said Sudarshan. Soon after the swearing-in, Shivakumar plans to tour the state to “listen” to the people suffering because of Covid-19. “The party will ensure that people get what has been promised to them by the Yediyurappa government,” he said.&nbsp;</p> Thu Jun 18 17:02:55 IST 2020 modi-government-has-no-eyes-ears-or-heart <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The Congress in Karnataka has a new captain—troubleshooter D.K. Shivakumar. He has taken charge as the KPCC chief at a time when the party is facing an identity crisis. Mass defections, constant drubbings at the elections and a strong political opponent in the ruling BJP have lead to bitter factional feuds among the leaders while demoralising the cadres. But Shivakumar has a blueprint for the party’s revival and is placing his faith on the committed party workers to breathe life and vigour into the party.</p> <p><br> In an exclusive interview with THE WEEK, Karnataka Congress president D.K. Shivakumar shares his plan to strengthen the party in time for the 2023 assembly elections and talks about the response of the Centre and the state government to Covid-19. Excerpts:</p> <p><br> <b>What is top on the agenda to revive the party?</b></p> <p><br> My first agenda is to convert Karnataka Congress from a mass-based party to a cadre-based party. We will transform into a party that values the party worker and involves him in every decision as he is the voice of the common man. The voice of the party worker should be the voice of the party, too. I do not want to impose my ideas and decisions as I want people to hear the voice of the ordinary party worker.&nbsp;</p> <p><br> <b>The Congress's organisational structure at booth-level has weakened. How will a cadre-based party shape up?</b></p> <p><br> I believe there already is a structure and presence of our workers in every booth. But we need to connect to them. We are working on identifying and grooming the local workers into leaders. There is a disconnect and that is the reason why Rahul Gandhi called for a programme—“Shakti”—to connect every party worker to the leadership.</p> <p><br> <b>What changes do you expect to make at the grassroots?</b></p> <p><br> Today, we need to reach out to every voter.&nbsp; We no longer have the luxury of communicating only to the head of the family and be rest assured that all the family members would support us. Now, each member of a family thinks individually. The father has an opinion,&nbsp; which is not shared by his son. We want to decentralise the system.&nbsp;&nbsp;</p> <p><br> <b>How will you reach out to every voter and impress them, as every political party is wooing the common man?</b></p> <p><br> The Congress has been a mass-based party appealing to all sections of the society. Our party was built based on a movement (the freedom struggle), but today, the messaging and the communication channels have undergone a sea change. While the ideology of the Congress will not change, its approach will be technology-driven. There are multiple platforms on mainstream and social media.&nbsp; We need to create a system at the booth-level and groom leaders who will reach out to the voters.</p> <p><br> <b>You have said winning every booth is the key to electoral success. Can you explain?</b></p> <p><br> I am a party worker first and then the KPCC president. A booth-level worker is the key person for any party. In Kerala, we have a good model. The booth worker is the man who stands for the party and gets us the votes. The party should respect the booth-level worker.&nbsp; Anyone who aspires to be an office-bearer, the block president or youth Congress president, should have worked to strengthen his booth first. This will strengthen the organisation structure at the grassroot level.</p> <p><br> <b>How do you plan to fill the vacuum left by senior leaders who left the party?</b></p> <p><br> Besides the leaders, I want their supporters also to return. We have constituted a screening committee to examine requests from leaders inclined to join the Congress. The panel's recommendation will be based on the feedback it gets from the local leaders and party workers.</p> <p><br> <b>Why do you need a screening committee if the idea is to expand the party?</b></p> <p><br> Many leaders from other political parties want to join the Congress. The committee will consult the respective district and block-level committees and local leaders, before admitting the ‘migrant’ leader. A new entrant into the party should gel with the local leaders and party workers. Last time, when some JD(S) leaders joined the Congress, our cadres were upset and they shifted their loyalties to the JD(S). It was the JD(S) cadres, who came to the Congress along with their leaders, who supported our party. We lost some seats by a margin of 50,000 votes. We don't want to disrespect our cadres by imposing our decision on them.&nbsp; Any decision taken by the party should have the consensus of the party workers, too.</p> <p><br> <b>How do you rate the Covid-19 response of the Centre and the state government?</b></p> <p><br> The Modi and the Yeddiyurapa governments have no eyes, ears or hearts. It is clear from their Covid-19 response. The Centre announced a Rs20 lakh crore package and the state government announced a Rs 1,680 crore package. But are benefits reaching the people? The food kits given during the crisis was part of the common minimum programme started by the UPA. We saw the food kits meant for migrants being distributed among the BJP supporters and voters. They put photos of BJP leaders on the packets. If the migrants had got food kits and money, they would have stayed back in Karnataka. The Congress extended all support to the ruling party during the Covid-19 crisis. But we were assertive and aggressive when we realised the people were suffering.</p> <p><br> <b>During the migrants crisis, the Congress was accused of playing politics as it staged a dharna and offered to pay the bus fare for migrants. Comments.</b></p> <p><br> The Congress party is worried about the migrant workers as they are the sole breadwinners of their families. It is a fact that though they stay away from their homes, they have the power to influence their people back home. They tell their people who to vote for, or which party is good or bad. The IT guy, the government employee, the rich man, the poor man, each has a single vote. So, everyone is equal. We must listen and respond to every individual voice.</p> <p><br> <b>How will you ensure that the people get what is promised in the packages?</b></p> <p><br> They have put in many rules and regulations in place to claim the benefits. This is not practical. The government wants to discourage people from availing the benefits. The barber or the washerman needs to access an app and fill in his information to avail the benefit. Is it not a joke? There are better ways to do it. The village officers can get the details and photograph of everyone eligible for benefits with just a mobile phone, and disburse the benefit (money) on the spot. You can authorise the tehsildar to sign the cheque. We want to ensure that the packages do not remain as announcements.</p> Thu Jun 18 17:25:48 IST 2020 care-and-chaos <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>Aarthi Ravikumar </b>(name changed), 46, a staff nurse at the Tamil Nadu Government Multi Super Speciality Hospital, Omandurar Estate, Chennai, is physically and mentally tired. She is currently on a seven-day home quarantine, after having nursed Covid-19 patients for a fortnight. She had become used to seeing at least four deaths a day at the designated Covid-19 facility. “It is a horrible experience,” she said. But Aarthi consoles herself saying that she could save a Covid-19 patient with diabetes, with her timely intervention.</p> <p>Nursing has become an ordeal these days. “Taking care of patients has always been my love. But my experience in these three months was terrible,” she said. The Omandurar Estate hospital, where she works, has two towers and 14 floors with more than 400 beds for Covid-19 patients. The hospital is one of the biggest government facilities in the state for Covid-19 patients.</p> <p>Tamil Nadu has more than 46,000 Covid-19 cases; 73 per cent of them are from Chennai and majority are active. As per data available from the Greater Chennai Corporation, 15,385 people in Chennai are still under treatment for Covid-19, and at least 5,000 of them are in home care (as on June 15).</p> <p>“The numbers strike a fear,” said Parthasarathy Ranganathan, 56, a resident of West Mambalam in Chennai. “Recently, more than 50 shops in my locality were closed. My neighbour said that a shop owner tested positive for Covid-19. I used to shop from most of the shops which have been closed. I feel no precaution can save Chennai anymore.”</p> <p>On June 15, the state government announced that Chennai and the neighbouring districts of Tiruvallur, Kancheepuram and Chengalpattu will have an intense lockdown from June 19.</p> <p>Apparently, it was only on June 12 that Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami had said that the government had no intention to declare an intense lockdown.</p> <p>The upcoming lockdown will be for 12 days— including two Sundays, without relaxations. Sources in the Chennai Corporation and the state health department said that during this lockdown, there will be a coordinated effort to collect data of the infected people and to intensify contact tracing. But the 12-day lockdown might not be sufficient to bring down the numbers, say experts. In fact, the medical expert committee wanted a stricter quarantine and increased monitoring and testing in containment zones, instead of a lockdown.</p> <p>“What can a lockdown achieve when the past five lockdowns have not yielded results as expected?” asked infectious disease expert Dr Subramanian Swaminathan. “For disrupting transmission [of virus] we need at least three weeks, and these 12 days will not be of any help. It does not make any epidemiological sense.”</p> <p>Apparently, members of the medical expert committee also said that bringing Chennai under control within a 12-day period is “impossible”. They also pointed out that even if the numbers are brought down as of now, the city might witness a second wave like in China. “The only way out is to encourage hand hygiene and social distancing,” said Dr J. Amalorpavanathan, former director at the Institute of Vascular Surgery, Madras Medical College. He feels that the previous lockdowns did not yield the expected results as the government failed to ramp-up testing.</p> <p>A study by the Tamil Nadu Dr MGR Medical University in May predicted that the spread and the death rate in the state will see a new peak by July: With loosened lockdown, at least 1,50,244 cases and 1,654 deaths (by July 15); without lockdown, cases up to 2,10,197. The study also predicts a bigger peak in September-October.</p> <p>“The infectivity rate in Chennai is high,” said Dr S. Poongulali, senior consultant at Voluntary Health Services, Infectious Diseases Medical Centre. “Out of 18,000 people tested daily, at least 2,000 people test positive, which means close to 11 per cent of the cases are positive. Lockdown will not help without increased testing rate and contact tracing. Lockdown cannot be a strategy by itself.”</p> <p>Dr Jayaprakash Muliyil, former principal at the Christian Medical College, Vellore, however, feels that Chennai is slowly coming out of the epidemic. “Piece by piece, each cluster is coming to an end, and each containment zone has got herd immunity,” he said.</p> <p>There is a general notion that the Koyambedu cluster was responsible for the spread of the virus in Chennai. But experts question the source for Covid 19 clusters in the police department, government hospitals and Puzhal Central Prison, and a cluster at Kannagi Nagar slum area.</p> <p>The high exposure of doctors and nurses at the government hospitals could also not be controlled due to the shortage in man power. According to Aarthi, many staff nurses at the Rajiv Gandhi Government General Hospital (RGGGH) and Omandurar Estate hospital, who had tested positive for Covid-19, have underwent treatment and returned to work. Incidentally, Thanga Lakshmi one of the staff nurses at RGGGH, who had a second exposure, died on June 14.</p> <p>At Omandurar Estate hospital, 140 nurses work in two batches. At a time, one batch will be in quarantine, while the other batch (split into three groups of 23-24 personnel) works in three shifts. “Just 23 people for 400 patients. Imagine the burden on us,” said Aarthi.</p> <p>Meanwhile, the government has greenlit a controversial step to increase the man power. On June 14, an advertisement in a Tamil daily said a private firm named Gentleman HR Recruiting Agency is recruiting for the posts of ward boys, lab technicians, radiologists and dialysis experts at the government hospitals. The permission given to the agency for the recruitment was apparently cancelled by the government on June 17, following criticism from the media and the opposition. “The government is working round the clock to serve the people. We are very transparent in handling the pandemic,” said Health Minister Dr C. Vijayabaskar.&nbsp; </p> Tue Jun 23 21:39:55 IST 2020 team-of-turncoats <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>AFTER HE WAS REAPPOINTED</b> as president of the BJP’s West Bengal unit in January this year, Dilip Ghosh had a closed-door meeting with Union Home Minister Amit Shah, who was the party’s national president then. Ghosh told Shah that he needed to pick his own team to improve the party’s prospects in the state before the assembly polls in 2021.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Shah sought a wish list. Ghosh sent one, but it was so startling that a party general secretary in Delhi called him and requested a meeting when he came to Delhi for the budget session of Parliament later that month. Ghosh is the MP from Medinipur.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In the meeting, the secretary told Ghosh that the shake-up he proposed was so drastic that the national leadership would struggle to contain resentment in the party. Ghosh said if the BJP wanted to win Bengal, it should have leaders “who were connected to the ground” (trinamool, in Bengali).</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The secretary said the list would have to wait, as Shah was preparing to pass the mantle of party president to working president J.P. Nadda. Once Nadda took charge, in late January, he began assessing Ghosh’s plan. Nadda spoke to Kailash Vijayvargiva, Shiv Prakash and Arvind Menon (all general secretaries in charge of Bengal) and Mukul Roy, who had quit the ruling Trinamool Congress to join the BJP in 2017.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Three months later, Ghosh was given the green light. He was asked to constitute a state committee that had Trinamool defectors in key positions and fewer RSS emissaries. Several leaders who had won the Lok Sabha elections last year were brought in, and “non-performers” shown the door.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Among the non-performers were party vice president and Subhas Chandra Bose’s grandnephew Chandra Bose; Rajya Sabha members Roopa Ganguly and George Baker, who was also the BJP’s Anglo-Indian face; RSS ideologue Shamik Bhattacharya; and firebrand leader Badsha Alam, who allegedly attacked Mamata Banerjee in the 1990s, when he was in the CPI(M).</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Ghosh appointed former Trinamool MP Saumitra Khan as president of the BJP’s Yuva Morcha, replacing RSS nominee Debjit Sarkar. Khan had quit the Trinamool two years ago. He was charged with murder and barred from entering Bishnupur after the BJP fielded him for the Lok Sabha seat.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Khan campaigned over the phone, while his wife, Sujata, and partymen hit the trail. He ended up scoring a surprise victory. As head of the Yuva Morcha, he is expected to replicate the key role the youth wing played in helping the BJP come to power in Tripura, Assam and Manipur.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The party’s Scheduled Caste Morcha, too, is now headed by a former dalit leader of Trinamool—Dulal Bar, who represents Bagdah in the assembly. Khagen Murmu, a former left leader who represents Malda North in the Lok Sabha, has been named head of the BJP’s Scheduled Tribe Morcha.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Fashion designer Agnimitra Paul, who had joined the BJP last year, has been named chief of the party’s women wing. She replaced Locket Chatterjee, MP, former actor who has long been a vocal critic of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Chatterjee is now one of the five general secretaries of the BJP’s state unit. The others include Jyotirmoy Mahato, who had won from Purulia last year; Sabyasachi Dutta, once a close confidant of Mamata; and Sayantan Basu, who had lost to Nusrat Jahan of the Trinamool last year but polarised the Muslim-majority Basirhat.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>There are three new vice presidents: Arjun Singh, Barackpore MP and former Trinamool leader; Bharati Ghosh, who was key IPS officer under Mamata; and Mafuja Khatun, former CPI(M) leader who gave a tough fight to the victorious Trinamool candidate in Jangipur and polled more votes than Abhijit Mukherjee, incumbent MP and former president Pranab Mukherjee’s son. Jangipur is a Muslim-dominated seat where the BJP had no hopes.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Ghosh said the new state committee was composed of active and capable leaders. “We all wanted performers who would act as an election team,” he said. “Our central leadership told us not to include people who were not active.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Though the team is led by Ghosh, most new appointees are Mukul Roy’s followers. By increasing Roy’s clout, the BJP seems to be following its successful strategy in the northeast. It was Congress defector Himanta Biswa Sarma who helped the party’s rise to power in Assam and other northeastern states.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Arvind Menon said the BJP would fight the assembly polls next year under the new team. “The party sat down and made the best choice,” he told THE WEEK. “This is the best team available and it will click next year.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>An RSS hand, Menon had helped the BJP win seven of eight seats in north Bengal after he was put in charge of the region. He said Mamata’s popularity was at an all-time low because of her inept handling of Covid-19 and cyclone crises. But he praised the efforts of the CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front government in his home state, Kerala.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“We are politically very much against the communists, who are ruling Kerala,” said Menon. “But we have no complaint against them as far as the Covid-19 handling is concerned. Rajasthan (which is ruled by the Congress) also did well by having a coordinated plan with the Union government. But in Bengal, the state government did not even think of poor people and played dirty politics.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>He said the BJP would tell voters about the Trinamool government’s “lackadaisical attitude” in tackling the pandemic in the state. “What is the point of hiding numbers? Why did she not welcome migrant labourers [returning to the state]? Why did people die at home without getting treatment? Shouldn’t we tell all this to the people?” asked Menon.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The BJP’s major worry is its poor presence in parts of south Bengal. In Howrah, South 24 Parganas, East Midnapore and Kolkata districts, the BJP had drawn a blank in the Lok Sabha polls. “This region is a major headache for us,” said vice president Biswapriya Roy Chowdhury. “But the situation has improved a lot. In one year, we will overcome the hurdles in this region.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Chandra Bose’s removal from the state committee could cost the BJP dear. If Bose is forced to become a BJP rebel, Mamata could project it as a slight to his illustrious family. Trinamool has had two MPs from the family—Krishna Bose, wife of Subhas Bose’s nephew Sisir Bose; and her son, historian Sugato Bose. A distant member of the family, Amit Mitra, is Mamata’s finance minister.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Menon said Chandra Bose would be “accommodated” elsewhere. “I have spoken to him,” he said. “His advice and active participation would help the party. One must understand that not everyone can be made vice president or general secretary.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>With Covid-19 having restricted political activities in the state, experts say the BJP is more affected than the ruling party. In the Lok Sabha elections last year, there was a 6 per cent difference in the vote shares of the Trinamool and the BJP. When the pandemic struck, the BJP had been taking measures to bridge the gap well before the assembly polls.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Menon, however, said Covid-19 had only made Mamata more unpopular. In April, she roped in poll strategist Prashant Kishor to help manage her image in the run-up to the polls. “Mark my words: The worst of this would be the advice she will get from Kishor,” said Menon. “It will boomerang on her, as her own partymen would get angry and join us.”</p> Fri Jun 12 15:10:59 IST 2020 will-meet-the-prime-minister-to-know-whether-I-am-needed <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>Q/You were dropped as BJP vice president in West Bengal.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/I am not at all sad about it. There was no job for me as a vice president. But what made me upset was no one from Delhi called me to inform about it. Today, I am thinking of 2016, when I used to get a series of calls from the central leadership for joining the party and fighting elections.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/Were you reluctant to join the BJP?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/I was, in fact, not ready, and my family told me such ideology will not fit with the legacy of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/But you went against the family guidance?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/Yes, that is only because of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He loves and respects our family.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/Did you expect a call from him before being ousted?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/No. He is very busy. I expected a call from someone in the leadership. I am going to meet the prime minister, to know whether I am needed or not. If not, then I will have the liberty to decide my future course of action.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/Any plans to join the Trinamool Congress?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/I am still with the BJP, and would remain so as long as the prime minister wishes. If he does not, then I would support anybody who has Netaji’s inclusive ideology.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/The state leadership says you did not perform well.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/To perform, one needs to be tested. I was given the most difficult seats, which were either against [Chief Minister] Mamata Banerjee or to fight Lok Sabha election in her own constituency. I tried my best. You cannot win an election against Mamata Banerjee without organisation [machinery]. The BJP has no organisation in Kolkata.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/You were vocal against the Citizenship Amendment Act and mob lynching.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/Yes, I was. Our family could not accept such a legislation. But I feel that was not the only reason [for the ousting].</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/What else?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/When then party president Amit Shah came and invited me to the BJP personally, I realised that BJP has a dearth of intellectuals in Kolkata. I proposed to him that I would like to open a morcha in the BJP named Azad Hind to propagate Netaji’s ideology. He said he would consider. But after some months, when I reminded him, he told me I should take charge of one of the existing morchas in the party.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/You then turned disillusioned.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/Yes. My family said I committed a blunder by joining the BJP. They said I should have known that the BJP’s way of winning elections is through polarisation.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/You also believed the same?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/Not really, because I had full faith in prime minister. But somewhere down the line, I felt my family members have a point.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/State leaders say they cannot include any person just because he hails from a famous family.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/I never played up my family background. I only played up my family ideology of nationalism, secularism and inclusiveness.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/Do you feel the current state committee can win the elections in 2021?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/I cannot say. But I have lot of respect for some of the people who have been taken.</p> Fri Jun 12 15:04:58 IST 2020 gentle-touch-to-lonely-giants <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>AMMU, 17,</b> is prim and proper. Covid or not, she performs the handwashing ritual every time she is offered water. And, she drinks only freshly drawn water from wells. She is one of the inmates at the Kottoor Elephant Rehabilitation Centre in Thiruvananthapuram district, the first such facility in India.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>One of her companions, Soman, 82, is the oldest elephant in the country. Though healthy for his age, Soman gets extra care in the time of coronavirus.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The youngest elephant here, Sreekutty, is barely six months old. She is on a diet of baby food, glucose, ragi, jaggery and rice, and will start on cow’s milk after two months. She was found abandoned near a riverbank as a 15-day-old calf and was kept in observation for a few days. When no one came looking for her, the rehabilitation centre adopted her.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The she-elephant Poorna, who is eight years old, looks after Sreekutty with almost motherly affection, and teaches her how to eat and drink by herself and how to splash water on her body while bathing. Poorna also fans away the flies with her ears and wards off other unwanted things that come near Sreekutty. A four-year-old elephant, Kannan, tags along with Poorna and never leaves her side.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Like everyone else, the elephants at the rehabilitation centre, too, are under lockdown. “Though elephants are said to be least prone to Covid owing to the absence of certain receptors, we did not want to take any risk,” said Dr E.K. Easwaran, a key figure behind the Kottoor centre who recently retired as the chief veterinary officer of the Kerala forest department. “We followed all the Covid protocols and gave the mahouts special instructions.” As with humans, the little ones and the elderly here get special attention.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“We declared lockdown long before the rest of the country went into one,” said range officer N.V. Satheeshan. “We stopped having visitors and our mahouts have not stepped out of the centre for the last three months.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The centre, set up in 2005, got a facelift last year and is now home to 18 abandoned and rescued elephants. Spread over 56 hectares in the Agasthyavanam Biological Park Range, it also has a mahout training centre.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“Like Sreekutty, most of the elephants were found abandoned in the forests at a very young age,” said Easwaran. “We still do not know the exact reason for the abandonment.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Most of the foundlings had some physical deformity. Sreekutty, for instance, has a slight bend on her foot. Perhaps she could not keep pace with the herd and was left behind. Sometimes a calf would refuse to leave her dead mother’s side and the herd would pass on. Some calves fall in rapid rivers during the rains and are carried away by the currents.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Some elephants at the Kottoor centre were tamed elephants whom their owners had deserted in sickness. A few others were rescued from their cruel owners. Three of the elephants here have gone to Wayanad district to be trained as kungki elephants that assist in rescuing or giving medical treatment to injured or trapped wild elephants. Of the remaining 15 elephants, 11 are female.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Sreekutty is yet to meet any outsiders. Two mahouts take care of her 24/7, and they say she is too young to be exposed to the outside world.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“Most of our mahouts are tribals and they follow here every custom that they observe for their own children. We don’t interfere with those practices as they are like mothers to the young ones,” said Satheeshan. If the mahout is not within sight, Sreekutty panics; such is their bonding, he said.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The elephants take bath twice a day in the nearby river. The bath in the morning is elaborate but in the evening it is quick. After breakfast, the elephants are allowed to roam around in groups. But not all are friendly and caring like Poorna or Sunitha, 47, the oldest female here. Raja is “haughty”, said Satheeshan. “He does not like to be touched or caressed.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Kerala has 521 captive elephants, according to a 2018 survey. While most of them are with temples, a few are owned by individuals. The state government has allocated funds for elephant care during the lockdown as many owners had found it difficult to meet the huge expense.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Though the lockdown is being lifted, the Kottoor centre is not going to open anytime soon. “Our topmost priority is the health of the elephants,” said Satheeshan. “So we will be the last to open.”</p> Fri Jun 12 12:02:35 IST 2020 recovery-rate-in-gujarat-is-higher-than-the-national-average <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>A lot seems to be wrong with Gujarat’s fight against Covid-19. Cases continue to multiply, with more than 17,000 infections and 1,000 deaths. There are complaints of negligence at the Ahmedabad Civil Hospital, one of the largest Covid-19 hospitals in Asia, while the row over the alleged poor quality of Dhaman-1 ventilators, developed by a Rajkot-based company, rages on. Even the expertise of Dr Randeep Guleria, the All India Institute of Medical Sciences director who was flown in a special Air Force plane last month, does not seem to have had an effect.</p> <p>Chief Minister Vijay Rupani has his back to the wall. In an exclusive interview with THE WEEK, he talked about the challenges faced by his government and how he plans to tackle them.</p> <p>Excerpts:</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/How has your government tackled the Covid-19 crisis?</b></p> <p>A/Before the first case was reported on March 19, we had screened and quarantined over 20,000 international passengers. A core team was formed and we announced dedicated Covid-19 hospitals in four megacities with a total capacity of 2,200 beds.</p> <p>As an added measure, we set up Covid-19 hospitals in all districts with a minimum capacity of 100 beds. Gujarat is the first state in the country to set up such dedicated hospitals. We have also collaborated with 31 private hospitals to treat patients. We run 3,500 tests per day; we have tested more than 2.16 lakh people.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/Gujarat is one of the top three states in cases and deaths.</b></p> <p>A/In Gujarat, a large number of cases [were because of] people who entered the state after attending the Tablighi Jamaat markaz in Delhi. This was a challenge for us, as these people not only hid their travel history but also met a large number of people after returning to Gujarat. A large part of those who returned are in the 600-year-old walled city of Ahmedabad, a densely populated area. In Ahmedabad, 75 per cent of cases have originated from 25 per cent of this area.</p> <p>The recovery rate in Gujarat is above 45 per cent, which is higher than the national average. It does not matter whether Gujarat is at number three or four. What matters is the strategy adopted by the government to control the spread.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/In Tamil Nadu, which has more cases than Gujarat, the death toll is less than 200. In Gujarat, it is more than 1,000. How do you explain this high number of deaths—especially in Ahmedabad?</b></p> <p>A/The recovery rate in Gujarat stands at 48.13 per cent, which is higher than the national average. (Around 10,000 patients have recovered, and about 5,800 are being treated now.)</p> <p>I agree, Ahmedabad has a high mortality rate. But our analysis has revealed that a large number of Covid-19 patients who lost their lives were people aged 60 or above, with co-morbid conditions like blood pressure, hypertension and heart ailments. We also found that a major share of patients were already critical when they were admitted.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/Do we have an adequate number of beds in Gujarat?</b></p> <p>A/Gujarat has three types of Covid-19 facilities—dedicated hospitals, health centres and care centres. Currently, the state has 133 dedicated hospitals with more than 12,000 beds; there are 2,200 ICU beds and 1,200 ventilators. Additionally, we have 68 dedicated health centres with 4,700 beds and 125 ICU beds.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/There are allegations that doctors and paramedics are not being tested, despite many of them showing symptoms.</b></p> <p>A/We are following the testing guidelines and protocols prescribed by the Indian Council of Medical Research. Doctors and other medical staff involved in treating Covid-19 patients are provided with all necessary safety apparatus. We have created separate lodging facilities for doctors, nurses and other medical staff who come in contact with patients. In case any of them show symptoms, a complete checkup is conducted, which includes testing, quarantine and treatment.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/But why is there a shortage of safety equipment?</b></p> <p>A/The state government has sufficient stock. We have also engaged additional manufacturers to increase production capacity. The administration has enough PPE (personal protective equipment) kits for not just government medical staff, but also doctors and medical staff at private clinics and hospitals.</p> <p><b>Q/We knew that Dhaman-1 was not efficient. Why did we wait until a few days ago to ask for quality ventilators?</b></p> <p>A/We were in talks to produce PPE kits, masks and ventilators in Gujarat. The idea was to get ventilators manufactured immediately, using expertise available within the state. A Rajkot-based firm took up the challenge. They successfully developed a ventilator, and we named it Dhaman-1. The first model is efficient in supplying oxygen; ideal for patients who require a steady supply of oxygen. Dhaman-3, an advanced version, is now ready to be used for treating critical cases. We have 67 patients on ventilator in Gujarat at the moment. We have sufficient high-end ventilators and we are upgrading others in a phased manner.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/The Puducherry government has cancelled its order for Dhaman-1. Is Gujarat going to continue using it?</b></p> <p>A/The Puducherry government had ordered Dhaman-1 from the Rajkot-based company. However, after the Congress politicised the matter, Puducherry cancelled the orders. It has been done to further the agenda of the Congress, which rules the Union territory.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/Spitting in public is a major reason for the spread of Covid-19. Was it advisable to let paan masala and gutkha shops reopen?</b></p> <p>A/There are a large number of people earning their livelihoods through these small shops. So a decision was taken to reopen such shops in a phased manner. We have ensured that they are open only for takeaways.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/Migrant labourers have gone back to their states. As industries reopen, will there be a shortfall in manpower?</b></p> <p>A/A large number of migrant labourers wanted to go home to meet their families. It was an emotional need for them. We understood their concerns and facilitated their journeys by arranging Shramik trains. Gujarat has sent the maximum number of migrants—more than 14.25 lakh—back home through 966 Shramik trains. That is, we have operated one-third of the total trains in India.</p> <p>There are around 3.25 lakh industrial units that have resumed operations with 27 lakh workers. As of today, industrial electricity consumption in Gujarat has reached 85 per cent of its full consumption capacity of 7,500MW. I am hopeful that, as the situation improves, the migrant labourers will come back and resume work.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/What is the action plan to bring Gujarat back on track in six months?</b></p> <p>A/A special economic revival committee headed by Hasmukh Adhia has been formed. The committee will submit a comprehensive action plan with necessary inputs within a month. An interim report will be submitted in two weeks. The committee will assess sectoral and sub-sectoral losses and provide necessary measures for revival.</p> <p>The committee will also review the fiscal and budgetary position of Gujarat and provide suitable suggestions for improvement. This will include revising fiscal deficit estimates and the current tax administration. It will also analyse labour availability and provide recommendations to improve it. It will devise a strategy to create an ambient environment to attract foreign companies looking to relocate their base from other countries.</p> <p>We have also introduced the Aatmanirbhar Gujarat Sahay Yojana, wherein we provide a loan of up to Rs1 lakh to small traders and self-employed people at a nominal interest rate of 2 per cent. The remaining 6 per cent interest for it will be borne by the state government.</p> <p>In addition to that, a core committee for Covid-19 conducts regular meetings to assess the situation across Gujarat. I am hopeful that such measures will gradually put Gujarat on the path of fast-paced development in a post-Covid world.&nbsp;</p> Thu Jun 04 18:14:27 IST 2020 model-of-mishandling <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Devram Bhisikar, 70, died of Covid-19 on May 29, a day after he was admitted to the Ahmedabad Civil Hospital. His grieving family collected his body, wrapped from head to toe in opaque plastic sheets, and headed to a nearby crematorium. They did not have a last look at him because of the fear of the virus.</p> <p>The morning after the funeral, the family received a call from the hospital. They were told that Bhisikar had tested negative for Covid-19 and that he was being shifted to a general ward. Shocked and confused, two relatives rushed to the hospital, only to be informed that the call was a mistake and that the body they had cremated was indeed Bhisikar’s. They returned home crestfallen. But in the afternoon, they received another call. Bhisikar was in recovery, apparently. Their hopes were rekindled, but once again cruelly dashed. It was finally confirmed that Bhisikar was dead, and that the goof-up happened because of a miscommunication among hospital staff.</p> <p>Gujarat’s battle against Covid-19, too, seems to have become a tragedy of errors. Gone are the rosy stories of the initial days of the fight, when there were viral videos of patients praising the quality of medical care at the Ahmedabad Civil Hospital, and the state government regularly briefed the media on the measures being taken to contain the outbreak.</p> <p>Things went south in barely a month. The briefings stopped and stories of apathy and mismanagement at the Civil Hospital began doing the rounds. There are more than 5,300 active cases in Gujarat now—4,000 of them in Ahmedabad. Nearly 1,100 people have died, with Ahmedabad accounting for 80 per cent of the toll.</p> <p>The pandemic has exposed the failings of the BJP’s model state, which Narendra Modi had run for 14 years before he became prime minister. As the number of cases soar, the government appears clueless about how to restore normalcy. Businesses have been allowed to reopen, except those in containment zones, but there seems to be no detailed, longterm roadmap for recovery.</p> <p>The only silver lining, one that is highlighted by the state government, is the rate of recovery from Covid-19 in the state, which is higher than the national average. But then, questions are being asked about whether the rate shows the real picture. Recently, a patient collapsed and died hours after he was discharged from the Civil Hospital; the apparent cause of death was lung failure.</p> <p>The government’s response to the outbreak has been error-prone. Poor coordination, a flawed testing strategy, lack of quality care, overburdening of junior doctors, late reporting of infections and patients with co-morbid conditions have made matters worse. The situation is so grim that the Gujarat High Court recently flayed the government for its inept response. Apart from taking up a batch of public interest petitions, the court is also looking into an anonymous letter from a doctor at the Civil Hospital, detailing the systemic problems affecting treatment.</p> <p>More than 200 doctors in the state have contracted Covid-19. The Civil Hospital recently lost its head nurse. She had fever for days apparently, but was given proper attention only after she developed breathlessness.</p> <p>The failure to scale up tests and the violation of social distancing rules have accelerated the spread of the virus, especially in cities. Carriers from urban areas have been spreading the disease in small towns and villages across Gujarat. Even people in power have been lax in taking precautions. Ahmedabad Mayor Bijal Patel has made public appearances and given interviews without wearing a mask.</p> <p>Dr Hariprasad Iyer of Ahmedabad, who is on Covid-19 duty, said people became overconfident and broke social distancing rules. “People are educated, but not disciplined enough,” he said. “Prevention is better than the cure. See the example of Kerala, Karnataka and Assam. In these states, primary health care facilities are also good.”</p> <p>Gujarat spends very little on health care. This year, it allocated 011,243 crore for health and family welfare, which is just 5 per cent of the total outlay. “As per the National Health Policy of 2017, the health budget should be 8 per cent of the state budget,” said Prof Hemant Shah of H.K. Arts College in Ahmedabad.</p> <p>Himani Baxi, assistant professor of economics and public policy at Ahmedabad University, said decentralisation was an issue. “Health care is primarily the responsibility of urban bodies,” she said. “Over the years, the state government kept certain financial powers with it and did not let the urban bodies grow.” This, she pointed out, is completely different from the Kerala model, which empowers civic bodies.</p> <p>The prevalence of co-morbid conditions among patients is also a challenge. Jayanti Ravi, principal secretary at the health ministry, told THE WEEK that 84 per cent of patients who died of Covid-19 had co-morbid conditions. “In Gujarat, the mortality rate of seasonal flu has also been high. Probably, this is the same in Covid-19 as well,” she said.</p> <p>One reason for the high mortality rate, say experts, could be that most patients have contracted the L strain of the virus, which is more virulent and aggressive. “People from Europe and the US landed in western and northern India,” said Dr Parthiv Mehta, an Ahmedabad-based pulmonologist. “Looking at the graph of progression, the virus seems to be following the trajectories in Italy and the US. In Kerala, people mainly landed from Gulf countries, where the strain was less potent.”&nbsp;</p> Thu Jun 04 18:11:17 IST 2020 enough-is-not-enough <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>On May 31, the last day of lockdown 4.0, as the Tamil Nadu government issued orders for phased unlocking, 1,149 fresh cases and 13 deaths were reported in 24 hours. The daily count had touched a four-digit number for the first time. The 804 fresh cases from Chennai continued to worry medical professionals. But with the increased testing, high recovery rate and low mortality, the government indicated that all was well in Tamil Nadu.</p> <p>“There is nothing to panic,”said J. Radhakrishnan, special nodal officer for Chennai corporation, appointed to coordinate Covid-19 efforts. “The situation is completely under control.” He emphasised that the spike in cases was because of increase in testing. But the situation is contrary to what Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami predicted, on April 17, when he said that “the number will come down to zero” within three days, and called it a “disease of the rich”. Tamil Nadu now has over 23,000 cases, of which over 10,000 are active. The government might deny it but epidemiologists say there is “widespread community spread” in parts of Chennai.</p> <p>“What we are seeing now is that the cases are increasing at a linear pace. We might not see a declining trend as in Italy or China, in the next few weeks,” said Dr Shanthi Ravindranath, a senior gynaecologist and secretary of Doctors Association for Social Equality. In the last two weeks, people tweeted about the poor levels of testing. Their posts suggested that only one person per family was being tested, even if the others had symptoms. For instance, a 58-year-old woman in Royapuram, one of the most affected areas in Chennai, died just a day after she developed symptoms. While her son, who had tested positive, was shifted to the government hospital in Omandurar, she was turned away from the testing centre.</p> <p>The government maintains that the health department is doing more tests than other states (11,300 on an average per day), but experts feel it is not enough. “There is no point in [arguing] about the presence of community transmission,” said Dr J. Amalorpavanathan, former director, Institute of Vascular Surgery, Madras Medical College. “The focus now should be on testing asymptomatic patients, tracking their contacts and isolating and treating them. The government has to focus on increasing the testing inside the containment zones.”He says the very purpose of introducing more testing centres in the state in May has not been served.</p> <p>“The virus will take its own course,” said Dr Jayaprakash Muliyil, epidemiologist and former principal of CMC, Vellore. “At the moment, there is community transmission. I don’t think the government has to feel embarrassed about it. This is not their failure, because this is the nature of the disease and this is how an epidemic grows.”</p> <p>On March 7, when Chennai detected its first Covid-19 case, the chief minister and his colleagues maintained that only children and the elderly were vulnerable, and the infection would not spread. Three days after Palaniswami said that the number would come down to zero, the number of cases per day was in three digits. And since May 3, the number has exceeded 500.</p> <p>“This was the result of an unplanned lockdown,” said Ravindranath. “The chief minister calling for a strict lockdown within a lockdown led to the Koyambedu cluster and then came the increase in numbers.” The state first blamed the people who returned from the Tablighi Jamaat event in Delhi for the rise in cases, then the Koyambedu cluster. Then, on May 20, the health department’s bulletin pointed fingers at those coming from other states.</p> <p>The government also kept changing its stance on announcements. TASMAC liquor stores were reopened on May 6 but closed the next day as social distancing was not followed. Later, Kamal Haasan’s Makkal Needhi Maiam went to the Madras High Court, which then ordered for closure of the shops. The state government appealed to the Supreme Court and the shops were opened again, except in Chennai. Another major incident was regarding the Class 10 public exams. The government first scheduled the exams for June 1 and later postponed it to June 15, when even public transport will not have opened in full swing.</p> <p>The state has denied permissions for flights that would bring in Tamils living abroad, unlike what neighbours Kerala and Karnataka did for their stranded residents. Highly placed sources in the state health department say that this is because of lack of quarantine facilities for non-resident Tamils.</p> <p>The state constituted 18 expert committees to handle the pandemic but none of those have released a proper set of recommendations till date, except for the medical expert committee. On the other hand, Palaniswami is growing insecure of his own people. When Health Minister C. Vijayabaskar started becoming popular for dealing with the crisis, he was sidelined. The responsibility was given to health secretary Dr Beela Rajesh; but when her press briefings drew praise, the chief secretary was asked to take over. Eventually, Palaniswami delivered the daily briefings himself. The early announcement of the opening of the Mettur dam for irrigation in the Cauvery delta was allegedly staged to cover up the poor handling of the pandemic.</p> <p>Despite growing concerns, on June 2, Palaniswami once again said that the government is working hard to contain the pandemic. He highlighted the fact that the death rate was less than 0.80 per cent. “We need not panic,” he said. “The infected are being treated and we ensure that they go back home.”&nbsp;</p> Thu Jun 04 18:00:31 IST 2020 this-is-just-intermission-in-our-fight-against-covid-19 <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Dr B. Ekbal wears many hats. He is a neurosurgeon, an academic, a public health activist and an established tabla player. He is also the chairperson of the expert committee that advises the chief minister of Kerala on all matters related to Covid-19. “I have learnt a lot more in the last three months than I did in my entire life,’’ says Ekbal in an exclusive interview with THE WEEK, referring to his experience of leading a team of experts drawn from all fields to fight the pandemic. But he warns that the battle is not over yet. Excerpts from the interview:</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Kerala is gradually phasing out the lockdown, although the number of infections and deaths are going up.</b></p> <p>A/ Kerala's Covid story is at a turning point as we are entering the third phase of the fight against the pandemic. We could manage well till now because of our well-planned contact tracing, stringent quarantine measures and effective implementation of quarantine. But as the lockdown is going to be lifted, we are entering a new phase, which is going to be very challenging. At the same time, it is only realistic that the lockdown be phased out. There is an extent to which any government can hold on to lockdown as a protective measure. Kerala must expect a huge inflow of non-resident Keralites (NRKs) from red zones across the world and this is bound to increase the number of positive cases dramatically. It is unavoidable and we are prepared to deal with it. Our focus at this juncture is to contain the spread of the disease from NRKs to others, which could lead to community spread.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ How much more worse can it get?</b></p> <p>A/ I don't want to give numbers, but it can be really bad. We are entering a phase where all restrictions are being lifted and it is bound to increase the risks. There are many variables that determine whether one succeeds or not in the fight against Covid and system efficiency is one crucial factor. It can improve or deteriorate as challenges increase. We all must be conscious that the system is not fatigued as the fight against Covid is not going to end soon.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ How long will it last?</b></p> <p>A/ We have only reached the intermission. The second half of our Covid story need not be similar to the first half. It can be totally different. If one goes by the history of other pandemics, I would say that it can take up to one year to 18 months for the virus to mutate and to become an epidemic and then an endemic. But it need not mean that the virus will be this virulent for such a long time and that is a relief. I am also hopeful that a vaccine will be found in between.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ What are the key factors that helped Kerala in its successful fight against Covid-19?</b></p> <p>A/ Kerala's success story is also the success of its unique social capital—its decentralised and robust public health care system, its vibrant local governance and its educated and informed community involvement. In fact, Covid has come at a time when our primary health centres and district hospitals have been witnessing dramatic improvements in infrastructure and funding. This vibrant and robust health care system in turn boosted the morale of our health care staff to fight the pandemic. Equally crucial is the role played by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and Health Minister Shailaja Teacher. The chief minister anchored the whole thing and led from the front. This gave the entire system the much-needed confidence. So it is this combination of a good system and a good leadership that helped Kerala in its fight.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ What are the key strategies that Kerala adopted in fighting Covid-19?</b></p> <p>A/ Kerala, with its high density of population, high percentage of the 60-plus population and a large number of people with comorbidities is among the riskiest states in India when it comes to Covid-19. So our fight had to be extra aggressive. We can divide Kerala's fight into three phases. The initial phase was when the state reported the country's first set of cases. We had our war room ready under the chief minister, quarantine cells in all district hospitals and rapid response teams in all districts as early as January, while for other states, Covid-19 was something that was happening in far away China. This phase of early preparation was a game changer. By the second phase—the lockdown phase—the system was very much in place and we ran it effectively. Now we are entering the third phase—the post lockdown phase—which is going to be very very tough. But with our past experiences and with a proper system in place, we will be able to overcome this, too, I believe.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Was the lockdown effective, considering the human cost involved?</b></p> <p>A/ From a medical point of view, I am certain that the lockdown has definitely helped in reducing the number of infections and deaths. But I personally feel that had it been delayed by one week, the distress it caused to the population, especially the migrants, could have been avoided. But I feel there is no point in judging something in hindsight.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ What impact do you think the monsoons will have on Kerala’s fight against the pandemic?</b></p> <p>A/ Kerala is yet to recover fully from the shock caused by two consecutive floods. The monsoons will naturally bring back all the scary memories. Along with it, a gamut of communicable diseases like dengue and leptospirosis will also come. The management of non-Covid cases, which have been ignored till now, is equally important. The fact that only Covid deaths made it to the front pages does not mean that non-Covid deaths have disappeared. All those illnesses are still around. As the lockdown is coming to an end, the reporting of comorbidity cases is bound to escalate. All these are going to be huge challenges.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ What is your opinion of `herd immunity', which many have advocated as the most natural way of handling a pandemic?</b></p> <p>A/ Herd immunity arises when 60 per cent of a given population gets infected and acquires immunity. If only the healthy young population in a country gets infected and they acquire immunity, then that is a good option. But that is unrealistic as there is no way to assure that only that category of population will be affected. It is not possible to create herd immunity through social engineering and if the vulnerable segment of the population gets infected, the death toll will be unimaginable. So I don't think herd immunity is a good idea. Britain had toyed with this idea but changed tack as the number rose. Sweden did try and the result in not very promising, if one goes by the death toll.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ How do you assess the performance of India as a whole in the Covid fight?</b></p> <p>A/ I am actually surprised that disease dissemination is low in India when compared with many other countries. The picture may change in the coming days but till date India has been doing well on the Covid front, given its population and other social indicators. Similarly, many states are surprisingly doing well, if one goes by the available figures. For example, Chhattisgarh, Tripura, Assam and Odisha are doing exceptionally well. It is a happy thing to know that it is not just just Kerala that is doing a good job.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ As a medical professional, who is also a social scientist, how do you imagine a post-Covid world? As many say, has Covid rung the death bell for globalisation?</b></p> <p>A/ It is too early to discuss a post-Covid era. But one thing I feel is that Covid has proved that everyone in this world is connected. Globalisation may not exist the way it did but localisation is not the answer either. Humankind will be able to overcome Covid only through mutual support, knowledge sharing and cooperation. Because no country in this world will be completely safe even if there is one single Covid case anywhere in the world. 'One world, one health' is the only way forward.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> Tue Jun 09 13:11:23 IST 2020 bolts-from-the-blue <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>NEWS IN THE</b> past few days has been bad for the DMK. On May 23, the party’s organising secretary and Rajya Sabha member R.S. Bharathi was arrested from his Chennai residence for allegedly belittling dalits. In a speech at the party’s youth wing office in Chennai on February 14, Bharathi reportedly said many dalits could become judges because of alms given by the dravidian movement. He was booked under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, after a dalit activist lodged a complaint in May. A local court later granted him interim bail till June 1.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Hours after he was released, party MPs Dayanidhi Maran and T.R. Baalu rushed to the Madras High Court seeking anticipatory bail in a similar case. Maran and Baalu had met Tamil Nadu chief secretary K. Shanmugam on May 13 to discuss the party’s Covid-19 relief initiative, Ondrinaivam Vaa (the togetherness campaign). After the meeting, they alleged that Shanmugam had treated them like “third-class people”. “We were treated like oppressed people,” Maran told reporters. “People like you—are we oppressed people?”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The comments provoked a furious backlash. Maran was criticised for comparing his meeting with the chief secretary to the plight of dalits. Five days later, first information reports under the SC/ST Act were registered against the leaders across several districts. The High Court later restrained the police from taking “coercive action” against Maran and Baalu, and gave a week for the government to file a detailed reply on the FIRs.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The same day, a case against DMK legislator Senthil Balaji—for allegedly threatening Karur district collector K. Anbalagan—was transferred to the crime branch criminal investigation department. A former AIADMK minister, Balaji defected to the DMK in 2018 and is now close to the party chief and opposition leader M.K. Stalin and his family.</p> <p>The series of setbacks began after rebel DMK leader V.P. Duraisamy met state BJP president L. Murugan on May 18. Duraisamy said the meeting was a “courtesy call” and that he was not planning to join the BJP. “But you cannot predict anything in politics,” he said.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Both Duraisamy and Murugan are dalits, and they had contested the 2016 assembly elections against each other. Duraisamy was deputy speaker in the assembly from 2006 to 2011. He was replaced by Andhiyur Selvaraj, who is also dalit, as the DMK’s deputy general secretary. Four days after he was stripped off the post, Duraisamy joined the BJP.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Sources say the DMK’s troubles are part of a larger game plan for the assembly elections due next year. “The political game has begun,” said party spokesperson I. Paranthamen. “The AIADMK has money, manpower and other paraphernalia. And, of course, the support of the ruling BJP at the Centre. The BJP, which played the caste card in states in the north, does the same in Tamil Nadu now.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>BJP leaders, however, say caste politics is entrenched only in the DMK. “There has always been casteism in the DMK, even though it calls itself the party of social justice,” said state BJP secretary K.T. Raghavan.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The state government and the AIADMK have denied that Bharathi’s arrest was politically motivated. “The police took action against Bharathi based on a complaint,” said Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami. “The complainant, Kalyanasundaram, was hurt by Bharathi’s comment about the judges.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Dalits constitute 13 per cent of the electorate in Tamil Nadu. The BJP, which appointed Murugan as state party president in March, appears to be eyeing the vote bank. Incidentally, Murugan was vice chairman of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes when it began hearing a case related to the allegation that the office of the DMK mouthpiece, Murasoli, was built on panchami land. (Panchami land, which the British had distributed to dalits in 1892, cannot be reclassified or sold to non-dalits.) The case, which was filed last year, is pending.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“[Appointing Murugan as president] is part of the BJP’s dalit strategy,” said D. Ravikumar, MP, of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK). “It is just tokenism to say that they have made a dalit the state president of the party. It cannot be construed as dalit representation.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The VCK, which describes itself as a party of the marginalised, is part of the DMK-led coalition. The anti-dalit narrative against the DMK, which has been building up since the Murasoli issue, is troubling the alliance. With assembly polls less than a year away, the party is struggling to project its pro-dalit credentials and its history of anti-caste struggles.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Apart from external challenges, the DMK is also facing the fallout from its internal dynamics. Critics say the Duraisamy issue showed that Stalin was not as inclusive as his father and former DMK president M. Karunanidhi. Insiders say he takes counsel from his inner circle and often ignores inputs from others.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“When a person like Duraisamy felt aggrieved, Stalin should have called him,” said senior journalist S.P. Lakshmanan. “Party insiders have long been saying among themselves that Stalin doesn’t talk to everyone who has grievances; he talks with only select people. He has to talk with everyone in the party.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Zealous workers, too, have been causing trouble. Members of the DMK’s youth wing have been alienating political allies by voicing support to Tamil nationalism and the erstwhile Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Besides, many young leaders are focusing on social media, rather than on building grassroots support like Karunanidhi had done.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“The 2021 elections will not be a cakewalk for the DMK, given the political developments in the state,” said author and political commentator Aazhi Senthilnathan. “The BJP has begun its political game in Tamil Nadu, and the DMK is falling prey to it. Its new set of youth leaders continue to alienate friendly forces.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Also, Stalin is no match for Karunanidhi in political acumen. The day Bharathi was arrested, Stalin came out with two statements. DMK propaganda secretary A.Raja, too, issued a statement. But their responses made it clear that the arrest and the backlash had caught the party off guard. “The DMK needs to gear up for one of the worst elections it has ever fought,” said Lakshmanan. “New forces, too, might come in to challenge the DMK.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>For the first time, the DMK will go to the polls next year under the guidance of a political strategist. Prashant Kishor of the Indian Political Action Committee (I-PAC), who helped the BJP win the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, has been working for the DMK since February. In fact, Ondrinaivam Vaa was the brainchild of Kishor’s team.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Senior DMK leaders and workers, however, are not happy with Kishor’s entry. In a videoconference on May 16, a party district secretary reportedly said that he and his supporters could not be “subservient to a PR team”. Sources said several other participants supported him, saying they could “follow the words of Stalin as their leader, but not a PR team that does not know the ground”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Sunil Kanugolu, a former McKinsey consultant who was DMK strategist in the 2016 and 2019 elections, quit after the party leadership decided to rope in Kishor. Once close to Stalin, Sunil has strong links with several district secretaries of the DMK. He worked for Karnataka Chief Minister B.S. Yediyurappa for a brief period, and was later asked by the BJP’s national leadership to work for the AIADMK coalition.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“The DMK has to equip itself to face political attacks from multiple fronts,” said political analyst A. Shankar. “Otherwise, it will face obliteration.”</p> Thu May 28 20:22:13 IST 2020 vanity-fair <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>ON MAY 20,</b> Maharashtra Governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari called a meeting with Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray to jointly review the government’s response to the Covid-19 outbreak. Thackeray, however, skipped the meeting and sent Shiv Sena secretary Milind Narvekar instead. Since the ministers, too, gave the meeting a miss, Koshyari was briefed by chief secretary Ajoy Mehta and other bureaucrats.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The absence reflected the widening rift between Koshyari and the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi government led by Thackeray. The Aghadi’s three main constituents—the Sena, the Nationalist Congress Party and the Congress—feel that the governor is showing too keen an interest in affairs of the state, and that Raj Bhavan is trying to trouble the government.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The rift was first seen barely a month after Thackeray took charge last November. Koshyari refused to accept the government’s decision to nominate Aditi Nalavade and Shivajirao Garje of the NCP to fill the governor’s quota of seats in the legislative council, saying the tenure of the seats would be over in six months.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Then, on April 7, the cabinet met in Thackeray’s absence and resolved that he be nominated to the legislative council through the governor’s quota. This provoked a question: How could the cabinet pass a resolution in the chief minister’s absence?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Since Uddhav had to become a legislator before May 27 to continue as chief minister, the full cabinet met two weeks later, passed the resolution again and sent it to the governor. But Koshyari sat on it, prompting several leaders to accuse him of playing politics.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A Congress leader, however, said Raj Bhavan was in a dilemma. “The governor was doing everything as per the Constitution,” said the leader. “He doubted whether it would be appropriate to nominate the chief minister through the governor’s quota. He strongly felt that a chief minister had to be elected, rather than nominated, to the legislature.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The leader, however, said the governor went too far by calling a joint Covid-19 review meeting. “This was a way to send a message that the government is not handling the crisis well. Such meetings are normally held to build a case for imposing president’s rule,” said the leader.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Imprudent ministers have only aggravated the situation. Higher Education Minister Uday Samant recently recommended to the University Grants Commission that final-year university exams be cancelled because of the pandemic. Raj Bhavan took strong exception to Samant’s action, saying he had not discussed the matter with the governor, who is chancellor of all universities in the state. “Not conducting the final-year exams amounts to breach of UGC guidelines,” Koshyari wrote to Thackeray, terming Samant’s action as an “unwarranted intervention”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Raj Bhavan also wants the government to consider it as a separate establishment, on the lines of the legislature and the judiciary. It wants to have complete control in appointing staff and managing funds. The government, however, has not accepted the demand.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A Sena leader close to Thackeray said the governor was bent on troubling the government. “Our leadership feels that Koshyari is making a case to impose president’s rule again,” said the leader. “He is building a case that the government is a failure. The BJP is trying to lure the NCP away. Koshyari is acting as per Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s instructions.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>There have been efforts for a truce. Sena MP Sanjay Raut, who had long been a vocal critic of the governor, went to Raj Bhavan on May 23 and bowed before Koshyari in greeting. Raut later told journalists that it was a courtesy call and that he bowed because Koshyari was his elder. “The relations between the governor and the chief minister are very cordial,” he said.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Two days later, NCP leaders Sharad Pawar and Praful Patel also met Koshyari. Pawar followed it up with an hourlong meeting with Thackeray and Raut. Later, Raut said the opposition’s efforts to destabilise the government would boomerang on them. “Our government will complete the five-year term,” he said.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>BJP leader Narayan Rane, too, met the governor the same day and demanded that president’s rule be imposed. Opposition leader and former chief minister Devendra Fadnavis, however, said the BJP did not want it. “Rane is a very senior leader. He does not like injustice, so he speaks his mind. The BJP is not at all interested in destabilising the government and playing politics when the state is fighting an epidemic. This government will fall because of its own inner conflicts,” said Fadnavis.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>There are rumours that a storm is gathering in the ruling coalition. NCP leaders say Thackeray takes unilateral decisions and is overdependent on bureaucrats, especially chief secretary Mehta. The Congress leadership is reportedly unhappy about not being consulted on key issues.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>When Congress leader Rahul Gandhi was asked about the Covid-19 situation in Maharashtra in a recent virtual media conference, he tried to distance the party from the government. “We are supporting the government in Maharashtra, but we are not decision-makers,” he said. “There is a difference between running a government and supporting one.”</p> Thu May 28 20:03:16 IST 2020 battle-for-mumbai <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>ON THE EVENING</b> of May 23, a family from Mumbai’s suburban Andheri ran from one end of the city to the other to find a hospital bed for a 58-year-old who complained of increasing breathlessness. They visited five hospitals, but were told that no beds were available in the critical care unit. Finally, in the wee hours of the morning, they managed to admit the patient in the general ward of a dedicated Covid-19 hospital. The patient was diagnosed with pneumonia, but the oxygen support came too late. He died at around 6.30am.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>This is not an isolated case. As of May 26, Covid-19 cases in Maharashtra have crossed the 50,000 mark. Mumbai alone has more than 30,000 cases. The city is struggling to cope with the surge in cases. Its hospitals are stretched to capacity and there is an acute shortage of beds, especially in the ICUs. Frontline health workers are facing emotional and physical exhaustion. Dead bodies are left behind in wards for hours on end, and ambulances take hours to reach critical patients. And, there are lapses, like the one recounted by Malini Shinde (name changed), a resident of Prabhadevi. Her neighbour tested positive and was hospitalised, but none of his close contacts were approached by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) nor were they quarantined.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Dr Anant Bhan, a public health expert, said that the rise in cases indicated that the control efforts had limitations, and that the existing spread in the community, especially in densely populated urban clusters, could have been averted by “more proactive and expanded testing early on, and by developing strategies that responded to the unique challenges of a metropolis like Mumbai.” Also, monsoon will bring additional health challenges, like dengue, malaria and leptospirosis, he said. “Health professionals are also in short supply and this could be a major issue in mounting an effective response,” said Bhan. In Mumbai alone, 300 medical workers have tested positive for Covid-19.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Likewise, more than 700 policemen in Mumbai and close to 2,000 in the state have tested positive for Covid-19; 18 of them have died across the state. Forty-four policemen from JJ Marg police station, located inside the compound of JJ Hospital in Mumbai, are under treatment for Covid-19, while five others are in quarantine. Assistant Commissioner of Police Avinash Dharmadhikari, who is in charge of the Dongri division, said that the virus could have spread because of the common route shared by patients visiting the hospital and the policemen. “We have now locked the gate that gives access to patients and hospital staff from our side of the compound,” he said.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But Assistant Commissioner of Police Santosh Walake, who heads the Azad Maidan division that includes posh areas of South Mumbai like Cuffe Parade and Colaba, said that the rise in cases among cops was because they were “forgetting to police themselves, rather care for themselves”. “Also, given that the infection spreads fast, a number of police officers may have contracted the disease while working with their colleagues who first tested positive,” said Walake. “We are supposed to get tested only once the symptoms begin to show. I think that also contributes in infection transmission.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>What has health experts worried is that the virus, which was earlier limited to a few civic wards like G South that includes Dharavi, Asia’s biggest slum, has now spread to other densely populated areas. Eighty-six per cent of the cases now being reported are from these areas. According to officials, eight wards have a case growth rate of more than eight per cent. N ward (Ghatkopar) has the highest—13.7 per cent—followed by T ward (Mulund) and P North (Malad)—11.9 per cent. G South, which had the highest growth rate a month ago, has the lowest—3.4 per cent.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai has now divided its 24 wards into seven zones, each headed by an IAS officer. Prajakta Lavangare, who is in charge of Zone V that covers Deonar, Chembur, Kurla and nearby areas, said that they are doing “aggressive house-to-house surveys” in the new hotspots. “We are proactively testing and tracing people. That is why the numbers are high,” she said. “We will proactively find high-risk contacts, at least ten people per patient, and break the chain of infection.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Even as the numbers rise, there is an acute shortage of hospital beds. While there are 73,000 hospital beds in the city, the number of ICU beds is limited. As per a civic official, around 20 per cent of patients require ICU care and five per cent critical care. “There is shortage in critical care because many patients want to go to major hospitals and not the peripheral ones,” said a doctor at Nair hospital, which is the biggest government facility for Covid-19 patients in Mumbai. “Patients are not seeking treatment on time, but only when they feel very ill. And, people are coming in with raised anxiety levels.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Recently, BMC took over 80 per cent of beds in private hospitals to treat Covid-19 patients. Additionally, ‘jumbo facilities’ like the National Sports Club of India Dome are being converted into special observation units, with at least 10,000 beds added. Fifty per cent of these will have oxygen points and 10 per cent will be reserved for Covid-19 patients who need dialysis. St Xavier’s College is readying its hall and canteen foyer to accommodate beds for Covid-19 patients. The BMC, under new municipal commissioner Iqbal Chahal, has set up a live dashboard on the availability of beds. All the patient has to do is dial 1916 to get the information. The BMC is also looking at turning buses and school vans into ambulances to increase its fleet.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But, would all this be enough?</p> Thu May 28 20:00:46 IST 2020 the-female-brigade <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>THE GUARDIAN</b> newspaper recently called Kerala Health Minister K.K. Shailaja the “coronavirus slayer” for “saving” the state from Covid-19. The interviewer, Laura Spinney, who has written a well-received book on how the Spanish Flu changed the world, referred to Shailaja as a “rock star”. As the story went viral across the world, Shailaja Teacher, as she is popularly known, managed to visit her home in Kannur for a day. She was meeting her husband and children for the first time in three months.</p> <p>Shailaja is leading thousands of women who are fighting the virus in various capacities. Kerala’s Covid-19 story, which is an ideal case of humanitarian politics, is also the story of its unleashed women power. Dr B. Iqbal, who chairs the expert committee on Covid-19 that advises the state government, told THE WEEK that this is a unique aspect of Kerala’s successful resistance against the virus. “From our health minister to the ASHA workers (accredited social health activists) on the ground, they are the frontal warriors in this fight,” he said.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Apart from the health minister, both the director of health services (DHS) and the director of medical education (DME) are women. Out of 14 district medical officers (DMOs) in the state, 11 are women. Female doctors in the state health services outnumber the men (65:35) and this has been the trend for nearly two decades. Similarly, the number of female medical students in the state is more than double the number of male students. When it comes to nurses and paramedics, there is total domination by women. All of them have joined hands in the fight against Covid-19.</p> <p>“We are the ‘penpada’ (women army) of the state government,” said DME Dr Remla Beevi A. “What we are seeing is the display of women power in its best form.” She heads the Covid Cell that monitors and guides all activities in the state’s nine government medical colleges. All the members in the Covid Cell, barring one, are women.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>DHS Dr Saritha R.L., who did an exemplary job in fighting the 2018 Nipah outbreak, has followed that up with the fight against Covid-19. “It has been a tough ride,” said Saritha, who has not visited her family in Kozhikode for three months. “But what I am doing is my duty as a doctor and as DHS. I do not think about my gender while taking up responsibilities.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>There are many like Saritha who forget everything else when it comes to duty. Dr Kamala Rammohan is one such person. She was the lone woman member in the medical team from Government Medical College, Thiruvananthapuram, that was sent to Kasaragod district, which, at one point, had the highest number of Covid-19 cases in the country. That team helped contain the spread in Kasaragod. Dr Asha Vijayan of General Hospital, Muvattupuzha, has also had to prioritise the call of her profession over her personal life. “I have not seen my daughters for weeks together,” said Dr Vijayan. “They have gone to their grandparents as I have Covid-19 duty. As a doctor, I am very clear about my priorities.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The selfless service of doctors like Saritha and Asha has been instrumental in keeping the death toll at just four, despite the fact that the state is highly prone to the virus spread because of the high proportion of people above 65 and the high population density. President of the Kerala Government Medical Officers Association (KGMOA) Dr Joseph Chacko acknowledges the state’s female-dominated health service but adds that many of them are hard- pressed because of family responsibilities. “Despite all the difficulties, they are doing a commendable job,” he said.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The gender factor becomes more prominent down the ladder. Thousands of nurses, junior health inspectors (JHIs), junior public health nurses (JPHNs) and ASHA workers are tied down by their gendered roles but are still putting up a brave fight. There are many instances of nurses and JPHNs who have stopped breastfeeding their babies ever since they were put on Covid-19 duty.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>K.P. Divya, a nurse at the district hospital in Kasaragod, had to stay away for 28 days (14 days duty and 14 days quarantine) from her three-year-old son. “Whenever I missed my family during those 28 days, I used to video call them,” said Divya. “When my kids asked me why I was not coming home, I told them that I have keedanu (virus) on me. When I returned from quarantine, they were hesitant to come near me suspecting that the keedanu was still there. I did not know whether to laugh or cry.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The JHIs, JPHNs and the ASHA workers, who are the eyes and ears of the system in the fight against Covid-19, are struggling with the sudden increase in workload. But these foot soldiers rarely overlook any detail. “I have rented a house near my place of work since February as I have been assigned the task of tracking the non-resident Keralites (NoRKs) coming from abroad,” said Preetha A.M., junior health inspector in Kozhikode. She leaves her seven-year-old daughter with neighbours and goes for duty. She is responsible for monitoring six wards in the municipality that has nearly 11,000 people. Her job has become tougher as the NoRKs have started returning to the state and she has to monitor them 24/7.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>JPHNs and ASHA workers are dominated by women in other states, too. But the ones in Kerala have a unique story to tell because the state government has been effectively using them for surveillance. Also, it is an added advantage that most of them are well educated. “We know the localities inside out. Nobody comes in or goes out without getting noticed,” said Sajitha, who has been an ASHA worker in Kozhikode for 15 years. She is one of the more than 26,000 ASHA workers in the state who scan their areas like detectives, ensuring people follow lockdown and quarantine rules.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But there have been occasions when ASHA workers had to pay a price for their vigilance. Sajitha, for instance, was attacked by a group of youth when she asked them not to sit in groups during lockdown. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan spoke out against disrespecting ASHA workers in one of his news conferences. “That was a great morale booster for ASHA workers like me,” said Sajitha.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Another set of women that has been a pillar in this trying time is the Kudumbashree, a self-help group of women. The government has been using 25 lakh active Kudumbashree members as “angels of communication” to promote the Break The Chain campaign. They were also responsible for running community kitchens across the state that ensured that no one went hungry during lockdown.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Equally important has been the role of women panchayat members, who account for nearly 60 per cent of the elected representatives in the state, another unique feature of Kerala. Every panchayat ward has a sanitation committee comprising the ward member, JPHN, anganwadi workers and ASHA workers, and these committees have been playing an effective role in containing the spread. In many wards, these committees are represented entirely by women.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“The access that a woman panchayat member has to a household is something a male member may not have,” said Thulasi Teacher, president of the Grama Panchayat Association. “While the male member may sit in the veranda and discuss things, a female member can walk straight into the kitchen and discuss issues. The success story of Kerala’s fight against Covid-19 is also the success story of the Kerala model with its empowered women and strong social indicators.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Commenting on how this ‘feminisation’ has impacted the system, Dr Iqbal says that women are intrinsically more democratic and practical. “They are also good communicators. All these will have a positive effect on the system,” he said. “We have rarely seen women playing such a major role in protecting a state anywhere in the world. It is something unprecedented and unique,” said Dr A.K. Jayasree, nodal officer for Covid-19, Pariyaram Medical College in Kannur, which is one of the hotspots. Athira P.M., activist and lawyer, feels that it is a great thing that women have become “more visible” in Kerala society. “That the professional side of women is being acknowledged by society is indeed a great achievement. It needs to be properly documented,” she said.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>For nurse Divya, this newfound acknowledgment is elating. “Everyone nods their head, showing care or respect, when I walk by,” she said. “It is for the first time that the contributions of nurses, JPHNs&nbsp;and ASHA workers are being recognised this way.” According to Dr Jayasree, what the state is witnessing is a historic moment. “Like in many other ways, Kerala’s unique experience with Covid-19 should be a turning point in the history of its women, too,” she said.</p> Fri May 22 19:15:00 IST 2020 no-entry-for-tourists-till-october <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>Q/ It is heartening to know that Sikkim, a popular tourist destination, has no cases of Covid-19 so far. How did you manage that?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ We closed our borders to international tourists in early March. By mid March, domestic tourists were also banned. Thanks to all this, we are still a Covid-free state. We ensured that our borders were kept under surveillance to restrict illegal public movement. All except two border entry points (Rangpo and Melli) were closed. The border checkposts that are open have a fully equipped medical team along with border security personnel. We also had CCTV cameras installed to monitor the situation.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>There are remote villages of the neighbouring state whose people are dependent on us. We supplied them with essential commodities. This strategy helped to discourage those people from entering the state.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The people of Sikkim strictly followed the guidelines. We appealed to our people living outside the state to stay where they were. We designated nodal officers in metropolitan cities to coordinate with stranded people, giving them relief (cash, food and other essentials) and accommodation.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ There are reports that Sikkim will charge illegal immigrants with attempt to murder.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ We closed our borders in mid-March, but stray cases of people crossing the borders were still being reported. They were not only flouting the laws but also endangering the lives of the people of Sikkim. Therefore, we sealed our borders and took certain legal measures to keep the people of Sikkim safe.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ How equipped is the state to tackle Covid-19?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ Sikkim is all geared up to fight Covid-19. Sufficient amount of personal protective equipment, hand sanitisers, infrared scanners and gloves have been procured and supplied to all hospitals and frontline workers. STNM Hospital, which has approximately 300 isolation beds, 20 ICU beds and 10 PICU beds, has been designated as a Covid-19 hospital. We also have 27 ventilators available, besides quarantine centres (both paid and free) in all the four districts.... The state started screening from February. Covid-19 samples are sent to the virology laboratory at North Bengal Medical College and Hospital, Siliguri.... We also organise campaigns to create awareness on the pandemic, its management and the protocol to be followed for quarantine and treatment.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ You said samples are being sent to Siliguri. Doesn’t the state have testing laboratories?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ We have a Viral Research and Diagnostic Laboratory at STNM Hospital, Gangtok, which will soon be operational. Truenat Beta CoV test is also carried out at STNM Hospital.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ The Nathu La trade route has been closed and the Kailash Mansarovar Yatra has been called off. How have these affected the tourism industry?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ It has definitely affected our tourism industry and we have been hit hard. But in this time of pandemic, we have given preference to the safety and security of our people and hence stopped the inflow of tourists till October.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ The decision to ban tourists till October could affect the livelihood of many. How will the state tide over this crisis?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ Covid-19 has wreaked havoc with people’s livelihood. To mitigate the economic hardships faced by those in the tourism industry, we have decided to create an Economic Revival Committee. The cabinet has also decided to take austerity measures and utilise that money for the cause of affected people. Taxi drivers who have been hit badly by this lockdown are being provided with an economic relief package. Similarly, economic relief was also provided to students and patients stranded in different parts of the country, people in the media and ASHA workers.</p> Fri May 22 22:33:29 IST 2020 trust-deficit <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>ON MAY 1,</b> an 18-year-old woman from a prominent Muslim business family in Bhatkal’s Madina Colony was rushed to the taluk hospital with high fever. Four days later, she (P659) tested positive for Covid-19 and, subsequently, 27 of her primary and secondary contacts tested positive. The sudden surge in Covid-19 cases has triggered panic as Bhatkal, in Karnataka’s Uttara Kannada district, had been free of cases since the first 12—who had travelled to Dubai—reported in March.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>P659’s infection might have originated in First Neuro hospital in Mangaluru in the neighbouring Dakshina Kannada district. P659’s elder sister and brother-in-law had taken their son to the hospital in April; they were issued emergency passes by the district administration. At least two people who visited the hospital in April had died of Covid-19.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The second wave of Covid-19 cases paved the way for fresh communal tensions and trust deficit. It has happened before; caused by the terror links of Iqbal and Riyaz Shahbandari—the infamous Bhatkal brothers—and terror convict Yasin Bhatkal (Mohammed Ahmed Siddibappa). In 2017, Shafi Armar, another Bhatkal local was declared a global terrorist. These developments led to the scrutiny of the sleepy coastal town by national intelligence and anti-terror agencies. The Navayath Muslim community (to which the Bhatkal brothers belong) faced hostility. Navayaths are proud of their Arab origins and preserve this link through trade and marriage. The enterprising community control the local economy and real estate and a majority of Hindus depend on them for livelihood.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Now, the “casual” response of the community to Covid-19 has upset other local communities, pushing the district administration to take stringent containment measures in the town. On May 6, BJP MP Anant Kumar Hegde went into a huddle with senior officials in Bhatkal. After the meeting, the administration sealed the Madina Colony and divided the town into five zones. It withdrew passes, deployed men and drones for surveillance and made arrangements for door delivery of essentials. Other safety measures included door-to-door Covid-19 screening and the mandate that only government ambulances were allowed to ply. However, some steps were rather unusual. Like shutting down medical shops and the deployment of two constables each at the three Muslim burial grounds.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>While Hegde refused to brief the media, official sources confirmed that the MP had sought a report on 22 “suspicious deaths and quiet burials” during the lockdown. He reportedly insisted that the health department should be notified about every death. As per the new directions, the throat swab from the deceased person is to be collected and tested to rule out Covid-19 before the body is buried. The tehsildar banned all private doctors from treating patients. A homeopathy doctor was caught after a taluk officer returning from work saw a sick man on the road. He told the officer that he was being treated for fever and cough by the doctor. Soon, the doctor and 121 of his contacts were quarantined and their swabs collected. Meanwhile, locals claim the doctor is related to the Bhatkal brothers.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Dr Mohammad Haneef Shabab, Unani doctor and former general secretary of the Majlis-e-Islah-o-Tanzeem (highest religious body of Muslims in the area) defends the doctor in quarantine saying that he is a veteran who has earned the goodwill of people from all communities. “Like many across the world, he, too, might have fallen prey to a misinformation campaign saying that Covid-19 is harmless and is just like seasonal flu,” says Shabab. “The Tanzeem is trying hard to change the mindset of people and has released a video warning people about Covid-19.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The saffron brigade suspects that the “lack of cooperation” is intentional. Local BJP leader Govind Naik says: “There was a sudden increase in the sale of fever, cough and cold tablets. The cloth used for burial was being secretly sold from inside closed shops. There is no smoke without fire. Local leaders also say that it is difficult to track secret burials because the Tanzeem controls the municipality.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Shabab says the right-wing activists are wrongly blaming the Muslim community for the Covid-19 outbreak. He says it was never the practice to inform the administration about deaths as soon as they happened. “The dead are usually buried and it is reported in a day or two to avail the death certificate,” he says. Tanzeem members have voiced their concern over “targeting of Muslims” under the guise of Covid-19 containment measures. A Tanzeem member who requested anonymity, points out some of the administration’s failures: “Why did the taluk administration not track down people who availed medical emergency passes? The doctor who is under quarantine ran the clinic in the heart of the town. Why did the police not shut it down earlier? Who stopped them from monitoring sale of over-the-counter drugs?” He adds that pass holders have been harassed at check posts.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“The community is upset to hear that the 22 dead bodies will be exhumed for testing,” says Shabab . “We have locked burial grounds, but are against the deployment of beat constables. Will they deploy police at the Hindu cremation grounds?”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Sensing the trust deficit, district superintendent of police Shivaprakash Devaraju, in his appeal to people said that they should not take it as an insult if a sample is collected for testing. Bhatkal MLA Sunil Naik, also of the BJP, is a worried man. “The cases are soaring and unless the people cooperate, the containment of the virus is impossible,” he says. “[But,] I feel the people are slowly getting convinced that Covid-19 is a real threat.” He says that the lack of Covid-19 testing facility in the district is affecting contact tracing and isolation.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Bhatkal, which witnessed communal riots in 1993, and two high profile murders of Hindu leaders—sitting MLA Dr U. Chittarajan (1996) and Thimmappa Naik (2004)—also saw the Tanzeem grow stronger and the saffron brigade struggle to safeguard its political space. But, in recent times, the right-wing has returned strongly, resulting in a silent power struggle with the Tanzeem. Now, Covid-19 has become a stimulus for further polarisation; the hostilities have reached such a point that even relief and ration was distributed selectively.</p> Thu May 14 18:04:08 IST 2020 risk-and-return <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>ON MAY 11,</b> while speaking at Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s videoconference, Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray asked the Centre to take a cautious approach while lifting the nationwide lockdown. With the number of Covid-19 cases nearing 25,000 and deaths crossing 800, Maharashtra continues to be the worst-hit state in the country and Uddhav does not want to take any chances.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Over 60 per cent of the cases are in Mumbai, followed closely by Pune and Thane. Dr Pradip Awate, state disease surveillance officer, said the very nature of the Mumbai-Pune-Thane triangle, had made it vulnerable. "Mumbai, the country’s economic capital, witnesses a high volume of interstate and international movement. It has a population density of 20,000 people per square kilometre, with a huge proportion of them living in slums. So the high numbers are not surprising.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Critics say there are frequent flip-flops in testing protocols and in procedures for reporting deaths. Mumbai now tests only symptomatic patients and high-risk cases, saying it helps in better utilisation of manpower and resources. “The BMC (Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation) has chosen its own testing criteria, turning down the protocol laid down by the Indian Council of Medical Research. This will not only show a false decrease in the number of cases, but also spread the infection rapidly,” said health care activist Dr Amol Annadate. “The BMC is not recording Covid-19 deaths which are related to comorbidities like renal diseases, diabetes, cancer and heart disease. This will lead to an 85 per cent decrease in the number of deaths as maximum deaths are from comorbid conditions.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Maharashtra government is already under pressure with the Union government reprimanding it for the rising number of active cases inside the containment zones in Mumbai and for not following its directives about contact tracing and door-to-door surveillance. On his first day in office, Iqbal Singh Chahal, who on May 8 replaced Praveen Pardeshi as BMC commissioner, emphasised the importance of ramping up testing. Some officials and public health experts believe that the rising number of cases is the result of increased testing. “As testing is increased, with follow-up contact tracing, more cases are being reported, and we may be getting a truer picture of the actual disease burden," said Anant Bhan, researcher on global health. Dr Om Shrivastav, infectious diseases expert and a member of Maharashtra’s Covid-19 task force, said the numbers would stay high for a while before it starts getting better. "It is a new virus and it is tricky to know how it will behave. We should not be focusing on numbers,” said Shrivastav.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Another problem that hurts Maharashtra’s fight against the pandemic is the acute shortage of health care professionals. Resident doctors and even MBBS students are being pushed to the frontlines. "I am only a second-year student and I have been assigned to treat Covid-19 patients. I sometimes do not know what to do," said a junior resident.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The mounting troubles, however, have not affected Uddhav’s popularity. He has made it clear that it is not the time to play politics, even while proving himself to be a savvy political operator. When his chief ministership was under threat after his election to the legislative council ran into trouble, Uddhav did not hesitate to call up Modi for help. The gamble worked and the chief minister is all set to enter the upper chamber on May 21. Uddhav shunted out BMC commissioner Pardeshi after the Union health ministry reportedly expressed dissatisfaction over his handling of the pandemic. He demanded strict action against senior IPS officer Amitabh Gupta for allowing controversial businessmen Kapil and Dheeraj Wadhawan, who are facing probe in the Yes Bank scam, to travel despite lockdown restrictions. Gupta was sent on compulsory leave and an inquiry was ordered against him. In both cases, Uddhav was keen to send across a strong message to the bureaucracy.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A senior Congress legislator said Uddhav’s popularity remained unaffected because the vocal middle class was not affected much by the pandemic. “Most cases are coming from slums and low income colonies. The middle class, which lives in apartment complexes, is by and large unaffected.” But he has not completely forgotten the poor. When Covid-19 began spreading rapidly, he brought down the rates of the popular Shiv Bhojan meal from Rs10 to Rs5. “Uddhav’s entire messaging is focused on conveying facts to people and urging them to follow the measures initiated by the government. Teamwork among three alliance partners—the Shiv Sena, the NCP and the Congress—has also improved,” said the Congress legislator.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The BJP, however, is not impressed. Madhav Bhandari, chief spokesperson for the party, said the people were frustrated. “The government announced the other day that it was starting transport service to send people to their home districts,” he said. “But the decision was reversed overnight. People were not informed and they flocked to bus stands in large numbers.” Bhandari said such flip-flops angered people and the BJP was not protesting only because it was a responsible opposition.</p> <p>Senior political analyst Prakash Akolkar said Uddhav’s image as a moderate, mild mannered person had helped him so far. “People think of him as an elder brother in the family. But it will not help him for long,” said Akolkar. “Uddhav’s speeches have started sounding empty. He needs to keep bureaucrats under control and show them who is the boss.”</p> Thu May 14 17:41:08 IST 2020 ahmedabad-blues <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>IN APRIL,</b> more than two dozen Covid-19 patients spent hours on the streets after they were denied admission to the 1,200-bed Ahmedabad Civil Hospital in Gujarat. After a video clip showing their plight went viral, Chief Minister Vijay Rupani blamed those who had attended the Tablighi Jamaat event in Delhi, one of India’s biggest Covid-19 clusters, for the increase in the number of infections in the state.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Rupani’s statement was politically expedient and hardly surprising. What was surprising, though, was the speed with which the police swung into action, quietly identifying Tablighi members who had returned to Gujarat, tracking their primary contacts, quarantining them and taking measures to prevent communal flare-ups.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>There are more than 9,000 Covid-19 patients in Gujarat now; about 550 have died. Ahmedabad alone accounts for 67 per cent of cases and 77 per cent of deaths. Since Muslims make up only 9 per cent of the six crore people in the state, Rupani can no longer blame the minority community for the worsening crisis.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Lack of vision and coordination have been evident in the government’s response to the pandemic. Rupani, who has been keeping a low profile, does not appear to be in command. Nor does he see eye to eye with Deputy Chief Minister Nitin Patel. Bureaucrats fighting the pandemic are taking pains to give credit to both the leaders.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The first two Covid-19 cases in Gujarat were reported on March 19. The state government woke up to the threat rather late, because it had been busy organising the Namaste Trump event in Ahmedabad on February 24. “At a time when the World Health Organization had issued warnings about Covid-19, thousands of people came for the event. This could have been avoided,” said Congress leader Shaktisinh Gohil.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The initial response to the pandemic was riddled with missteps and flawed decisions. The government made U-turns on several announcements, adding to the confusion regarding lockdown rules. In Ahmedabad, Municipal Commissioner Vijay Nehra had to quarantine himself after two persons he had met tested positive. Nehra has since been sidelined, reportedly because he had failed to take the political leadership into confidence.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In Ahmedabad and Surat, only shops selling milk and medicines were allowed to open. The decision was taken apparently to contain potential “super-spreaders”—vegetable vendors and grocery shop owners—but the government failed to make alternative arrangements.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The fight against the pandemic also suffered from poor coordination. A case in point is the situation at the Ahmedabad Civil Hospital, which has one of Asia’s biggest Covid-19 wards. Bureaucrats have been accused of threatening doctors, while doctors have been accused of not taking heed of suggestions of public health experts.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In a bid to set things in order, the government has brought in Dr M.M. Prabhakar, the hospital’s former medical superintendent. Prabhakar, who had been transferred to the medical education department, knows the staff well and is expected to streamline operations.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Experts say the rising number of Covid-19 cases in Gujarat was the result of the poorly implemented lockdown. Elected representatives and political workers have not been of much help in spreading awareness and preventing infections. “The BJP’s booth-level management during elections is considered to be very good,” said Rohit Prajapati, a Vadodara-based activist. “Where are these managers now? They should be asking people to follow social distancing rules and helping migrant workers.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Sociologist Gaurang Jani said the crisis showed the collective failure of the BJP government. “They blamed the Tablighis and did nothing for a month,” said Jani.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Rupani himself failed to take adequate safety measures. Congress legislator Imran Khedawala, who was part of a delegation that visited Rupani in April, tested positive within hours of the meeting. Rupani was forced to go into isolation for more than a week.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The government also failed to prevent protest gatherings. Migrant labourers in Surat have hit the streets four times in the past six weeks. Rupani had announced in April that labourers, including those from outside the state, would be given rations free of cost. But the project does not seem to be working properly. The labourers reportedly have to walk at least two kilometres carrying their utensils to get supplies. Also, children are not provided food if they do not accompany their parents.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The alleged poor handling of the Covid-19 crisis has spawned rumours that the BJP’s national leadership wants Union Minister Mansukh Mandaviya to replace Rupani as chief minister. Mandaviya, however, has denied it. “Rumours of a change in leadership will only damage Gujarat’s interests,” he said. “I have spoken to Vijaybhai and requested him to take action against those who are spreading such rumours.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>On May 11, Dhaval Patel, editor of the news portal Face of Nation, was arrested for publishing a report suggesting that Rupani would be removed. He was charged with section 124A (sedition) of the Indian Penal Code and section 54 (punishment for false alarm) of the Disaster Management Act.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Rupani’s poor show could be the reason that senior bureaucrat K. Kailashnathan has been asked to take charge of the Covid-19 response. Known as Modi’s close confidant, Kailashnathan is chief principal secretary to the chief minister. All front-line workers and senior officials are now reporting to Kailashnathan.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>BJP spokesperson Bharat Pandya said Rupani had performed well. “He is capable and has taken quick decisions,” said Pandya. “He holds discussions and monitors everything, taking decisions that are big and small.”</p> Thu May 14 18:28:02 IST 2020 home-truths <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>JOGINDER PAL</b> never thought he would have to go back. He had come to Delhi 18 years ago, escaping the drought-hit Banda district in Uttar Pradesh. In the capital, he found work as a painter, got married and had two children.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Then came 2020. His work was hit twice. First came the Delhi riots, and then the lockdown. Exasperated, he returned home. “I don’t know when I will come back,” he said.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>With no jobs, paucity of ration and disease-induced fear, migrant workers started returning to their villages on March 25, the first day of the lockdown. Despite government assurances, the workers started their journeys, mostly on foot.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The government belatedly started special trains for workers across the country. These carried more than five lakh people in the first 10 days of operation. Of the 363 trains, till May 11, the maximum were to Uttar Pradesh (172), followed by Bihar (100), Madhya Pradesh (30), Odisha (25) and Jharkhand (22). Now, the home ministry has asked the railways to run at least 100 trains every day, each carrying 1,700 workers home.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Migrants make up more than 40 per cent of Delhi’s population. Overall, the metros have been the worst hit, and millions like Joginder realise this. The political class and the bureaucracy were taken by surprise when the migrants left the impersonal, often cruel, urban spaces to find solace in their villages.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“Migrants get economic security in the city and social security—of the family and of public assistance—in their villages,” said Chinmay Tumbe, assistant professor, IIM Ahmedabad. “Instant flight occurs when economic security vanishes and migrants seek social security.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Economic Survey 2017, for the first time, enumerated Railways data (2011-2016), which showed an annual average flow of close to 90 lakh migrants between states.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“The government should have done towards March end, as we argued then, what it is doing now,” said Partha Mukhopadhyay, senior fellow, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi. “The migrant workers were put in camps after the lockdown. So they could have been moved to their homes in buses, camp by camp. Perhaps, the thinking was that the lockdown would be shorter, and moving them would be costly. They are now doing it six weeks too late. Instead of spreading it over time in an organised manner, now they are trying to hurry it up. This actually increases the chances of infection, because of the mixing of groups.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>What this crisis has revealed is that government assurances did not work, and there were huge gaps in the communication strategy, which appeared to be more focussed on the middle class than the poor.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“The government did not have that big a role,” said Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh general secretary Virjesh Upadhyay. “It is the social actors who could have convinced the migrants to stay. It was the role of NGOs and politicians of all parties to engage with the migrants and provide relief. This migration was a result of this emotional urge to go home, and the provocation generated by certain forces.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Most migrants who move from one place to another, like construction workers, are not voters at the place of their employment, and thus seldom a pressure group for politicians. So, with the crisis hitting their livelihoods, they chose to vote with their feet.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The lack of institutional support has increased their pain. When lockdown was imposed, Sumati Devi found herself stranded in crowded Tughlakabad in Delhi, next to a containment zone. Her husband was back in Durgapur, West Bengal, and her son, a mason, was in Ernakulam, Kerala. Though she had worked in Delhi for several years, she did not have a bank account there. And hence, she could not get the benefits of Central schemes. Had she been at her native place, she could have got foodgrain under the public distribution system. This is the primary reason migrants are returning; the access to Central and state government schemes is mostly limited to their places of permanent residence.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“Another thing we saw in the migration crisis was that people moved out as they were living in inhuman conditions,” said Rathin Roy, former member of the prime minister’s economic advisory council. “That was a big lesson. We need to see bulk of industry and economic activity in areas where the majority of migrants live. Their livelihoods have to be created there.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>He also suggested that the government should focus on building slum-free areas through massive, affordable housing programmes for migrants. “It is morally unacceptable for India to be the slum capital of the world,” he said.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As of now, the states that provide the bulk of these migrant workers have their work cut out. Take, for instance, Bihar. Most of the returning migrants are first put in quarantine centres set up across the state, and are allowed to go home after 14 days. According to official figures, more than 25 lakh migrant workers have registered on the state government app to get the Rs1,000 that Chief Minister Nitish Kumar had announced. “Since April, we have created over one lakh job cards,” said Arvind Kumar Chaudhary, principal secretary, rural development department. “We created these cards in the quarantine camps they (migrants) were housed. We knew this demand would come. There is a lot of work available in infrastructure projects, like building roads, toilets and rural housing, through which we can employ around 15 lakh people. Currently, we have nine lakh registered MNREGA workers. The state will now do skill mapping of the migrants, who can then be allotted a suitable job.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Uttar Pradesh is aiming higher. It is trying to woo foreign investors who may be looking for an alternative to China. The state has set up a desk to deal with queries from foreign investors, and there have already been some meetings. “This will create jobs and employment avenues,” said Sidharth Nath Singh, state micro, small and medium enterprises minister.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>However, in this bid to grow, some states have decided to amend labour laws, which would, depending on the state, bring in changes like—an increase in working hours to 12 a day to a rise in productivity without interference from labour inspectors. The BJP-ruled states of Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh have been particularly bold in this regard, and the reforms are expected to generate political acrimony in the coming days.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“The country has seen an inhuman spectacle unfold as workers were given only four hours before the lockdown by the Modi government,” said Congress spokesperson Shaktisinh Gohil. “They were forced to walk for food and shelter. Then they were hit by another jolt. Labour laws were removed as the government wanted to give a red-carpet welcome to foreign investors.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Left and Congress trade unions have decided to approach the International Labour Organization against the move. “Most of the states ruled by the BJP and its allies are competing with others in the name of development and attracting investment,” said Tapan Sen, general secretary, Centre of Indian Trade Unions. “An inhuman crime is being committed.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Added Upadhyay: “We will fight the dilution through all democratic means. The governments should not replicate the China model of bypassing labour laws as it does not follow democratic traditions.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Centre’s strategy is clear. It is promoting domestic manufacturing as a counter to China. But a boom in manufacturing results in large-scale movement of labour. The government would have to look into the needs of the migrants when they promote manufacturing.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Defending the labour reforms, Gopal Krishna Agarwal, BJP spokesperson and an expert on economic affairs, said that most of the manufacturing industry had adequate labour to start factories, but there was no demand as markets are shut. “Look at Haryana,” he said. “It has created a website for labourers who want to return for work, and many have already registered.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Said Sidharth Nath Singh: “As a result of reforms in labour laws in Uttar Pradesh, new employment opportunities as well as investment from foreign companies will come to the state.” The Uttar Pradesh government has already set a target to create 15 lakh jobs, while ramping up jobs under MNREGA from 20 lakh a day to 50 lakh daily.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The industry is looking for opportunities to expand in areas where there is ready availability of labour. “The lockdown has provided an opportunity for industries to assess the benefits of moving to areas where the migrant workers are from,” said Vikram Kirloskar, president, Confederation of Indian Industry. “We cannot have health without the economy and the economy without health. Therefore, we need flexibility and safeguards with labour laws being relooked at.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The shortage of workers will hurt the industry for some time, but the workers cannot stay in their villages for long. “The migrants will be economically compelled to return as they would have few sources of employment at their native places, and hardly any reasonable living standards,” said Mukhopadhyay, who chaired a committee on migration set up by the ministry of housing and urban affairs. “The highly skilled migrants may hold on a bit longer to return as their experience with this process was not particularly positive. But what you see in China, is that it is not clear if jobs will be there at all. So, the workers are more likely to come back if there is some assurance about the jobs available.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The committee he headed had recommended portability of the ration card, which the Centre is doing under its ‘One Nation, One Ration Card’ scheme. “We had also recommended that the government set up a register of migrants,” he said. “The government now has the data as it moved so many migrants into camps and have been documented for relief, for travel and for testing. This data can be used to give social benefits.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Economic Survey 2017 had shown new trends in migration. “Internal migration rates have dipped in Maharashtra and surged in Tamil Nadu and Kerala, reflecting the growing pull of southern states in India’s migration dynamics, as the southern states created more facilities for the migrants,” it said. “Thus, also proving that language was no longer a barrier in migration for work.”</p> Thu May 14 18:15:16 IST 2020 rescue-dawn <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>INDIA’S DEMOGRAPHICS</b> have always been a mindboggling number soup. Almost everything to do with people here is on an unimaginable scale. Whether it is the general election, the mid-day meal scheme, or even the ongoing lockdown, the exercises end up being the largest in the world.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>India is now beginning to bring its citizens back from across the world, and the sheer scale of the operation is jaw-dropping. There are 1.4 crore Indian nationals abroad, in every continent and almost every country, and many of them now want to return home. Over five lakh NRIs have registered for evacuation from the Gulf region alone.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The global spread of Covid-19 and the subsequent lockdowns resulted in lakhs of Indians getting stranded abroad. Among them were those who lost their jobs, and tourists and students whose money was fast running out.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But India, having sealed itself from the outside world, was just coming to grips with the situation within its borders. The displacement of migrant labourers itself was an overwhelming problem. All that the country could tell its nationals abroad was to hold on a little longer, and approach the local missions for help. The advice, however, only agitated the stranded, as they read reports of foreigners being evacuated from India. “Why couldn’t we have been put onto the flights which were going to India to evacuate foreigners?” asked a group of stranded Indians in Malaysia. “If it had to be a paid return, we would have returned weeks ago.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>What has gone unreported, though, is the planning of massive backend operations to accommodate the returnees. Tying up with state governments to arrange quarantine facilities for the lakhs of returnees, managing the domestic leg of the return, and acquiring enough testing kits to ensure that the returnees do not affect the infection curve—all this took time. Logistics planning is complex at the best of times, and it certainly is not business as usual right now.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>When India evacuated the first set of nationals from Wuhan in February, it took only 48 hours to establish a standard operating procedure and have the Army and the Indo-Tibetan Border Police set up a quarantine facility. Today, as many of the first responders are themselves ill, the ITBP is using its facility for its own personnel.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The ministry of external affairs is the nodal ministry for the evacuations. It has expanded its team in the Covid-19 management cell, and has posted senior officers to coordinate developments in every state.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Another big task was to establish screening of evacuees. The UAE, the only nation that has told other countries to take back their citizens, is offering to test all passengers. From other countries, however, only “asymptomatic travellers” will be allowed to return to India. This is a huge risk, since asymptomatic persons can also spread Covid-19. But, given the constraints, this remains the best option.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>When the government finally announced that it would start bringing back people, the stranded finally saw hope. The homecoming, however, is not turning out to be the sweet Bollywood dream many had expected.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>India had launched massive exercises to repatriate nationals earlier. The three big evacuations were in 1991, when Iraq invaded Kuwait; in 2011-12, during the Syria-Libya crisis; and in 2014-15, during the Iraq-Libya crisis. The 1991 evacuation won Air India the Guinness record for the maximum number of evacuations—1.9 lakh. The 2014-15 evacuation was the first time a Union minister (V.K. Singh, minister of state for external affairs then) camped on site to oversee operations.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“They all had their challenges,” recalled Shashank, former foreign secretary who was in charge of arranging documents for the evacuees during the Kuwait crisis. “But this time, the situation is totally different. It is an open-ended evacuation, from across the world, unlike the limited-point evacuations of the past. The evacuees aren’t necessarily returning to a safer place; the virus is everywhere. In that sense, people can exercise more choice on whether they want to return or not.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The positive side, according to K.P. Fabian, who was joint secretary of the Gulf division in the external affairs ministry, is that the Kuwait evacuation was carried out before the time of emails and smartphones.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Puri said the government’s finances were under strain. The aviation sector is gasping, even with the recent injection of subsidies. Taxpayer money cannot be spent on free rides home. So, for the first time, evacuees are being told to pay their fare, and adhere to a 14-day institutional quarantine.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“We have tried the most competitive prices commercially, tying up with hotels to quarantine people,” said an official. Yet, the proposed bill has come as a rude shock for the stranded. “We are asked to keep aside around 070,000 for the return and quarantine. If we had that much money, wouldn’t it be better to stay back for now?” asked B. Satyadeep, a software engineer from Odisha who lost his job in Kuala Lumpur.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The government’s decision on fares has made many people weigh their options. Sources said many people who had registered for evacuation were dropping out. “The government needs to work with Indian communities abroad and host governments to ensure that many of the people can remain there,” said Shashank. “Their stay could be subsidised till they get new jobs.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>This effort is already afoot, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla holding talks with their counterparts abroad. India is working hard on its Gulf diplomacy, sending gifts and consignments of medicines, ensuring uninterrupted food supply during Ramadan, and tapping the goodwill that Modi has personally earned over the past five years. India has even sent a rapid response team to help Kuwait. But it has not helped that the countries are themselves strained by the pandemic, and that there is growing discontent among them over India’s alleged Islamophobia.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>With social distancing norms reducing the already limited capacity of each flight, the government is sorting the candidates according to a list of the most “compelling reasons” for evacuation. The list gives priority to those facing deportation, those who have lost jobs, short-term visa holders, those who are ill or pregnant, the elderly, those who have had a death in the family, and tourists and students. The measures to protect the crew and passengers have compounded the expenses.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The first set of 64 flights is heading to 12 countries to bring back 14,800 Indians. Government sources say NRIs, overseas citizens of India, green card holders and foreign nationals could be accommodated on onward flights, if host nations are willing to accept them. Puri, however, said the first flights were flying out empty. As the lockdown is eased, systems could be smoothed out and onward flights could be utilised, too.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Apart from the Air India flights, the Indian Navy is also dispatching its ships under Operation Samudra Setu—INS Jalashwa and INS Magar to the Maldives, and INS Shardul to the Persian Gulf. The mode of payment for naval evacuation is still unclear, but it is certain that the voyage will not be fun. Cyclonic activity has already started in the Indian Ocean and the waters are choppy. Sources said onboard medical facilities were basic. The Air Force is on standby, too.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In later phases, Indians have to be brought home overland from Nepal, Bangladesh and Bhutan. Since a large chunk of the reverse migration comprises people who have lost jobs, the government is identifying their skills to prepare a database and absorb them into flagship projects. But it is easier said than done, given the economic gloom and job losses in India. According to Fabian, even though the states are responsible for the rehabilitation of workers, they need funding from the Centre.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>One day, India might look back at this evacuation mission as yet another record-breaking achievement. For now, though, it cannot rest on its past laurels. So, armed with masks and gloves, the country is preparing to welcome its returning citizens.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>WITH NAMRATA BIJI AHUJA AND PRADIP R. SAGAR</b></p> Sun May 10 10:20:35 IST 2020 the-crumbling-dream <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>LAST MONTH,</b> one of the richest Malayali businessmen in the Persian Gulf—Joy Arakkal, of the $125-million Innova Refining and Trading FZE—jumped off his 14th-floor office in Dubai and died. He had been battling financial problems related to the economic crash triggered by Covid-19.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Anil Nair (name changed), an engineer at an automobile company in Oman, came home to Palakkad in early March for the birth of his child. He has been stuck in Kerala since then. Last week, he and some of his colleagues received termination notices from their employer. Anil worries that he will not be able to repay his hefty home and car loans.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Razeena, a 28-year-old single mother from Aluva, had left her two-year-old daughter with her parents to work as a housemaid in the Gulf. But the Malayali couple she works for have lost their jobs and are planning to return home. She, too, wants to return, but has no money left to buy a flight ticket.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Sumesh (name changed), an accountant in a small firm in Sharjah, lives in fear with his wife, a pharmacist, and their 12-year-old daughter in an apartment block shared by seven families. There are four Covid-19 patients in the flat next to theirs. Both Sumesh and his wife have lost their jobs, and they have no funds left to pay for rent, school fees and groceries. They have sought the help of the state government to send their daughter home; the couple are planning to stay in Sharjah and ride out the storm.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>These are the faces of Kerala’s crumbling “Gulf dream”, which has powered the state’s economy for the past 60 years. The dream had been waning in recent years because of the economic woes in the Gulf and the steady return of workers to Kerala. The pandemic, however, could be the final straw.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>There are 30 lakh Malayalis in the Gulf, which means every fourth Indian there is from Kerala. They can be broadly divided into four classes: the ultra-rich, the fledgling entrepreneurs, the professionals, and the unskilled labourers. The last category forms 80 per cent of the total migrant population.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“Kerala is certainly facing a crisis like never before,” Dr S. Irudaya Rajan, one of India’s top demographers, told THE WEEK. “NRKs had returned to Kerala in massive numbers during the Gulf War and the 2009 recession. But it was not of this proportion.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Most expatriates sense the crisis. Almost five lakh Malayalis from across the world have registered with the government to return to Kerala; more than 60,000 of them have lost their jobs. “Our lives have changed forever,” said John Rajan, a painter in a construction firm. John had been in the Gulf since the late 1980s; he had returned to Kerala during the war and the recession. “Those issues were nothing compared with the current situation,” he said. “The Gulf economy had already been reeling; now the coronavirus has come as a double whammy. There is no hope of an immediate recovery.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Nisha Ponthattil, an IELTS trainer, said the crisis was huge. “There are only two types of NRKs here: Those who have lost their jobs and those who have had massive salary cuts. One hears only sad stories from all over the Gulf.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The condition of unskilled and semi-skilled Malayalis is worse. Most of them have been jobless since March, and they survive in cramped rooms shared by as many as 12 people. “Many blue-collar workers are having a bad time,” said philanthropist K.V. Shamsudheen. “No one has any savings here, as they send almost their entire earnings back home.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Many workers have not stepped out since the lockdown began. Malayali welfare groups spread across the region are trying to provide them food and medicine, but the lockdown and the shortage of funds are hindering their efforts.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Adding to the woes are the rapid increase in the number of Covid-19 cases and deaths. Many Malayalis who have tested positive are forced to stay in, as there are not enough rooms in government hospitals. So far, 44 Malayalis in the Gulf have died of Covid-19; only three have died in Kerala. “There is panic everywhere,” said Nisha. “People are falling into depression as they are not able to handle the pressure of losing their jobs and the fear of Covid.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But, despite the gloom, many people are still holding on to their dream. One of them is Vimala, 41, who used to be a beautician in Dubai. Jobless since mid-March, she has been surviving with the help of her friends and Malayali groups. “I came to Dubai only in January this year—that, too, after spending huge money,” she said. “How will I repay the loan if I go back now? There are many like me who hope that the situation would improve after a few months.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Many workers also fear that they could spread Covid-19 in Kerala if they return. “If that happens, it could create a health crisis in a state that has been managing the pandemic quite well. We will be putting our families in danger,” said Karim K.A., who works in the automobile industry.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The state government expects around three lakh Malayalis to return—a huge setback for the state’s economy, which is heavily dependent on remittances from abroad. “Three lakh jobless people coming back means that three lakh families will be affected,” said Irudaya Rajan. “If there are five members in each family, a minimum of 15 lakh people will get directly affected.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Optimists, however, point to the bright side. “Those who are returning to Kerala are better-skilled labourers with better exposure and multilingual skills,” said UAE-based writer Shajahan Madampat. “If Kerala can use their services properly, they would be a great asset to the state. For that to happen, the state government should have a proper plan and vision.”</p> Fri May 08 19:00:19 IST 2020 rural-self-rule <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>THESE DAYS,</b> there is no way one can travel through rural Telangana without encountering hostile inquiries, blockades and vigilantes. The sheer impact of the Covid-19 pandemic in the state has led to the creation of thousands of bordered territories within it. In the aftermath of the lockdown, many villagers are following a shift system to guard the entrances to their villages, in order to prevent the entry of “foreigners”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Madanapuram in Nalgonda district, a village of just 1,500 people, is headed by the youngest sarpanch of the state, 23-year-old Akhila Yadav. With a scarf over her nose and mouth, and a stick in hand, Akhila stands guard at the village entrance.</p> <p>Almost every day of lockdown has been hectic for her. No vehicle or people are allowed to enter the village without her permission. “People from surrounding villages come here to drink toddy,” she says. “I want to stop them. Since it is lockdown time, I felt that we should do our part to help the police.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Akhila’s shift is during daytime; her father and other elders guard the entry points at night. She says that some visitors had argued with her for stopping them. “But the moment they realise that I am the sarpanch, they listen,” she says.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>For a few days, Akhila went easy on the outsiders, as the government insisted that the movement of essential services should not be obstructed. She removed the barricades and opened the road, but then found that toddy-drinkers were still frequenting village.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“We tried engaging with the people in a polite way, but did not succeed. So we stopped their vehicles, deflated their tyres and broke the toddy bottles,” she says.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Yadadri Bhuvanagiri district takes pride in being Covid-19-free. It has not had a single positive case so far. People here sprang into action as soon as news broke out that a number of people who had attended the Tabhligi Jamaat meetings in Delhi had tested positive in Telangana. Even as the state government was searching for the attendees and their contacts, a group of elders in a village here told a Muslim resident that they had information that one of his family members had travelled to Delhi. They told him to send the relative to quarantine and warned him of social boycott if he did not do so. Next day, the Delhi returnee presented himself before state officials, along with five others who had either travelled to Delhi or had been in contact with those who returned from Delhi.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Some villages in the district have been extra cautious. In Saidapur, for instance, all those who had returned from a 14-day quarantine were made to be in home quarantine for one more week.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“The village elders formed a WhatsApp group for the people in home quarantine,” says P. Kiran, a villager. “They were told to message in the group in case they need any essentials. The items were door-delivered by the villagers.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The village of Gosaipally in Sangareddy district, too, passed a lockdown resolution, and the person most affected by it was the sarpanch, N. Saya Goud. His mother had gone to meet a relative in the neighbouring village. “We got to know that three people from that village had been quarantined,” says Goud. “My mother wanted to get back home. Since we put up check-posts at the [village] entrance, she was stopped there. I got a call from local volunteers asking me if I should let her in. I refused, and told her to return to the relative’s house.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It has been more than a month now, and his mother is still not home. “I cannot have one rule for my family members and another rule for villagers,” he says. The village passed another resolution, too, after the announcement of lockdown—whoever wants to enter the village for any work has to get a health certificate from a nearby hospital.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In Ranga Reddy district, which is partly in the Greater Hyderabad region, some villages put up fences on the boundaries, and when these failed to stop vehicles, the people dug up approach roads. They check even ambulances to prevent people being smuggled in.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Similar scenes can be witnessed across the district, but there are many critics who feel that the villagers are overzealous. “Initially, police officers encouraged the village elders to handle the situation,” says P. Krishna Reddy, a farmer from the district. “They did this knowing well that with limited manpower they cannot physically enforce lockdown in every village. As villagers started putting up barricades, there was no resistance from the police. This led to more village elders and sarpanches seizing power and controlling the local affairs.”</p> Thu Apr 30 19:51:05 IST 2020 married-to-a-multitude <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>ENTERING THE WEDLOCK</b> surrounded by relatives can be a beautiful experience. But, entering an indefinite lockdown with 40-odd relatives stuck by your side not so much. And, nobody knows it better than Hyderabad resident G. Mani Kumar, 24, who got married on the evening of March 20, two days before the Janata Curfew Sunday.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Kumar resides with his parents in a two-room house, allotted under the Telangana state’s housing scheme for the poor, in an industrial area in Bolarum on the outskirts of the city. His parents earn their living as daily wage labourers in nearby factories, and he is a software systems engineer in a private company. The family hails from Paralakhemundi in Odisha’s Gajapati district. As the village borders Andhra Pradesh, many of its residents speak Telugu. According to Kumar, his parents migrated to Hyderabad two years after he was born.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A few months ago, his relatives found a match for him in his cousin, Devika. The bride’s family hails from a village in Andhra Pradesh’s Srikakulam district, which borders Odisha. A date was fixed, and relatives started pouring in from the two states. A few relatives arrived on March 19 and the rest on the day of the wedding. “I am not good at expressing my thoughts as I am reserved. All I can say is I am happy with the way my wedding took place,” said Kumar.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Appa Rao, a resident of Bolarum who attended the wedding, said it was an unusual wedding venue. “An empty plot outside the the groom’s house was decorated,” he said. “It was mostly a family affair; close to 100 people attended the wedding.” And, the celebration went on till midnight.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“All our relatives who had travelled from outside the state wanted to stay for one more day,” said Kumar. “There was an important function the next day (March 21). The plan was to see them off on March 22.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But the Janata Curfew came into effect on March 22. And by evening, the Telangana government announced a lockdown. Kumar and his family were stumped. How would they accommodate their relatives in their 675sqft abode?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Recalling the initial days, Kumar said, “We had to adjust as we did not have any choice. Some slept on the terrace and a few others slept wherever they could find space.” But it was not easy making them feel at home. “They are part of our family. It is not appropriate to talk about how difficult it was to look after them,” said Kumar. “I can only say that our family has spent a good amount [on them]. Other relatives also chipped in.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Also, the wedding gifts came in handy. “We got utensils and other household items like crockery as gifts. These are being used,” said Kumar.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The family also reached out to a few of their distant relatives who live close by and requested them to take in a few of the guests. But feeding and providing for so many relatives during a lockdown was tough. And so, about 10 days after the wedding, a few of the guests went to a police station with the wedding card and obtained permission to travel. They hired taxis and set off, only to return in a few hours. They were told that their vehicles would be stopped at the state borders.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It was back to square one for Kumar. Also, a few of the relatives were worried about their family back home. “Some of us have aged parents whom we left behind in the village,” said a relative. “A few members have travelled without spouses.” Since most of the relatives were from villages, they felt suffocated being cooped up in a house.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>And then, the media got a whiff of their predicament. “We assembled outside the groom’s house and spoke to the media,” said Kumar’s uncle Kagesh. “We hoped that our plight might force the administration to send us back. The news played out, but in the end we were disappointed.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Instead of giving them a travel permit, the police advised them against travelling. Speaking to the media, however, did help. Political leaders showed up with essential items including four quintals of rice, vegetables and oil.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Even as they spend time together, chit-chatting, reminiscing, cooking, even arguing or watching TV, Kumar’s relatives long to go home. But there is one person who is quite happy about this lockdown situation. “I think my wife is happy about what is going on,” said Kumar, who is now sharing his house with eight other people apart from his parents and wife. “She can meet and talk to her relatives daily.” Small mercies!</p> Thu Apr 30 19:48:03 IST 2020 loud-and-clear <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>TAMIL NADU</b> Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami was furious after a meeting with his ministers on April 16. He was not miffed by the inaction of his colleagues or the bureaucrats, but by opposition leader M.K. Stalin’s demand for an all-party meeting. “What advice could they give?” asked Palaniswami. “Are they doctors? The advice is given by medical experts and only if we follow their advice we can stop the spread of the contagion.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>At a time when most political leaders have chosen to remain quiet, Stalin has been quite vocal, regularly pointing out the inadequacies in the government’s measures taken to fight the pandemic. “Because of his experience as a leader and the concern he has for people, he is way ahead of the government,” said DMK legislator P.T.R.P. Thiagarajan. “The fundamental problem is that the ruling dispensation has not understood the complexity of the crisis as it is structurally inefficient.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>When the assembly session began on March 9, Stalin had asked the government to close educational institutions to prevent an outbreak. Palaniswami did not budge. A few days later, when the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a pandemic, Stalin urged the government to suspend the assembly session. When the DMK’s deputy leader, Durai Murgan, demanded this in the assembly, Palaniswami mocked him. “Coronavirus affects the elderly. Durai Murugan is above 70 years. Maybe that is why he is worried,” he said. The DMK’s 100 MLAs boycotted the rest of the session.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“When the government is wrong or not going in the right direction, only an opposition leader can question the ruling dispensation,” said senior journalist S.P. Lakshmanan. “Not just Stalin, the other party leaders in Tamil Nadu also have been doing this.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Stalin’s statements have been politically loaded, and the government has been forced to respond. He recently launched an initiative called Ondrinaivom Vaa (Come, let’s unite). “I feel this is to keep the party machinery live,” said political analyst Tharasu Shyam. The initiative is said to have been launched with the help of political strategist Prashant Kishor.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>On the ground, however, it has not been that easy for the DMK. “Our district functionaries are stopped from distributing relief materials, saying they are violating the law,” said Thiagarajan. “But the AIADMK is allowed to work. The best example is the Amma canteens run by the government. Here the government allows the AIADMK to do the distribution.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Stalin, for sure, is making himself heard. But it remains to be seen if his hard work will pay off in 2021, when the state goes to the assembly polls.</p> Thu Apr 30 19:40:00 IST 2020 chief-minister-palaniswami-has-forgotten-his-duties <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>Q/ How is the Tamil Nadu government handling the pandemic?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ The government does not seem to have understood the complexity of the crisis. Although the disease began spreading in neighbouring Kerala in January itself, the AIADMK government in Tamil Nadu did not wake up. When I made a request to adjourn the assembly session and get involved in disease control activities, the government did not listen. There was self-quarantine in the state, but we conducted public examinations for 8.5 lakh plus-two students.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The government refused to convene an all-party meeting, there was delay in procuring rapid test kits and in giving personal protective equipment (PPE) to doctors, nurses, police and other frontline workers. The chief minister even gave an irresponsible interview saying Covid-19 was a disease of the rich and that the infections would go down to zero in three days. The chief minister, the health minister, the chief secretary and the health secretary were speaking in different voices. From all these, it is clear that the AIADMK government does not have any strategy to control the pandemic. It has shown how a government should not function during a disaster like this. Chief Minister Palaniswami has been irresponsible and has forgotten his duties.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Do you think the Union government, too, failed to foresee the complexity of the crisis?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ China announced the spread of the virus on January 7 and the World Health Organization called it a “public health emergency” on January 30. But India continued to allow international flights till March 22. In these two months, the Modi government was busy receiving US President Donald Trump and toppling the elected government in Madhya Pradesh. It continued with the Parliament session, despite the opposition demand to call it off. The rapid test kits for detecting the disease reached us only 21 days after the lockdown began. Modi addressed the nation twice via television. I am disappointed that he did not announce any scheme to protect the livelihoods of the affected people, to revive the economy or to help the unorganised sector. It is worrying that the Modi government tried to celebrate the pandemic by clapping hands, lighting diyas and bursting crackers and converting it into a light and sound show.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ The DMK is accused of playing petty politics, instead of being a constructive opposition.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ We offered full cooperation to the AIADMK government’s activities. We cancelled all our party activities. I went to Washermanpet where protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act were going on and asked the protesters to call off the protests temporarily in view of the pandemic. To ensure social distancing, I asked the government to adjourn the assembly session. When our demand was rejected, we decided to boycott the session. The DMK was the first one to donate Rs1 crore to the chief minister’s relief fund. We were also the first to ask our MLAs and MPs to contribute their constituency development funds for disease control. We offered to the government the Kalaignar auditorium at the party headquarters to be used as an isolation ward. We also offered our office premises in all districts for the purpose. We have launched a new initiative called Ondrinaivom Vaa to bring people together for welfare measures. We have been working in such a way that people feel that the DMK is the ruling party. It is the AIADMK government which is involved in cheap politics even during a disaster, using government funds to deceive people.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ You have been saying that the Palaniswami government is not transparent about dealing with the pandemic.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ There has been no transparency at any stage. The numbers and statistics given by the government are not trustworthy. There is no agreement among the chief minister, the health minister and the chief secretary about the community spread of the disease. There are differences between the chief minister and the chief secretary on extending the lockdown. There is utter confusion about procuring rapid test kits and on maintaining stocks of PPE, masks and gloves. There are problems in giving out statistics about patients. There is no clarity on the number of people to be tested and on when and how the infections will be brought under control. The government does not even have an action plan to come out of the disaster.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ You have demanded Rs1 crore as compensation for families of frontline workers who die fighting Covid-19.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ We passed a resolution saying if people in the frontline like doctors, nurses, health care workers, sanitary workers and members of the police force die fighting the pandemic, a compensation of Rs1 crore should be paid to their families. This is an unusual situation and is not the time to calculate the income and the expenses.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Is the DMK prepared for an early election?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ I am not willing to talk about elections at this time when our people are in trouble. The DMK is fully equipped to cross that bridge whenever we come to it.</p> Thu Apr 30 19:38:17 IST 2020 maximum-stress <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Senior Inspector Vilas Gangawane and his team of 30 stood on high alert at the barricades at Shahu Nagar in Dharavi in Mumbai on April 20. The locality had registered its first Covid-19 case—a 56-year-old man with no travel history—three weeks earlier and, within 20 days, it became a hotspot with 180 cases and 12 deaths. “We have to man the barricades every single minute,” said Gangawane. “You never know from where the people might just escape. We cannot take any chances.”</p> <p>On April 21, the city recorded 419 new cases, its biggest 24-hour jump. Maharashtra recorded 5,218 cases till April 22, and 66 per cent of them—3,451 cases—were in Mumbai. Around 85 per cent of the cases in Mumbai were from slums and semi-slum areas such as Dharavi, Worli Koliwada and Jijamata Nagar.</p> <p>More than 40 per cent of the cases in Mumbai were in four wards—G-South, G-North, E and D. Much of these wards are slums with extremely high population density. In the G-South ward—covering Worli, Prabhadevi and Lower Parel—more than 3,500 people were under institutional quarantine. And, to accommodate them, Tourism Minister Aaditya Thackeray, the local MLA, got the National Sports Club of India dome, earlier a quarantine centre, to serve as a care centre for patients; it will take in more than 500 asymptomatic patients soon. Thackeray also got a phone booth-style swab-testing unit installed at Podar Hospital for cheap and early diagnosis.</p> <p>In Mumbai, 42 per cent of the population dwells in slums, with almost 20,000 people in a square kilometre. “This is peculiar to Mumbai,” said Dr Nilesh Gawde, assistant professor, Tata Institute of Social Sciences. “The number of positive cases in the city is already high, and the worry is that it is going to spiral. There are so many people cramped together in slums, where many of them share space with 10 to 12 people in a 10x10m room. Most of them are workers holding jobs that cannot be done from home. Here, social distancing, rather physical distancing, is difficult to follow.”</p> <p>The number of containment zones in the city went up from 77 to 813 in the first 22 days of April. “To ask people to follow social distancing in Mumbai is a joke in most localities,” said Kiran Dighavkar, assistant commissioner, Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation. “We have found 12 to 15 people sleeping side by side in a dingy room. We simply ensure that people get food and medicines in their rooms and that they do not come out unnecessarily.”</p> <p>Despite having better medical facilities than most parts of India, Mumbai’s mortality rate—4.81 per cent—is higher than the India average of 3.2 per cent.</p> <p>The city’s health care system is under stress. As on April 20, almost 200 medical staffers across the city had tested positive for Covid-19. To limit the spread, hospitals with infected staff, including Wockhardt, Jaslok and Breach Candy, were sealed in the past weeks. This further shook people’s faith in the health care system. Only on April 21 did the BMC announce that the entire hospital would not be shut if a patient or employee tested positive.</p> <p>“It was nightmarish when the hospital suddenly called saying that the dialysis unit was shutting down as the entire hospital had been sealed,” said young Sahil Kewat (name changed), who needs dialysis three times a week. “Just because two nurses tested positive, they sealed the entire hospital (Shushrusha) for almost a week. I was given no alternate lab for my dialysis. They said nobody would take me unless I proved that I was Covid-19 negative.”</p> <p>Many hospitals are in a sad state. The BMC-run Kasturba Hospital, which has been at the forefront of the battle against Covid, lacks an ICU and a full-time intensivist. Videos of poor sanitation at SevenHills hospital have appeared on Twitter. It was more than a month after the first case was reported that the BMC-run Nair Hospital became the first hospital with an attached medical college to be designated a Covid-only facility. “The BMC never expected that the numbers would grow so fast,” said Dr Daksha Shah, health officer, BMC. “We were learning in the initial days and were trying to put things into perspective. Even the guidelines were not clear. We are a government setup and cannot give five-star treatment. We can contain the situation as we still have beds.”</p> <p>Dr Om Shrivastav, an infectious disease specialist in the Maharashtra task force, said, “[It is] essential that all doctors from both public and private hospitals in the city come together. We need a bigger and stronger force. The government institutions cannot alone handle the crisis.”</p> <p>A senior official said the cases could soon increase to a lakh, as the slums had already been hit. Said bioethics and global health researcher Dr Anant Bhan: “What went wrong in Mumbai is that the patients were spread across different hospitals and centres in the city, because obviously the government’s frontline hospitals were ill-prepared to suddenly handle a huge crisis. Because of this, many doctors and health staff got infected and hospitals had to be shut. Also, the hygiene and sanitation within hospitals has been questionable.”</p> <p>The health care sector aside, ordinary Mumbaikars continue to grapple with the lockdown. With no jobs, little food and a clampdown in place, the migrant workers are yearning to go back to their villages. Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray had asked them to stay calm and promised them food. “Why should we stay back?” asked Ramkrishna Yadav, a driver who lives in an 8x8m room in Mankhurd and has been giving free rides to those in need. “When everyone can be with their families inside the comfort of their homes, why can’t we? We do not get to go back before, during or after the lockdown. We have to struggle all our lives. This is our fate, isn’t it?”</p> <p>Uncertainty and fear haunt everyone. As students wonder when their academic sessions will resume, professionals worry about layoffs. Anant Krishnamurthy, a 29-year-old working in a securities firm in Mumbai, said, “They might just cite a global economic meltdown as an excuse to fire us any moment.”</p> <p>Deepa Ladhani, who lives in a chawl and sells homemade food, said orders had dried up because of the lockdown. “I get many orders on a daily basis and that is how I earn my living,” said the 35-year-old cook. “Now, as there is no transport, people know I would not be able to deliver. It is frustrating. Moreover, I fear that my son and I will catch the virus.”</p> <p>Bollywood, too, has stalled. There is no activity in Film City in Goregaon; the technicians and workers have packed up. Release of big films such as Sooryavanshi and ‘83 has been postponed. “Every production house has been impacted in a major way, but we still have a sense of eternity ingrained in our systems,” said filmmaker Anand Tiwari. “We are helping daily wagers from our industry in every way we can. I feel that it will take us one and a half months, in addition to the lockdown period, for shoots to actually begin. One of the biggest challenges will be when the cinema halls and live theatres open, because the government will not allow people to watch movies as they used to. Social distancing will take precedence.”</p> <p>With the city grappling with fear, its guardians, too, are facing the heat. Among units of Maharashtra Police, Mumbai Police have recorded the highest number of cases—15. But this has not stopped them from being on their toes. As on April 21, the eight-member Twitter team of Mumbai Police had responded to 20,000 tweets since the beginning of the lockdown.&nbsp;</p> Thu Apr 23 18:09:46 IST 2020 evolution-of-eps <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>On March 22, two days before the nationwide lockdown began, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswami and his deputy O. Panneerselvam relieved S. Rajenthra Bhalaji, the dairy development minister, of his role as the AIADMK’s district secretary for Virudhunagar. The decision came hours after Bhalaji made a controversial statement linking Covid-19 and religion. Then, on March 30, as everyone waited for Health Minister Dr C. Vijayabaskar to provide pandemic-related updates after a meeting at the state secretariat, Palaniswami, aka EPS, walked out and took his place. The following day, when WHO representatives came visiting, Vijayabaskar was nowhere to be seen. It was EPS who launched a special Covid ward at the government multi-speciality hospital at Omandurar Estate in Chennai.</p> <p>The two incidents, involving two ministers, had a whiff of days gone by. They reminded political analysts of one J. Jayalalithaa, whose passing, incidentally, led to EPS becoming chief minister.</p> <p>When he first took over, critics said his rule would be short-lived. However, the day after his swearing-in, he sent out a message. Unlike predecessor Panneerselvam, aka OPS, he chose to enter Jayalalithaa’s chamber and sit in her chair. He then fulfilled five of her poll promises, including phased prohibition, and signalled that he would be a welfare chief minister.</p> <p>Since then, EPS has gone from a Salem strongman to the de facto face of the party. “Palaniswami has the knack for political manoeuvring,” said senior journalist Tharasu Shyam.</p> <p>However, several decisions—from the police shooting anti-Sterlite protesters in Thoothukudi to the AIADMK supporting the Citizenship (Amendment) Act—made the party look like the Centre’s puppet. Despite this, EPS has managed to survive.</p> <p>His rise to power among his peers began only in May 2016, when he not only won his constituency of Edappadi, but also helped the AIADMK win 10 seats in and around Salem. “He has continued to maintain his dominance since then,” said Shyam. “Unlike OPS, who had to guard the chair for Jayalalithaa, EPS had full freedom to run his government.”</p> <p>Last September, when he returned from an official trip to the US, EPS received a grand reception at the airport, akin to the ones Jayalalithaa or M.G. Ramachandran got. The “accidental chief minister” was renamed the “revolutionary leader.” Weeks later, when OPS returned from a similar trip, he got a lukewarm welcome in comparison.</p> <p>OPS, who had merged his faction with the party in 2017, was hoping to become AIADMK general secretary. But, by scrapping the post and announcing Jayalalithaa as the eternal general secretary, EPS dashed his hopes. “Even OPS could not oppose this,” said senior journalist Durai Karna. “No one in the party is against his decision. He might be the joint coordinator of the party, but he is considered supreme by the party men.”</p> <p>Of the 2,500 general council members in the party, at least 1,700 support EPS. “Unlike OPS, EPS grabbed all the opportunities he got and has asserted himself as a leader, both as the party’s joint coordinator and chief minister,” said Karna.</p> <p>Said political analyst Raveenthran Duraisamy: “He has emerged so strong that even the BJP government at the Centre will not think of toppling him. Unlike in the DMK, every senior leader in the AIADMK under Jayalalithaa knew how to survive. EPS has mastered this (instinct).”</p> <p>Apparently, there was much opposition within the party when it allied with the BJP for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. “Everyone knew that it would be a big loss for both,” said Shyam. “The alliance failed, but EPS emerged victorious.”</p> <p>While the DMK and T.T.V. Dhinakaran’s AMMK concentrated on making it to Parliament, EPS’s sole aim was to stabilise his minority government. Of the 22 assembly bypolls held around the same time (April-May 2019), EPS focused on just 13 seats; his men won nine of those seats, thus stabilising the state government.</p> <p>In the recently concluded assembly session, EPS displayed another trait of Jayalalithaa’s; he would give clarify queries lobbed at his cabinet colleagues. Also, just like her, he used Rule 110 (announcements under this rule are not open to debate) to make many decisions. “Usually, in a budget session, the finance minister will be the hero,” said Karna. “But OPS, who used to take Amma’s name in his earlier budgets, now hails EPS.” In fact, these days, most ministers and party MLAs address him as “Edappadiar” (the man from Edappadi) in the assembly.</p> <p>EPS also ensures that the DMK does not steal his limelight; he takes on the opposition in public meetings and rallies. Once, when DMK president M.K. Stalin called him an “earthworm”, he said the earthworm was the farmer’s friend.</p> <p>EPS always identifies himself as a farmer. “I was amazed when I heard him orally calculate the acreage of yield in a farm just by looking at the crops,” said Salem Amma Peravai secretary R. Elango.</p> <p>After the state government announced a protected special agricultural zone in the Cauvery delta region recently, farmers hailed EPS as their leader. “This one announcement flummoxed his rival parties,” said Shyam. “It went on to prove that he had his finger on the pulse. It has earned him accolades from several quarters.”</p> <p>His party men in Salem describe him as a farmer and a foodie. He enjoys home-cooked food and sweets, but avoids non-vegetarian food on auspicious days, which is a practice in many villages in western Tamil Nadu. He exercises for 20 to 30 minutes every day, takes brisk walks in the number eight pattern and does basic stretches.</p> <p>Farmers aside, he has also reached out to other segments of the population. For instance, in January 2019, when teachers and government employees went on strike against a new pension scheme, EPS persuaded them to call off the agitation. Within nine days, the protestors returned to work; later, the government selectively dismissed leaders of the protest. “His grasp of subjects is amazing,” State Revenue Minister R.B. Udhayakumar told THE WEEK. “Like Amma, he understands everything we put forth to him, be it departmental or party-related issues. He listens to us and gives us space to work.”</p> <p>But when Covid-19 struck, EPS could not foresee the spread of the pandemic. He believed that his health minister, who is also a doctor, would take care of it. However, he took over after he got to know about the Tablighi Jamaat event in Delhi and the spread because of it.</p> <p>Even when the Centre gave the state only 0822 crore to fight the pandemic, EPS maintained that the state could manage and that it did not depend only on the Centre. “We are self-sufficient as of now when it comes to funds,” chief secretary K. Shanmugam told THE WEEK. “The Centre did not release the funds we asked for. But our chief minister has ensured that every sector is being supported during the crisis.”</p> <p>However, there has been criticism, too. While states such as Odisha and Punjab extended the lockdown, Tamil Nadu decided to wait for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to make an announcement. Also, the government has faced flak from some quarters for allegedly linking the spread of the virus to a particular religion. “The health secretary first said there were cases with travel history to Delhi and later said it was from a single event (Tablighi Jamaat). The government made people believe that Muslims were spreading the virus,” said Aloor Shahnawaz of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi.</p> <p>Regardless, EPS seems to have won the goodwill of the people, for now. Poll pundits in the state, however, said that, come 2021, the AIADMK might not retain power for a third consecutive term. “He is popular now,” said senior journalist R. Mani. “But how long the popularity will last is the million-dollar question, because even one day is a long time in politics.”&nbsp;</p> Thu Apr 23 15:51:25 IST 2020