India is at an extremely critical stage in its fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. A lockdown was inevitable. About 21 States, including Kerala, had already announced lockdowns of various durations before the Prime Minister’s announcement. It is important that we stand united in facing this grave crisis.
As we make our way through the lockdown, the State has major responsibilities. It must take a leadership role in enforcing the lockdown while upholding the rights and dignity of people, it must educate the citizens on the dos and don’ts of rules to follow, and it must take all sections of society with it.
The health machinery has to work round the clock. At the same time, it is imperative that citizens shoulder their responsibilities and follow the rules of the lockdown strictly and diligently. Each life is precious, and any drop in our guard can quickly raise the number of the infected, thereby undermining the gains achieved.
The lockdown period should be used by the Centre to not just break the infection chain, but to isolate the infected from the general population and treat those who require it with varying degrees of hospitalisation, including intensive care. I welcome the announcement of the Prime Minister to set aside ₹15,000 crore for emergencies. However, we need clarity on how this money will be spent and on how States will be helped by the Centre in the expansion of health infrastructure.
Working together on Health
The Union Government has made some important announcements on March 26. While I welcome the relief package, I also urge that it be expanded in the coming days.
While we must build up national-level preparedness, we must also remember that health is a State subject, and that State governments are an integral part of the governance of the nation. Fiscal federalism, decentralised governance and flexibility to the States to meet their particular needs and requirements should be a part of the fight against the virus, including coping with the lockdown and the economic recovery to follow. The Central government should create consultative bodies consisting of Union and State Ministers to identify bottlenecks and assess progress. My colleagues in different States are taking different initiatives. We may all have something to learn from each other.
In Kerala, we are making the utmost efforts to ensure that the supply of essential commodities, particularly food and medicines, is maintained and that the vulnerable sections of society are specifically protected. As soon as the Kerala government closed pre-schools and schools on March 10, our Women and Child Development Department made available, without missing a day’s allotment, the mandated quantities of rice, pulses, broken wheat/semolina, peanuts, jaggery, oil to all pre-school children in each anganwadi centre. It also took steps to distribute ‘Take Home Ration’ for pregnant/lactating mothers and children aged six months to three years. We undertook this intervention for 33,115 centres, and we were able to protect the nutritional needs of close to 8.3 lakh children. In some anganwadis, vegetables and eggs were also distributed. We are happy to note that the Supreme Court of India expressed appreciation for our efforts in this regard.
The Kerala approach
Kerala will ensure availability of essential goods and services, and our government will not permit a single person to starve during the lockdown. We have energised our Public Distribution System (PDS) to ensure that all households that do not figure in the priority list get 15 kg of free food supplies for a month. This is in addition to the allocation of 35 kg per household for those in the priority category. We also plan to distribute food kits, with basic grocery items and vegetables. To the deserving people now in quarantine, the government is already distributing such kits. Home delivery is being arranged to avoid crowding of people in PDS outlets and grocery shops. We plan to engage our local bodies to lead this effort at the ground level. Further, nutritious meal plates at ₹20 per plate are being served through 1,000 canteens of the State government.
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Our Industries Department directed its public sector enterprises (PSEs) to raise the production and supply of hand sanitiser bottles; they immediately responded by producing an additional one lakh bottles per day. The Kerala State Drugs and Pharmaceuticals Ltd., a PSE, has been provided with ₹25 crore to ensure adequate supply of medicines required for COVID-19 treatment. Inmates of our prisons, self-help groups under the government’s Kudumbashree Mission, and enterprises operating from our rubber parks were mobilised to increase the production of N95, triple layer and double layer face masks as well as surgical gloves. Our Khadi PSEs have been asked to supply adequate number of bed sheets and towels for disposable use in the hospitals. We have asked Internet Service Providers in the State to increase their network capacity by 30% to 40% to ensure that people can work from home.
While we enforce the lockdown in all its seriousness, we should not lose sight of the other major challenge in front of us. India has a high share of poor in its population, most of whom suffer from multiple economic and social deprivations. They earn their livelihoods from the informal and unorganised sectors, where there is neither job security nor continuity of income flows. Their livelihoods have to be protected through the lockdown period.
This is where the Kerala government has taken an initiative and come forward to announce a ₹20,000 crore economic revival package. We have a borrowing capacity of about ₹25,000 crore during the financial year 2020-21. We have requested the Central government to allow us to borrow half of this debt (about ₹12,500 crore) in April 2020 itself. This will be a major source of the ₹20,000 crore package the government has announced. This frontloading should not mean less expenditure later in the year. So, we are also requesting the Central government to provide us with flexibility under the Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management (FRBM) Act. We are hoping that the Centre will permit this.
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Our economic package of ₹20,000 crore will be spent roughly as follows. Two months of welfare pensions will be paid in advance to the pension beneficiaries. For those not eligible for welfare pensions, ₹1,320 crore has been set aside for providing an assistance of ₹1,000 per family from the BPL and Antyodaya sections. Another ₹100 crore has been set aside for providing free food grains to families in need, while ₹50 crore has been set aside for the provision of subsidised meals at ₹20 per meal. Around ₹500 crore has been set aside for a comprehensive health package, where focus will be on improving public health infrastructure and equipping the State to face such epidemics. Loans worth ₹2,000 crore will be distributed through the Kudumbashree Mission. ₹2,000 crore has been set aside for the expansion of the employment guarantee programme. Further, around ₹14,000 crore has been set aside to clear all the arrears of the State government till April 2020.
Passenger vehicles have also been given tax relief. Autos and taxis have been given relaxation on payment of fitness charges. There is relaxation in the deadlines of water and electricity bill payment for affected firms. Entertainment taxes for cinema halls have been reduced.
Let this be the period in which we end fiscal conservatism. Extraordinary times require extraordinary action. The strict rules of the Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management (FRBM) Act should be set aside. We urgently need an economic stimulus to protect the people and livelihoods in the period of lockdown.
Today the world must stand together in the battle for the safety and well being of humanity. We must draw strength and lessons from global and national experiences even as we redouble our efforts in building a people-centric response to the challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Pinarayi Vijayan is the Chief Minister of Kerala