Maharashtra government mulling 24x7 offices, local trains for all by mid-October, says Mumbai suburban guardian minister Aaditya Thackeray
On a day the city crossed the grim mark of two lakh Covid-19 cases, Mumbai suburban guardian minister Aaditya Thackeray told HT the state government was looking at resuming suburban train services by mid-October, a demand made by commuters for a while. Thackeray also said the government was talking to associations of business community to stagger office timings to ease congestion in public transport and was thinking about allowing 24x7 offices in commercial establishments.
There has been a surge in Covid cases in September. When is the situation likely to improve?
We are opening up slowly and if you see, along with the cases, there is a rise in the number of people on streets and officegoers. Soon, we can see restaurants and other commercial places opening up – the decision on it is yet to be taken. We had expected this surge and since May we have started building these jumbo facilities. As long as we have enough health machinery like beds, oxygen supply and ventilators, we can slowly start opening up. The situation totally depends on citizens and the precautions they take.
Just like how it is the government’s responsibility to provide beds and medical facilities, it is important for citizens to realise that when we step out, we are not only risking ourselves, but our family too. So only step out if need be, which is applicable even today when things are opening up, and follow the basic discipline of wearing masks and maintaining social distancing.
Mumbai has crossed 10 lakh Covid tests, but experts say daily tests need to be scaled up to check the spread of Covid-19. Why it is not happening?
There is a three-point strategy for Covid testing. Firstly, we have liberalised testing since July. We were one of those few cities in the world to liberalise testing back then and so the testing numbers will keep rising. Second, we are conducting door-to-door surveys across the state under ‘My family, My responsibility’ scheme, where we are trying to build health profiles of citizens and check for Covid symptoms. Third, our local wards are already conducting door-to-door surveys. There are some societies that resist testing or check-ups due to fear of isolation or stigma. That is something we need to work on and get rid of.
In Mumbai, several people have started commuting for work, but they have to travel in crowded buses or other means of transport that are not adequate. When will we start the local trains?
I think the number of people from essential services being allowed on the local trains has been increased. We need to increase the frequency of local trains and we are working on that with the railway authorities. As soon as we have more frequency, more crowds can be allowed, otherwise any mode of transport will be crowded. By mid-October, it is likely that we will start local trains as we are looking at a couple of more things opening up, for which we will have to start other modes of transport as well. Opening up has been slow because we don’t want to shut down anything that we have opened up already. The approach towards relaxations has been like this for the past three months.
What are the major hurdles while implementing staggered timings for offices? BMC and railways held several discussions involving private and public offices…
In a city like Mumbai, where we have different districts for businesses, banks and commercial establishments, it is very difficult to have staggered timings as a blanket rule. We are discussing it with different offices, complexes and corporate areas where you can try to stagger the timings. Finally, we want to reach an arrangement where offices are functioning 24x7. Not just in Covid times, but post that also, we would really be able to manage the traffic better if we have flexible working hours. Currently, this plan of having offices 24x7 is an internal discussion, but once we start discussing it with offices, keeping timings flexible will come up as an option. Post-Covid, we would have to give shops and establishment some more time to do their business and get back on track. We will have to give them that flexibility.
When can we expect more relaxations in the city? What is the plan to revive the economy, considering Covid is going to stay for a longer time?
Very soon actually, the last round of relaxations was around the beginning of September. If you see the pattern in all our relaxations, it will be done gradually. Just like how the state went into a lockdown gradually. It was not a sudden movement. Likewise, when we are coming out of it, we are absorbing the surge for 15 days and then planning to give more relaxations. Probably in the first week of October, the chief minister will be taking a call on what would open next.
The question of economy and unemployment is global. As we start moving out of Covid, we are looking at a couple of sectors. Firstly, the real estate sector has been given the stamp duty relaxation that has started churning the real estate, as people have started to invest. Public works is another sector we are looking at, since the beginning of the pandemic. Tourism and hospitality are other sectors which can act as a sponge for employment because people would now also want to step out and travel, considering the exhaustion of constantly being at home for the past several months. The fourth sector is industries. Every 15 days, the CM is chairing a meeting where we are looking at going further into the ease of doing business and the nitty-gritties. The discussions surround the implications of ease of doing business, its repercussions, ways to balance the industries and the labour and how to keep the investment going in times of a global economy crisis.
Covid fatalities have gone up in the MMR and there are instances of patients struggling to find hospital beds in rural Maharashtra as well. How does the state plan to improve this?
There are only a couple of textbook methods that we follow. Covid is such an unpredictable disease. Firstly, we have to indulge in early testing and detection through our state-wide programme. While we increase our bed capacities with well-equipped jumbo facilities, we also need to decentralise our helplines, similar to how we did in Mumbai. This is very crucial. We have set up a task force and mini-task force in every district to make regular visits to hospitals and jumbo facilities to have a basic check on the line of treatment. Apart from this, a long-term plan to set up a 5,000-bed hospital for infectious diseases is already in the pipeline and will cater to Mumbai as well as the MMR.
What is the topmost priority of the state to bring down Covid cases?
Do a health profile of everyone and spread awareness in terms of self-reliance of their own protection. You have to ensure that everyone knows how to wear a mask and follows social distancing guidelines. As we open up under Mission Begin Again, we will have to start taking responsibility for ourselves. We also need to get rid of the stigma around Covid. Another major issue that we need to work on globally is mental health of people. Considering the stress about job losses and exhaustion in these trying times, which has generated a lot of anxiety among people about the future, mental health care is an area we need to prioritise.