New team starts with focus on farm, health
The revamped Union Cabinet announced major decisions for the health and agriculture sectors after its first meeting on Thursday, highlighting the government’s priority areas in its bid to curb a possible third wave of Covid-19 infections, and ongoing farmer protests against three central laws.
The Cabinet approved ₹23,123 crore for Covid-19 emergency response and upgrading of grassroots medical infrastructure in preparation for a future surge in infections. It also cleared a proposal to extend a flagship ₹1 lakh crore fund to agriculture produce marketing committees (APMC), the backbone of farm trade in the country.
“Important decisions regarding agriculture and farmers’ welfare have been taken in today’s Cabinet meeting,” tweeted Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The virtual meeting of the 30-member Cabinet took place a day after Modi dropped 12 ministers, inducted 36 new faces, and promoted seven in the first major reshuffle of the council of ministers of his second term.
The briefing was addressed by Union information and broadcasting minister Anurag Thakur, agriculture minister Narendra Singh Tomar, and health minister Mansukh Mandaviya.
Mandaviya, who took over from Harsh Vardhan on Wednesday, said the Centre will provide ₹15,000 crore and states ₹8,123 crore in the new package that will be implemented jointly across 736 districts to improve medical infrastructure at primary and district health centres. Projects under the plan will be implemented within nine months.
“In April 2020, the first package of ₹15,000 crore was announced by the government; it has been utilised well and the results are also for all to see,” said Mandaviya.
Around 240,000 normal medical beds and 20,000 intensive care unit beds will be created, of which 20% percent will be earmarked for children, he added. Storage facilities for oxygen and medicines will also be created at the district level.
“This scheme aims to accelerate health system preparedness for immediate responsiveness for early prevention, detection and management, with the focus on health infrastructure development, including for paediatric care, and with measurable outcomes,” said a government statement. To ensure there is no oxygen supply shortage, provisions will be made in each district to have 10,000-litre storage facility.
Earlier this year, the government faced criticism from the public, judiciary and opposition parties as cases and fatalities rose sharply during the second wave this summer. Hospitals ran out of oxygen supplies, leaving patients gasping and life-saving drugs were in short supply.
The Cabinet also decided to extend the ₹1 lakh-crore Agriculture Infrastructure Fund to APMCs, which are government-run market yards for buying and selling farm produce. The fund is primarily aimed at creating durable farm assets, from warehouses to processing plants. The fund can now be utilised by APMCs to modernise market facilities used by farmers to sell their produce.
“There should be no apprehension about APMCs. Some people have said that the new farm laws will lead to the end of APMCs. This is not true. The Agriculture Infrastructure Fund can now be used to strengthen APMCs and will place more resources at their disposal,” Tomar said.
The Agriculture Infrastructure Fund is designed to address longstanding investment gaps in the rural assets because of its concessional rates. All of the country’s 12 public-sector banks and nine private lenders are part of the fund.
“I want to appeal to protesting farmer unions to end their protest and to hold discussions. Government is ready for discussions,” Tomar said.
The fund, which figured in the ₹20 lakh crore first stimulus package to deal with the Covid crisis in 2020, aims to offer medium-to-long term debt financing for investment in farm projects.
It provides loans on easy terms totalling ₹1 lakh crore over four years, starting with a sanction of ₹10,000 crore for 2020-21 and ₹30,000 crore each for the next three financial years.
Borrowers get an interest subvention, where part of the interest is paid by the government, of 3% per annum up to a loan limit of ₹2 crore for a period of seven years.
Tomar said that as part of changes made to the fund, investors and institutions will qualify for multiple loan accounts if they invest in more than one project up to a ceiling of 25 projects provided they are planned in different areas.
“Indian agriculture has always depended more on subsidies than investments. The new fund will help correct that. It is important that the fund is managed in a way that farmers are able to achieve scale and connect with markets efficiently,” said Ananth Kumar of the TN Agriculture University.
Last year, the government passed three contentious farm laws that quickly triggered a controversy with farm unions from foodbowl states alleging that the legislation will threaten their livelihoods by forcing them to sell to corporate giants with greater bargaining powers at poor prices instead of government-run markets, which offer assured prices for cereals.
The government rejected the charges, saying the laws will bring competition and widen farmers’ market access. Despite assurances, cultivators have been sitting at Delhi’s borders in protest against the laws for nearly eight months.
Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) leader Rakesh Tikait said farmers are ready to talk with the government but without conditions. “They are imposing conditions that we should go to them for talks. They say that they can amend the laws but will not scrap them. Farmers have not been protesting for eight months so that they can follow the government’s orders,” Tikait told ANI.
As part of the health infrastructure plan, the government will support to all major central hospitals and other institutions of national importance.
The hospitals include Delhi’s Safdarjung Hospital, Lady Hardinge Medical College, Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital; RIMS, Imphal; NEIGRIMS, Shillong; PGIMER, Chandigarh, and JIPMER, Puducherry, for repurposing 6,688 beds for Covid-19 management.
National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) will also be strengthened by providing genome sequencing machines, besides sanctioning scientific control room, epidemic intelligence services and Indian Sars-CoV-2 Genomics Consortium (INSACOG) secretariat support.
At present, only 310 district hospitals are implementing hospital management information system that collates data coming from hospitals, and as per the plan government will provide support to all district hospitals for its implementation.
“We also look at integrating digital health systems scaling up of use of telemedicine services in the country,” said Mandviya.
Money will also be allocated for improving the information technology system, including strengthening the central Covid-19 war room, country’s Covid-19 portal, 1075 Covid help lines and the CoWIN platform that is the backbone of Covid-19 vaccine delivery management system, said the government statement quoted above.
Dedicated paediatric units will be created in all 736 districts and also paediatric centre of excellence in each state. Of the 20,000 intensive care unit beds planned for the public health care system, 20% will be paediatric ICU beds, said the statement .
“For the rest we will try to follow a hybrid model wherein ICU beds are designed in such a way that it can be utilised for both adults and children… support would also be provided to establish bigger field hospitals (50-100 bedded units) depending on the needs at tier-II or tier-III cities and district headquarters,” said Mandviya.
Experts said strengthening health care delivery system at the grassroots level is crucial.
“It is important to have a robust health care system in place in villages and small towns and if that gets strengthened than it will significantly reduce burden on tertiary hospitals,” said Dr KK Talwar, former director, PGI Chandigarh.