Post-lockdown plan, migrants in focus at Centre-states meet
Thousands of Indians stuck abroad are eager to return, although there is no clarity when international flights will be allowed -- although there’s been talk in some government circles of so-called rescue flights to bring back Indians after May 3.Updated: Apr 26, 2020 08:05 IST
Are you willing to take your people stuck overseas back? What kind of concessions would you want after May 3? How do we get migrant workers stranded outside their home states back?
These were some of the questions discussed at a meeting chaired by cabinet secretary Rajiv Gauba with chief secretaries of the states on Saturday -- two days before Prime Minister Narendra Modi is to meet with the chief ministers of states over video-conference, and some of the officials present at the meeting said that these may be indicative of the kind of issues that will be discussed at that meeting, the fourth such on issues related to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Thousands of Indians stuck abroad are eager to return, although there is no clarity when international flights will be allowed -- although there’s been talk in some government circles of so-called rescue flights to bring back Indians after May 3, even if the skies aren’t opened.
And hundreds of thousands of workers , currently in migrant labour camps around India want to return home -- something not possible when no interstate travel is being allowed and passenger trains are not running. Several states have suggested running special trains to transport these workers. At Saturday’s meeting some states including Punjab, Gujarat, Bihar and West Bengal asked the centre to set a protocol for such movements.
The brainstorming session was also attended by secretaries of key departments, Directors General of Police, and district magistrates. All the DMs were on listen-only mode.
Guidelines to start industries, shops and services outside the containment zones were allowed from April 20. But in opening speech, Gauba told the states that the instructions issued by the union home ministry have not been followed properly at the ground-level. According an official present in the meeting, Gauba said that local administrations were either far too lax or too strict, and some had “ushered in a kind of inspector-raj”.
The cabinet secretary underlined that although there has been a “substantial improvement” (in checking the spread of the virus) it was not uniform, this official added on condition of anonymity.
He reiterated that there is a need to focus on containment even while relaxing restrictions further, indicating the Centre’s strategy after the lockdown ends. Gauba also stressed on the need for “strong action on surveillance front” to “actively identify people and areas” who are vulnerable to or have been infected by the virus.
Maharashtra chief secretary Ajoy Mehta—representing the state worst hit by the pandemic—suggested tougher norms. Home secretary Ajay Bhalla chipped in and said any state is free to impose additional measures over and above the Centre’s rules for so-called hot spots.
“You should not lower your guard,” Bhalla said.
Mehta also highlighted that many private labs are taking huge number of swab samples but are unable to test them and give reports in time. He suggested that ICMR must have an oversight on private labs, a suggestion well-received by union officials.
The migrant workers’ issue took much of the time in the meeting. Punjab chief secretary Karan Singh said that there are about 1.1 million daily wage workers from UP and Bihar working in Punjab’s farms and as the harvest season is over, these workers want to return to their home states.
Several states including Bihar maintained that the states can’t negotiate such tricky matters among themselves and the Centre needs to come up with a protocol. West Bengal home secretary Alapan Bandopadhyay claimed that everything is under control in his state till Bhalla reminded him of hundreds of loaded trucks stuck at the Indo-Bangladesh border in West Bengal that need to be unloaded for Bangladesh.
West Bengal and the Center have been sparring for days, most recently over a report by a central team that visited the state and found problems in its response to Covid-19.
Gujarat informed that it has allowed 28,000 industries to start in rural areas while asking the Centre to make arrangements for shifting migrant workers.
While many states spoke of the work done in their areas, only Karnataka demanded that liquor shops must be opened. Karnataka chief secretary TM Vijay Bhaskar said that liquor shops can be allowed to operate with strict social distancing norms in place as the state needs them for its “budget-balancing exercise”. Liquor sales are a major source of excise for all states.
On the question of bringing back Indians stranded overseas, Kerala was the most vocal. Its chief secretary Tom Jose said that the state government is under “immense pressure” to bring back 5 lakh Malayali workers and students stranded in West Asia.
Jose also explained the elaborate plan in place to quarantine expat Malayalis if the union government decides to bring them back.
Bandopadhyay and some other states didn’t give any specific assurance to accept their domiciles from abroad. Bandopadhyay said he will have to talk to the chief minister. Foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla pointedly responded to this and said a large number of Indians are stuck in a few neighbouring countries and states must come up with plans on how to deal with them if the Centre allows their return.