File image: Madhya Pradesh CM Shivraj Singh Chouhan
Shivraj Singh Chouhan, in his renewed avatar as Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh, finds himself in deep trouble in combating the COVID-19 pandemic.
Defections from the Congress-led Kamal Nath government brought it down and on March 23 Chouhan became Chief Minister for the fourth time. That was more than a month ago. Rather than hitting the ground running, Chouhan remained without a Cabinet until April 21 when his one-man government was expanded with five ministers.
Though among the five there is Tulsi Silawat, former health minister, the state health department appears ill-prepared to fight the outbreak. Several top bureaucrats, including Pallavi Jain Govil, principal secretary (health), J Vijay Kumar, managing director of MP Health Corporation and chief executive officer of the state’s Ayushman Bharat programme, have tested COVID-19 positive.
As of April 12, 48 officials and 32 members of their families were infected. The total number of cases in the state have swelled, crossing the 2,500-mark on April 29. The fatalities in the state have touched 130.
Alarmingly, the concept of social distancing, which is the cornerstone of the Union government’s efforts to fight COVID-19, is yet to seep into official consciousness substantially. At Chouhan’s swearing-in, BJP legislators and bureaucrats mingled with each other freely. On April 27, newly-appointed health minister Narottam Mishra was spotted defying social distancing norms with impunity while visiting his hometown Bhopal.
To make matters worse, news reports have showed how top officials have refused to isolate themselves in hospitals, thereby putting many others at risk.
What compounded an already grave scenario is the migration issue. Madhya Pradesh, being centrally located, not only sees large scale economic migration from and to the state, but also sees a lot of migrants crisscrossing the state to other states in India. As the lockdown was announced on March 24, migrant workers in the state could not leave the state — this added a different dimension to the existing healthcare crisis.
Economic migration is a pan-India problem and this Economic Survey of 2017 estimated that 9 million people moved between states annually for five years between 2011 and 2016.
The survey revealed that Uttar Pradesh and Bihar were the biggest source of migrants. This was closely followed by Madhya Pradesh. The migrants went far and wide within the country, principally to Delhi, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala.
Chouhan’s lost month has exacerbated the problem. The right course of action should have been for Chouhan to name his Cabinet shortly after he took office — a pandemic demands such swift action. However, Chouhan might have been apprehensive on whom to choose from his party and from among the 22 MLAs to his Cabinet, and might have left it to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) national leadership to decide.
The state needs to get its act together to tackle this crisis. With the Chouhan government still awaiting its full strength, redemption from the pandemic is still half-hearted. There are clear signs that the state is falling behind in the fight against COVID-19. Of the 52 districts in the state, 31 have been affects, and of these, in 12 districts the number of cases is more than 10. Also what is worrying is that while the India average mortality rate under COVID-19 is 3.2 percent, in Madhya Pradesh it has been hovering around 5 percent for two weeks.
The next few weeks would be a testing time with the possibility of a spurt in cases and perhaps casualties. The state capital Bhopal and commercial capital Indore have both been declared hotspots in a growing list of such vulnerable areas. To tide this wave greater enforcement of the lockdown and widespread testing, along with systematic healthcare, is required. The Chouhan government will be tested to the full.
The political uncertainty the state was facing seems to have gone — now it has a healthcare crisis staring it in the face.Kamlendra Kanwar is a senior journalist. Views are personal.