With the entire country looking to ensure the impact of COVID-19 is limited and its spread checked, Assam Finance Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma has emphasised that a 'humane approach' should be taken to ensure there are no loose ends left in the quest for a COVID-19 free country.
In an interview with CNN-News18, Sarma speaks about his plans on how Assam is planning to emerge out of this crisis.
Q. Are you of the opinion that there should be some relaxations in lockdown restrictions?
A. One has to take a decision between public health and economy and we have to ensure a balance is maintained. As far as our view is concerned, government is proposing that in green belt or in districts where there is no case,. some economic activity can be reopened. In orange districts, we should be more cautious.
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Q. This is a tightrope walk as far as India is concerned. The Prime Minister has put issues of life above economic concerns. Are you of the opinion that as far as MSMEs and small enterprises are concerned, they have to be opened up because the supply chain needs to resume?
A. At some point of time, we have to take a call. MSMEs are an important element of our economy and at the same time, we are also aware that COVID-19 is a big problem and vaccine is not yet ready. But we cannot let our labour force get exposed to the deadly virus. In the name of production, we can't compromise on the health of labourforce. The central government is aware of the ground reality and will come out with a proper guidleine on 2nd and 3rd.
Q. In the last conference of CMs, Nitish Kumar spoke about some states being allowed relaxations and others not being allowed relaxations when there should be a universal policy of what is allowed and how many people can be brought back to the state ?
A. We have sought the guidleines from MHA. I have spoken to Secretary, Home Affairs and he has agreed with the proposition that we should take our students back because Kota is gradually becoming a red zone. Only a day before yesterday, 11 people tested positive. I really appreciate Nitish Kumar's concern as well because as far as Bihar is concerned, the number is really huge. We had only 400 students and it is easy for us to bring them back. But for a state like Bihar, it is a tough job. I have to give due credit to Nitish for raising this issue.
Q. One view is that the political class is more concerned about students of quota and not the migrant labourers. How will you respond to this criticism?
A. As of now, I am working on to evacuate 800 cancer patients and all the patients who were outside Assam for transplant of kidney. I think students are our future and people are really concerned about their children. When you talk to migrant labourers, people who are above 18 yrs of age, you won't apply the same yardstick with young boys and girls. at the same time. Both are important and our priority is now to shift focus to bringing back cancer patients or transplant outisde the state. At the same time, we have requested the central government to come up with a policy to help bring back the migrant labourers to the original state or open up the industry in a manner that workforce can rejoin. People are applying different yardsticks but I think every state is trying their best.
Q. Is there some kind of model being applied in Assam? We have seen a number of states come up with their own models. For example, the Bhilwara model is being talked about, and there is that model in Kerala, that has managed to flatten the curve. How close are you in flattening the curve?
A. I don't know how close we are to flattening the curve because we have seen the Singapore example. I will talk about assam in a different way. Had the markaz incident not happened, we would have had only 1 case by now. But at the same time, when the central government alerted us about the markaz case, we spoke to the religious leaders the very first day. We invited them for discussions and apprised them we on the infectious disease and how it can be harmful. It is my good fortune that the community came forward and said they will offer all kinds of co-operation.
We quarantined 1,800 people in just 48 hours. Assam has taken a humanitarian approach to tackle the problem and we have got the dividends. We are providing quality food at our quarantine camps.
Q. I must congratulate you that Assam must be an exception in that case, that those who participated in the congregation at Nizammudin volunteered to come out and disclose because of your approach. In several other states those who attended this congregation chose to hide. What do you have to say on this?
A. I think my whole view is that whatever has happened in markaaz is wrong. People by hiding are harming themselves and parents and the senior citizens. I don't know about the approach taken by other states but I will go by what has been said by RSS chief. In this hour of crisis, our approach should be humane and we should bring back everybody to isolation camps and work together to contain the spread
Q. When will the workers return to the tea gardens of Assam?
Tea gardens in Assam are functioning, thanks to our Prime Minister. they have taken care of them within 7 days of lockdown and allowed 50 percent of workforce with social distancing norms. Not a single COVID-19 positive case has come from them because they are following social distancing norms very strictly.Follow our full coverage of the coronavirus outbreak here