New Delhi: Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh in his most outspoken interview of the year has lashed out at the Maharashtra government for allegedly lying that migrants working in Nanded went through the COVID-19 test. On reaching Punjab, 969 of them tested COVID positive which Singh blames on the Maha Agadhi-led Maharashtra government in which the Congress is an ally of the Shiv Sena.
As transparent as he is known to be, the Punjab Chief Minister in this interview to IANS’s Anindya Banerjee said the COVID numbers are all set to spike in the coming days with a large section of the Punjab population being brought back from abroad. Here are excerpts of the interview in which he talked about home delivery of liquor to rubbishing claims that the Railway Ministry is shouldering the main share of the cost for bringing migrant labourers home:
Q: Many Indians stranded abroad are being brought back from COVID affected countries to India and this will continue in the next few days. With a sizable Punjabi population living outside India, is that a cause for concern for the state government?
A: Well, the concern is definitely there. It was, in fact, the influx of NRIs in February-March that triggered the first wave of COVID cases in Punjab. So the danger of a large number of Punjabis coming back at this stage and spreading the infection, when the situation is already serious, is real. But that does not mean that we don’t want to welcome our brothers and sisters back home. Most of them have their families or businesses etc here. Naturally they want to come back.
The challenge is how to ensure their safe return, and also to ensure that their return does not mean an increased risk of infection among their families, neighbours and others in the state. For that we have put very stringent protocols in place. All of them will be quarantined for a week, immediately on entering Punjab. After that they will be tested and those found positive will be shifted to isolation centres while even those who are negative will be required to remain in home quarantine for another two weeks. We are not taking any chances, and we are not going to rely on the tests conducted in other countries.
Q: Initially Punjab contained the virus well but of late there has been a spurt in the COVID-19 tally. Why is it so?
A: Yes, there has been a spurt in the cases because of the large number of migrants who came back from Maharashtra (Nanded) and Rajasthan. Suddenly we saw around 7000 people entering Punjab from these states on a single day, and there were reports of some of them even sneaking in, instead of entering through the check-points at the border. So there was this deluge of pilgrims and migrants, and also some students, who came virtually at the same time, and when we tested them later, we found many of them to be positive. And the worst part is most of them were not symptomatic. In fact, of the 4200-odd persons who had returned from Nanded, 969 had tested positive, though only 23 of them were symptomatic. Some of the test results are still awaited. Unfortunately, even though we were assured by the Maharashtra government that all the pilgrims being sent back from Nanded had been tested thrice, it turned out that they had only been screened and no testing was done. We are paying the price for their negligence.
In fact, we are expecting the number to spike further with NRIs and migrants from other states coming back. Of course, they’ll all have to undergo mandatory quarantine and testing, as per the protocols we have put in place for them. But there is bound to be an increase in the positive cases over the next few weeks.
Q: Up until when do you foresee this lockdown to stay in your state?
A: I cannot offhand give you a timeline. It really depends on how the situation pans out over the next 10 days. Going by the way things are moving, the trends are extremely worrying, with experts warning of a peak in cases across the country. And as I have maintained all along, saving lives is our first priority. So while the effort to get business and economy back on track will continue, the extent of the relaxation is not something we can define at this stage. That is the way things are working around the world. There is easing of relaxations, but it is subject to the situation not worsening. As and when the time arrives, we will decide whether to continue with the curfew or lockdown and to what extent, in which areas.
Q: One Congress ruled state – Chhattisgarh – has implemented home delivery of liquor. Do you think other states too should replicate it?
A: In Punjab, we have already started the home delivery of liquor effective May 7. It is necessary to maintain social distancing and prevent crowding at the shops, which also we opened on Thursday. There are of course conditions attached to the home delivery model, in terms of license fee, number of bottles that can be ordered etc.
Q: Recently, it was claimed that the Railway Ministry is bearing 85% of the cost for transporting migrant labourers while the Punjab Special Chief Secretary has gone on record to state 100% of the cost is being borne by Punjab for migrants leaving from the state, calling everything else “notional”. What is the truth?
A: Yes, that is the way it is working out effectively. The Railways in this case has smartly chosen to charge 15% of the per head cost for a chartered train from the states, instead of showing them as relief trains for transporting the workers. And this 15% of chartered train fare works out to the second class sleeper ticket fare. So we end up paying the full cost of the ticket for the labourer. I don’t know why and how the Railways has been allowed to get away with this. The Railway Ministry needs to look into this and address the issue urgently, since there are lakhs more workers waiting to travel from and to all corners of the country.
Q: Aarogya Setu App is being made mandatory for all employees in India now. Do you share any privacy concern over its usage like others?
A: I believe there are security and privacy concerns related to the app, which Rahul Gandhi had highlighted and which even some experts had endorsed. As long as there are fears and apprehensions on this count, people will not accept it easily. So while such technology might seem essential to tackle COVID at present, due care needs to be taken for the protection of data on the app.
The app should not, at any cost, be used for the surveillance of the people. The privacy of the citizens should not be compromised at any cost. Even in Punjab, we have our own COVA app for managing COVID, but we are making sure that there is no scope for misuse and it is not used as a surveillance tool except for the limited purpose of tracking COVID suspects, or those travelling and hence prone to the risk of infection.