Coronavirus in Kerala: Focus on rehabilitation of foreign-returned workers: Kerala CM Pinarayi Vijayan

The return of lakhs of workers from West Asia is a challenge for Kerala, and rehabilitating those who have lost jobs can effectively work only with the Centre’s help. Kerala’s CM Pinarayi Vijayan, while describing how the state’s battle against Covid-19 has drawn much praise, also pointed that Kerala received just Rs 157 crore as Central assistance and is yet to get Rs 3,000 crore as GST compensation. Despite the financial constraints, he says work is progressing at the brass tacks to secure the state’s economy.

Edited excerpts:

On ‘flattening the curve’

To a larger extent, we could succeed in containing Covid-19. This was detected in Kerala on January 30. We could flatten the curve and establish certain benchmarks, which could be emulated. We have the lowest mortality and highest recovery, may be in the world. The main challenge for us was the density of population, higher level of interaction, arrival of people from other parts of the country and world. Limiting people interface, protecting the vulnerable, wide testing, contact tracing, early detection, quarantine and effective treatment for positive cases are the protocols we put in place.

On the challenges when the non-resident Keralites arrive

The challenges are huge. Almost 4.5 lakh people want to return from abroad, mostly from Gulf countries, and around two lakh from other states. This is a big challenge for a small state like Kerala. The department of Non-Resident Keralites’ Affairs (NORKA) has been helping Malayalee expatriates and has drawn up a comprehensive plan for their return. We have taken steps for testing, quarantining and treatment. Our health workers are fully geared up to face any eventuality and to prevent the spread of the pandemic. We have made arrangements for 2.5 lakh beds for effective quarantine. We have identified hostels, convention centres and guest houses near airports that can be used as quarantine facilities. Similar arrangements have been made at the Kochi port for those coming by ships. The state will take care of every need of those who land here.

Economic model to rehabilitate workers from Gulf

We have drawn up a comprehensive plan with experiences from other countries and suited to our state. A rehabilitation package can be effective only if the Centre also pitches in. We see many opportunities in this crisis. We have a resilient and first-class social infrastructure which can attract investors. Already, there have been many enquiries from many parts of the world. Tourism, information technology, bio-technology, healthcare and education are the verticals which bring us investments. The returnees have rich expertise and knowledge. A little help from us could nurture their entrepreneurship. We have already announced a scheme of granting licence in a week for new ventures. We have also announced an agriculture promotion scheme of Rs 3,000 crore, which can be used by the returnees.

On Kerala not paying migrant workers’ rail travel fare

For us, they are guest workers. We have been extending all support to them. Our wages are high and we have health welfare schemes for them. We built residential complexes for them. The issue is, who should pay for their train fare to their home states. We wanted the Centre to bear the cost. The Congress can also pick up the bill for it. I am surprised that when there is a facility for the Congress to foot the train fare, the Opposition in our state is trying to enact a drama. But people can see through all this. At the same time, all expenses for the logistics like taking them to the railway station, providing them food packets, medical assistance etc are done by the state government.

Plans to revive the state’s economy, tourism sector

We have made formal representations to the prime minister for adequate assistance. All our revenue streams have dried up. We are in a dire situation. Our tax revenue has plummeted to just 10% compared to pre-corona period. While we received Rs 3,400 crore as tax in April 2019, the receipts are just Rs 346 crore this April. The Centre has been found wanting in helping states which are the frontlines in fighting the crisis. Despite spending so much money and setting up huge systems to fight the pandemic, we have got a meagre Rs 157 crore as Central assistance. Also, there is an outstanding of Rs 3,000 crore as GST compensation, which we have been requesting them to release.

Coming to the package announced by the Centre, there is all-round criticism. We have not even dedicated 1% of the GDP, whereas other countries have gone with stimulus packages equal to 10% or more, of their GDP. Unless we kickstart the economy and provide assistance to the needy, there could be serious repercussions. Millions would be rendered jobless and crores would face poverty.

It is true that we have got a serious hit on all fronts, especially tourism. Covid-19 broke out when we were aiming to have spectacular programmes in the tourism sector, wherein we had targeted one tourist for each Malayalee.

On Kerala government’s relationship with Centre

When a crisis of this magnitude stares at us, the need of the hour is to have united and joint action. We have been coordinating with the Centre to see that we can combat the menace. We have not hesitated in pointing out the efforts needed, especially on the economic front.

On Congress’ charge of compromising data safety of Covid-19 patients

We have been telling that a broader vision is required rather than playing parochial politics. Unfortunately, the opposition in Kerala has a penchant for creating controversies and Sprinkler was one of that. We have assured the people and Kerala High Court, which is seized of the matter, that we will adhere to the protocols and will protect the privacy and data of people.

Is Kerala prepared for the second wave of Covid-19?

We hope that a second wave doesn’t happen. Our efforts are focused on that too. The effective machinery that is set in motion, and awareness among people will help us prevent that.

Was the nationwide lockdown a good idea?

I am sure India had no other option. It has, to a certain extent, prevented the spread. However, now it is time to address the serious economic repercussions. Unless, all the governments, especially the Centre, acknowledges the seriousness, there could be a serious breakdown affecting millions.

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