We’re doing aggressive testing for Coronavirus in hotspots in Punjab: Captain Amarinder Singh

Punjab, the country’s wheat bowl, has a tough task ahead it to contain Covid-19 with the crucial harvesting season just days away. The state government has already extended the statewide curfew till May 1 to prevent farmers from flocking to mandis. Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, in an interview with Ishani Duttagupta, says even though there is no evidence of any no community outbreak, the government is not taking any chances. He says officials are doing aggressive testing, helping migrants stay put in the state and tracking down foreign returnees who hid their travel histories. Edited excerpts:

How will Punjab manage harvesting amid social distancing & lockdown?

Given the crisis we are going through, harvesting and marketing/procurement is a major challenge this year. To minimise the risk, we have already deferred harvesting of wheat till April 14, while allowing harvesting of fruits etc at present. In the fields, since most of the harvesting is done with machines, the problem is not acute. But packaging, loading, unloading and transport to mandis needs to be done in a staggered manner to ensure social distancing. All this is being taken care of by the districts, with the help of the police. The director general of police is, in fact, finalising a comprehensive security plan to ensure smooth procurement.

Farmers will be given passes to go to the mandis with their produce so that there is no overcrowding. We have also asked the Centre for incentive for farmers who delay taking their grain to the mandis and are hoping that they will extend their support in this matter. We have also increased the number of purchase centres and sheller yards to spread out the operations further.

This year, we were to start direct bank transfer of payments to the farmers but we are not doing it. We do not want any confusion or chaos at this stage by changing any systems. So we are amending the rules to continue with the system of payment through the arhtiyas [commission agents]. We will pay them within 48 hours of purchase and they, in turn, will be required to pay to the farmers within the next 48 hours.

The villages and farmers are helping out in the arrangements and fully cooperating so I am confident we shall manage this challenge effectively.

Punjab did not witness any mass outflow of migrant workers when the lockdown began. Why?

Yes, I am happy to say that we managed to check the movement of migrant workers, of whom Punjab has about 7.5 lakh. In fact, there was not a single case of any migrant labourers rushing out to go back home when the lockdown was announced.

That’s because we took several measures even before the borders were sealed to ensure that they did not leave Punjab. We made it unnecessary for them to leave because, from their perspective, they would have left only if they had no food or shelter here for these 21 days of lockdown. Post that they would have wanted to come back in any case to work in the fields for the harvesting, even if the industrial lockdown continued.

So we stepped in as soon as the curfew was imposed in the state, followed by the lockdown. We ensured, with the help of industry, NGOs, religious organisations etc, that they were taken care of, camps were built in addition to the shelters already provided by the religious organisations and the factory premises opened up by many of the industries. In fact, the industries which are housing them, with strict COVID-19 safety protocols in place, were advised to even start some operations with the help of the migrants. As a result, many of these migrants are even getting wages. Besides, food packets are being distributed to them daily by the police and other relief teams in the field.

And so they have decided to stay put, which is beneficial for us too, since in just a week’s time from now they would be needed by the farmers to work in the fields, for harvesting, and also storage, loading, reloading etc.

How are you dealing with the hotspots of Covid19 in Punjab?

Certain areas have emerged as hotspots in Punjab, and we are doing aggressive testing in these areas. While as of now we have no reason to believe there is community outbreak anywhere, we are not taking any chances.

We are doing community testing for severe acute respiratory infection (SARI) in the hotspots of the state. The hotspots have so far been seen in SBS Nagar, Hoshiarpur, Jalandhar, Pathankot, Mansa and two areas of SAS Nagar districts. Areas from where more than 2 confirmed cases are being reported is being declared as hotspot. These areas have been put under containment and strict restrictions of movement have been imposed. Tracing of contacts of all the positive cases has been done and all the close and high risk contacts have been tested. The mobile vans have been used so far for sample collection in areas of SBS Nagar, Hoshiarpur and SAS Nagar in order to restrict movement of suspected cases by taking sample collection to the doorstep of the contacts of the positive cases. District administration is ensuring containment and health is doing contact tracing and testing.

We are now procuring rapid test kits for testing by which testing will be increased in areas from where positive cases have been reported. We have ordered 10 lakh such kits from the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), and the first batch will arrive soon. We have also raised inquiry for 10000 kits in the open market. We aim to start rapid testing from April 10. We intend to use these kits also for testing of cases of ILI (influenza like illness) in hospitals as well as villages in order to test the suspected cases at the earliest to identify new clusters.

Punjab has a huge number of returning NRIs, how are you managing collection of travel history and contact tracing?

Yes, this has been a major challenge for more than a month now. We screened more than 95,000 such passengers at Mohali and Amritsar airports, as well as the Wagah and Kartarpur Sahib land ports before international movement came to a halt. We had to subsequently, on the central government’s directions, trace and quarantine these passengers, which meant tracking them and contact tracing each of them. Passengers from certain high-risk countries were put in government quarantine for which facilities were created by the health department in the districts of Amritsar and Mohali. Subsequently, the government of India sent us a list of 55000 who arrived in Delhi before proceeding to Punjab, and were quarantined.

While in most cases, contact tracing has been completed, we believe that some passengers are still hiding their travel and contact history. We are appealing to them and are also searching for them aggressively. Special police and health department teams are on the job, and we are also getting a lot of co-operation from people in the towns and villages where these NRIs went on arrival. We’re dealing with this problem strictly and I have already announced that we shall impound the passports of those who hide their travel history.

But I am hopeful that that the remaining NRIs and foreign returnees will voluntarily report themselves for testing to help us control the pandemic.

Are you reaching out to people from your state who may be stuck overseas – are you drawing up a policy for people returning from different countries once the travel restrictions are lifted?

We would definitely want to reach out to our people struck anywhere due to this pandemic. But at the moment, our priority is on controlling the spread of the contagion here and taking care of our own people here as well as any who might be stranded in Punjab. Once the situation improves and the restrictions are eased, we will do whatever we can, in coordination with the Centre, to bring our people back from other countries. The final policy decision in this regard will have to be taken by the central government.

Once the lockdown is lifted, how will you address issues of reviving the agricultural and industrial economies in the state?

These are major issues which need to be addressed at a national level, and I am sure the central government would be working on a policy to revive the economy across the country. At our end, we have already asked our industries to see what they can do amid the lockdown to keep operations going in a limited way, with the help of the migrant labour. But it is a larger issue that would need to be addressed seriously once we are out of the COVID-19 crisis. At the moment, our priorities lie in controlling the pandemic and ensuring medical support for those affected by it. The health of our citizens is paramount, and we are diverting all our non-critical expenditure to that.

What are your demands on GST arrears?

According to our estimates, we have a total of Rs 6752.83 cr GST arrears lying pending with the central government. We have asked the finance minister and the prime minister to release this on urgent basis. We are in critical need of funds to tide over the Covid-19 crisis. By April end, our estimated losses would be to the tune of Rs 5000 cr and the number will go up further in the coming months, given the current scenario. We are not getting any revenue at present on account of excise, VAT on petroleum products, road tax collections etc also due to the curfew.

This GST is our own money and we are asking the central government to give us that at least, till they can come out with a proper package for the state. Of these GST arrears, Rs 662.54 cr is for July 2017 to Sept 2019, Rs 692 cr for Oct-Nov 2019, Rs 1992 cr for Dec 2019 and Jan 2020, and the remaining for February and March.

How are you engaging with the gurdwaras on the issue of helping poor people with food supplies etc and on the other hand the risk of places of worship becoming hubs for spread of the disease?
As of now, we do not have a single case of any place of worship becoming a hub for the spread of the disease. The gurdwaras have themselves been at the forefront of helping out in this crisis, with the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC), the various gurdwara committees and the religious organisations coming out with appeals to the people to stay away and not congregate, since the outbreak of the disease.

Our police and district administration is working closely with the gurdwaras to provide food for needy people, as well as unorganised sector workers and migrant labourers. The whole thing is being done in a seamless manner with the co-operation of the staff at the gurdwaras and both dry rations and cooked meals are being provided through the gurdwaras in such a manner that there is no crowding.

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