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‘When states speak in different voices, hard to formulate one vaccine policy… Must make common appeal to PM’: Shivraj Singh Chouhan

Shivraj Singh Chouhan says the second wave hit with “such intensity that preparations fell short”, denies public anger over Centre’s handling of situation, and explains how they are fighting pandemic with committees, that include Opposition parties.

Chouhan says the second wave hit with “such intensity that preparations fell short”, denies public anger over Centre’s handling of situation, and explains how they are fighting pandemic with committees, that include Opposition parties. The session was moderated by Political Editor and Chief of National Bureau Ravish Tiwari

RAVISH TIWARI: How was the experience of handling the second wave of Covid-19 different from the first wave?

Last year, the infection spread slowly… This year, everyone thought that the pandemic was over and that life can return to normal. Many events were organised, including festivals, weddings, religious and political functions… As Chief Minister, I tried to tell people that the problem is big and that we must be careful. I took to the streets and told people to wear masks and ensure social distancing. I also held discussions with social workers, religious heads, political workers, and tried to urge people to be cautious. But everyone was convinced that there won’t be another wave. The second wave hit us with such intensity that our preparations fell short. We were increasing beds in hospitals but there was shortage of oxygen and remdesivir.

Also, during the first wave, there was fear in the minds of people, which was not the case this year. They did not feel the need to follow guidelines. That is why the number of cases just exploded.

IRAM SIDDIQUE: In September last year, there were talks of Inox setting up an oxygen plant in the state. It has not been set up yet. What is their plan?

We had spoken to Inox and given them space as well. We had told them to try and set up the plant in six months… They had to import the plant. We kept mounting pressure on them to set up the plant but they said that it will be difficult to set it up in six months… As far as dealing with the shortage of oxygen is concerned… I want to thank the Prime Minister for it. We sent empty tankers through Air Force planes and then oxygen trains brought back (filled) tankers to the state. That is how the shortage was dealt with. There was growing demand but we managed to fulfil it. Secondly, we started setting up small oxygen plants in the state. We decided that every hospital will have a plant, and we made a policy that 50% of the investment for it will be done by the Madhya Pradesh government.

We have a refinery in Bina which has oxygen, but it could not be bottled and could only be transported through pipelines. So we started the drive to build a hospital near Bina, which is now almost complete.

RAVISH TIWARI: While people may have let their guard down before the second wave, don’t you think the high Covid-19 caseload and death toll also exposed gaps in the administration at the state and Central level?

When we face a pandemic of this scale, we need to look at a few things. We have to first review and expand our healthcare facilities, and we did that. We began to increase beds. I have admitted to a shortage of oxygen and remdesivir, but we managed to strengthen our healthcare facilities, which is why we could fight this wave.

In the future, to deal with any kind of pandemic, we have to develop our health infrastructure — oxygen beds, ICU beds, childcare. We need a plan for everything and that is what we are doing now. Secondly, we need the support of the people to battle any pandemic. Now, in Madhya Pradesh, our positivity rate has come down to 2% and our recovery rate is over 95%… The government alone has not fought this battle. We decided to involve people at every level. We made crisis management committees at the district level, which had Opposition members too. This time the infection had spread to villages and so we formed crisis management committees at the village level as well. These committees took decisions on how to impose Covid-19 curfews, who is exempted and who is not, who can step out and when… We also conducted door-to-door surveys to find out if people are complaining of cold or cough. Quarantine centres were set up by residents of villages in schools with the government’s help. The district-level committee monitored the shortage of beds, oxygen etc.

Now, as we begin the unlock process, these committees will take the decision on how they plan on opening their areas. The people in villages have to take ownership, the government alone cannot do this. Covid-appropriate behaviour has to be followed by people and these committees have been and will continue to educate people about it. The fact is that the virus is here to stay, and if we don’t take precautions, there will be a third wave.

RAVISH TIWARI: Were the Central government’s measures in handling the second wave of the pandemic found wanting?

I have to thank the Prime Minister… On the very first day that the issue of oxygen shortage was discussed, Air Force aircraft were ready in Bhopal. The next day, the planes were in Gwalior, Indore and Jabalpur to take away empty oxygen tankers. The day after, oxygen trains brought filled tankers. We were concerned about oxygen but there was no problem in Madhya Pradesh. The Prime Minister gave us his full support. The Defence Minister gave us his support. Madhya Pradesh should look after its needs… but we also got complete support from the Centre. I have seen many prime ministers, but Modiji is the only prime minister who speaks to you immediately or calls you back in less than five minutes and tries to address your concerns. I agree that there was a problem but it would be wrong to say that the Centre didn’t support us.

LIZ MATHEW: But why then is the BJP-led government at the Centre facing so much public anger over its handling of the second wave?

There is no such anger in the public. There was a problem, people faced difficulties, but both the Central and state government made efforts at their levels to battle the pandemic. In large parts of the country, the situation is now under control, barring some states in the South, where too the numbers are decreasing.

There is a section in the country which does not like the popularity of the Prime Minister or the way he works, and they don’t spare any opportunity to defame the Central government and the BJP. This section is using the pandemic too for this purpose. And there are so many lies… The other day I saw Kamal Nath’s statement, where he said he had recently gone to (Congress leader) Ramchandra Agarwal’s home and that he had died after taking a fake remdesivir injection… How could he have told him this after his death? There is a limit to spreading lies! So there are many powers who are against the thinking of the BJP and PM Modi is an eyesore for them… These anti-BJP forces are trying to create this narrative. The Prime Minister and Central government have done their best in handling the pandemic.

LIZ MATHEW: So the anger of families who have lost their loved ones, the reports in national and international media about the death toll, are all part of the narrative set by the Opposition?

When a pandemic of such a large scale strikes, there are bound to be problems. But the government has tried to do its best to deal with the pandemic. The anti-BJP forces are trying to use this pandemic to set a wrong narrative… But we are doing all we can to serve the people.

RAVISH TIWARI: You campaigned for polls in Assam and Bengal and the Prime Minister was campaigning too. Last year, when the daily cases crossed the 1-lakh mark, the PM addressed the nation several times. In the second wave, even when the daily cases increased by four times that number, there was no such attempt to reach out, which made many believe that the government was more concerned about winning polls than saving lives.

During the second wave, the Prime Minister held discussions with Chief Ministers at least four-five times. He asked us about our problems and offered solutions. Then, he also held discussions with Chief Ministers of states that were severely affected. He called up Chief Ministers every three days to take stock of the Covid-19 situation in their states. He addressed the nation… For the oxygen crisis, Union minister Piyush Goyal was constantly helping out states. It didn’t matter which state it was or which party was in power there. Home Minister Amit Shah was in constant touch with states to help out with shortage of remdesivir etc. Defence Minister Rajnath Singh was holding discussions with states. Leaders such as Dharmendra Pradhan, who have been nominated to the Rajya Sabha from Madhya Pradesh, were asked to look into the problems of the state. All ministers and the entire Central government machinery were working to help the states. But yes, the caseload increased very fast and facilities fell short, and that is why some anger is natural… But a section of people tried to exploit this situation… There are leaders such as Kamal Nathji who are trying to provoke people, to defame the government… Such people are tweeting, writing on Facebook and using the pandemic to defame the BJP government.

ABHISHEK ANGAD: Do you agree with the Centre’s approach of asking states to float tenders and import vaccines individually, instead of reaching out to companies themselves?

Since the very beginning the Centre has given importance to vaccination and it is a matter of pride for all of us that our scientists displayed their prowess and we manufactured Covaxin and Covishield. Many times several states said that they should be given the freedom to get their vaccines. Now, till the time the vaccination went on for those above 45, the Centre took responsibility, and when it was opened up for the 18-plus category, the states were asked to make arrangements. So we gave orders for Covaxin and Covishield. Of course, there are limits to production because of which it took time. But many states also asked for freedom to make their own arrangements. Some states put out global tenders. Now, the Centre is also providing Covishield and Covaxin doses, we are also getting it through orders that we have placed with these companies, and they are being used for both 18-plus and 45-plus categories.

When all states speak in different voices, it gets difficult to formulate one policy for vaccine distribution. I appeal to all states that (if they are facing problems in procurement), we can get together and make a common appeal to the Centre, to the Prime Minister, and then he can think it over.

RAVISH TIWARI: When did you learn that states have to procure vaccines?

I don’t remember the exact date… There was a lot of demand from states to open up vaccination for the 18-plus category. Vaccine production has its limits, they can’t be produced overnight. That is why first the 60-plus category was given doses, then 45-plus, and so on… But when the demand to open up vaccination for the 18-plus category came from states and political parties, states were asked to procure vaccines, as the Centre continued supply for the 45-plus category.

RAVISH TIWARI: So far the BJP has been making the ‘double-engine’ pitch in state elections. But the BJP-ruled states don’t seem any better than non-BJP ones in Covid management, and it seems that the appeal of the double- engine promise has reduced. What will be the BJP’s pitch be in the forthcoming elections?

While dealing with a pandemic, we are only thinking about ways to tackle it. We are not looking at making pitches. I have been in politics for many years now and what I know is that people don’t fall for pitches sold by parties in elections. People vote on the basis of what they feel. On the ground, people see real work. People vote for development, they want to see the nation moving forward with self-respect, people like leaders who solve problems. This has been my experience. We do not have the mindset of ‘selling’ things.

KRISHN KAUSHIK: In April, while the official Covid death toll in Bhopal district was 109, records accessed by The Indian Express from the three crematoriums and one burial ground designated for Covid deaths in the district showed that besides the 109, 2,567 bodies were laid to rest following Covid protocols in April 1 to 30. What is the percentage of such mismatches?

There are two things here — deaths due to Covid-19 and deaths due to other diseases. There may be cases where the person got ill but never came to hospital or did not get tested. The situation was such that we tried to take all precautions while conducting last rites and so Covid-19 protocols were followed… In the early days of the second wave, many people suffering from cold and cough took treatment from local doctors, not realising that it was Covid, and then eventually lost their lives… This could have caused the mismatch (in death numbers). All deaths due to Covid have been counted as Covid deaths. But there may be people who have died of Covid and didn’t get tested or treated for it…

VANDITA MISHRA: Recently, West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee skipped a cyclone review meeting called by the Prime Minister, citing the presence of Opposition leader Suvendu Adhikari. Why have such tensions developed in state-Centre relations recently? Also, do you think the pandemic will change the nature of politics in the country?

We are a federal structure where the Centre and states work together. But when a calamity or pandemic strikes, all political parties come together and work. In such a situation, if the Opposition leader was also called for the meeting, why object to it? We must work together in such times.

When we face a problem, our job is to work to relieve the suffering of the public. Every state is doing its best.

MANRAJ GREWAL SHARMA: Farmers from several parts of Punjab and Haryana have been protesting against the farm laws, including through the second wave. They have also got support from farmers in Madhya Pradesh. Do you think it’s time the government found a solution?

There is no agitation in Madhya Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh believes that the three laws are not against farmers. Only a few members of the Congress and Left, and those against the ideology of the BJP, have opposed the laws… The farmers have not. The government has reached out many times to the farmers. Union Minister Narendra Singh Tomar has appealed to farmers as well. There have been discussions but these did not lead to any resolution and that is why discussions stopped. There must be a solution to problems, but if someone is rigid, what can be done…

HARIKISHAN SHARMA: Last year, Madhya Pradesh was the top wheat procuring state in the country, but this year that is not the case. Do you think the spread of Covid in rural areas is to blame for this?

Wheat procurement is still going on in the state. Last year, we had procured 1.29 crore MT (metric tonnes), and this year we have reached 1.18 crore MT so far. Covid has had no impact… We are focusing on increasing production of oilseeds and pulses because we have good wheat stocks already.

LIZ MATHEW: During the first wave, we saw many BJP leaders working on the ground, helping out migrants etc. But in the second wave that didn’t seem to be the case…

That is not true. As part of the ‘Seva Hi Sangathan’, we have been working under the direction of our president J P Nadda. Last year, there was a lockdown and many services were shut. This year, many services were open. Migrant workers did not face issues like last year. But still, many leaders have been helping out with mask distribution, food distribution etc.

SANDEEP SINGH: How can we revive economic activity and what kind of support do states expect from the Centre for it?

In Madhya Pradesh and in many other states too, all industries have been active. They were not shut down. We did not stop MGNREGA work. We continued procurement. Many crisis management committees allowed general stores, vegetable stores etc to stay open… So a lot of economic activity was underway. Only activities which involved large crowds were stopped… The PM also gave free ration for two months under the Garib Kalyan Yojana. In Madhya Pradesh, we added to that and gave free ration for another three months. We gave

Rs 1,000 to street vendors and construction workers at the peak of the pandemic. Now our strategy is to focus on opening up markets and to revive manufacturing and construction work, which were not shut completely but because of Covid had slowed down… Last year the situation was such that industries had to be shut for a long period. This time that was not the case.

IRAM SIDDIQUE: Of late, you have been speaking about ‘destroying a mafia’, brought in an ‘anti-love jihad’ law, a law against stone-pelters etc. Do you think these measures have affected your image of being an inclusive CM?

We had to act against the (land) mafia. For example, in Indore, many people had made fake cooperative housing societies and duped people. People were scared of this mafia. We had to act. There were also complaints of illegal mining. So we thought that there should be strict action against people who work against the country and terrorise people. The action has not been taken against any particular section. Anti-social elements do not have a religion or caste… I don’t want to talk about love jihad, but we found that a lot of daughters in Madhya Pradesh left homes, and when these matters were investigated, issues of greed, luring etc came to the fore and we have made a law against that. It is not for a particular section, it is applicable to everyone. We didn’t call it love jihad… Similarly, if people pelt stones on government officials who are carrying out an investigation, that will not be tolerated and there will be strict action against them. But as far as people are concerned, we have never discriminated against any section of society and will not do so in the future either.

RAVISH TIWARI: In its second term, the BJP has failed to get a consensus on the CAA, farm laws. It is only focusing on pushing its policies…

The BJP is implementing policies that we have advocated for many years. The public has supported these policies and voted for us. We have backed these policies since the days of Jana Sangh.

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