Rajat Sharma

My Opinion

Modi’s historic Rs 20 lakh crore stimulus package will certainly build a new self-reliant India

akb2301In his address to the nation on Tuesday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a massive Rs 20 lakh crore stimulus package, equivalent to 10 per cent of GDP, to kickstart the economy which had come to a standstill during the 50-day lockdown.

Giving a call for building a “self-reliant India” (Atmnirbhar Bharat), Modi promised a new set of reforms focused on land, labour, liquidity and legal frameworks that, he said, would power Indian economy to new heights.

Modi said, these reforms will include supply chain reforms for agriculture, rational tax system, simple and clear laws, capable human resources and a strong financial system. The package has been designed to help cottage industries, micro, small and medium enterprises, workers, middle class and industry as a whole, he added.

The Centre had announced a Rs 1.7 lakh crore stimulus package on March 26 when the lockdown was enforced and the RBI had also launched schemes to help borrowers and boost liquidity, besides cutting interest rates.

Lockdown 4.0, Modi said, will be completely different and will have new rules. Modi’s dream of a self-reliant India will certainly come true if we continue to have trust in ourselves, and have trust in our Prime Minister’s leadership. All of us have the strength, the opportunities are there, and the world needs India to shore up the global economy.

Presently, the world, as a whole, is unhappy with China and it views its government with suspicion. More than 200 US companies want to move out of China. Italian and Israeli companies also want to leave China.

If India provides good environment and support, protect them from ‘tax terrorism’, open up labour reforms, these multinational companies will surely come and set up plants in India. They will have ample raw material, cheap manpower and available land, provided red tapism ends in our bureaucracy, labour laws are changed and top quality infrastructure is made available.

Modi has the knack of turning a crisis into opporunity and I surely believe he will achieve his objective. Modi will surely protect foreign companies from red tapism and put a single clearance window system in place.

Normally big foreign investors will never say this, but the harsh ground reality is that there have been instances in the past, when cases lingered on in our courts, the entire law was changed, and big infrastructure and investments made by foreign companies went waste.

When licences are abruptly cancelled, contracts are changed, companies lose trust in the government. Modi wants to rebuild that trust. Trust can be rebuilt not only by the government but also by Indian companies too.

Let me put it frankly. If we want to do business with the world, we will have to change our mindsets about making a quick buck and compromise with quality.

Quality has been the hallmark of the world’s most renowned brands and the products that they offer are reliable. When they deal with Indian businessmen, they expect similar reciprocal trust. We in India can do this. It is part of our age-old tradition, our ‘sanskriti’.

Since childhood we have heard that business always runs on the basis of trust. We will have to bring back that trust so that the world can say that when Indian businessmen give a promise, they live by it and there will be no bungling. This level of trust has risen in recent years and I am confident that this will play a big role in bringing the world’s investors to Indian shores.

We will have to improve our infrastructure, communications, airports, railway stations, roads, and shipping to attract foreign companies, so that they can come here and contribute towards building a self-reliant India.

I am fully confident that once the wheels of Indian economy begin to move with the stimulus package announced by Modi, it will trigger reverse migration of those lakhs of workers who were forced to leave cities to return to their native places.

After 50 days of nationwide lockdown, the wheels of economy must now move. Service and manufacturing sectors must resume work and the demand and supply lines will have to be reworked. The threat from Coronavirus is not yet over and all of us will have to continue to follow social distancing norms.

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Exodus of migrants continue, but we must not fritter away the gains of lockdown

AKB2610The exodus of lakhs of migrant workers from cities and industrial townships to their native places continue even as the Railways have so far run 468 trains to transport nearly 4.5 lakh migrant workers to their states. Most of the migrant workers walking on foot are in a miserable condition due to hunger, sore feet and exhaustion under a scorching sun.

In my prime time show ‘Aaj Ki Baat’ on Monday, we showed a migrant worker turning nostalgic while singing a plaintive song expressing his desire to return home. The worker is neither weeping nor seeking alms, he is only expressing his deepest emotions born out of unemployment and displacement from his work place.

Nobody knows the exact number of migrant workers in India. Some put it at 42 lakhs, some put it in the range of four to five crore. Everybody empathizes with the sufferings of these migrant workers but the ground realities are harsh. Most of these migrant workers are out of jobs, they have run out of money and their landlords are pressing them to pay rent.

The migrant workers know that walking a distance of 800 km or 1800 km is almost an impossible task, but they have no other alternative. The challenge is two-fold: one, providing succour to those thousands who are already walking so that they can safely reach home, and two, providing jobs to those lakhs of migrant workers, who are jobless in the cities and industrial townships.

I get thousands of videos every day that show how migrant workers are suffering, but I fail to find words to express my sympathy. There was this woman in her ninth month of pregnancy, who walked nearly 460 km from Pithampur industrial township in MP to Lalitpur, near Jhansi. She gave birth to a child on the roadside, and fortunately the mother and the infant were sent to a hospital.

The distance from Nashik (Maharashtra) to Satna (MP) is roughly 1,100 kilometres and a train normally takes 15 hours to reach its destination. A pregnant woman walking with a group of migrants, gave birth to a child on the roadside. The lady recovered after two hours, and carrying her newborn infant, started walking again.

She covered roughly 175 km and after five days, reached Sendhwa with her group on MP-Maharashtra border. Police at the border checkpost sent the mother and newborn, along with another pregnant woman, to a hospital and sent the other migrants to a quarantine center. The local administration later arranged a bus to send all the migrants to their native place.

In Jaipur, India TV reporter Manish Bhattacharya noticed a couple with two children, sitting under a bridge and begging for milk from passersby. Local residents arranged milk, but this poor couple had no utensil with them. A broken earthen pot was used to heat and then serve milk to their children. The couple said they had walked all the way from Jodhpur, 350 km away, and wanted to go to Varanasi, another 850 kilometres away. They had meagre amount of money with them but they did not beg. When the couple ran out of money, the children started crying for food and milk.

On the Lucknow-Agra expressway, where accidents frequently occur due to speeding vehicles during pre-lockdown period, there seems to be an endless caravan of workers walking, some on cycles and carts, and some even in autos. All of them were heading towards their homes, mostly in eastern UP, Bihar and Jharkhand. Similar scenes were noticed on Mumbai-Ahmedabad highway.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Monday had a detailed discussion with all chief ministers, his fifth meeting on the pandemic crisis. He appealed to them to take all possible measures to stem the spread of the virus to rural areas. He advised them not to fritter away the gains accrued from the lockdown.

Had the lockdown not been enforced in time, India’s death toll in the pandemic would have ranged in lakhs. Most of the developed countries had made such a grim assessment about India because of its huge population, but they were proved wrong.

The second gain from lockdown was that it gave ample time to both the Centre and state governments to fine tune their response. Quarantine centers, isolation wards and temporary hospitals were set up. Nearly 20,000 train coaches were converted into hospital wards.

Lockdown cannot continue forever. The pandemic may continue for three or ten months, or for two years, nobody can say for sure. That is why, the government has decided on step-wise relaxations in lockdown restrictions. Agricultural activity was allowed, essential shops were permitted, most of the factories were allowed to reopen, and from Tuesday long distance trains will resume operations. Buses may ply and very soon, air travel may resume.

The nation has followed lockdown restrictions to a large extent during the last 45 days. People are using maks, hand sanitizers and keeping social distance. But I want to add a caveat. If one hundred people follow restrictions, and one out of them flouts them out of negligence, all the efforts go waste. If we want to overcome this pandemic, we must ensure that not a single person should boast that the virus cannot catch him.

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Why thousands of migrant workers are still walking on foot along railway tracks

akb3010In a gruesome tragedy on Thursday morning, 16 migrant workers were crushed to death by a goods train at Karmad near Aurangabad, Maharashtra sending shock waves throughout the nation. The migrant workers, who used to work in a steel factory in Jalna, had decided to move on foot in a group of 21 to reach Bhusawal junction in Madhya Pradesh.

The victims, tired after walking along railway tracks for 38 km, sat on the railway tracks, had a frugal meal of rotis and chutney, and then dozed off. By the time, the goods train ran over them, only five of them could jump away to safety.

There were gory scenes on the spot with the bodies crushed to pieces, and food, currency notes and other belongings strewn around. The migrant workers had chosen to walk along the railway tracks in order to avoid police patrolling on highways. The survivors said, they had tried get railway tickets in Jalna to go to MP, but had failed.

This tragedy has not stopped migration of thousands of workers on foot. India TV reporter noticed migrant workers walking in groups along the rail tracks near Thane on Thursday. Many of them were carrying children and their personal belongings. The workers, weary after trudging for hours, sat on the rail tracks, oblivious to the danger from goods trains.

I believe the Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan will surely help the families of those who died in this tragedy, but the problem of migrant workers has to be tackled on a massive scale. Much caution is needed.

So far, Indian Railways have run 222 special trains transporting nearly 2.5 lakh migrant workers to their native places, but there seems to be some serious communication gap in the entire process.

Migrant workers who have travelled in Shramik Special trains have been effusive in their praise for the railways. Many of these workers have told India TV that they were served tea and meals on time, and buses were deployed to take them to railway stations.

Railway officials say there is no dearth of trains. If the state governments want, nearly 10,000 trains can be deployed, but because of communication gap, the intended beneficiaries (migrant workers) are not aware about the process that have to follow to avail this facility. That is why thousands of migrant workers still walking on highways and along rail tracks, with their belongings and children, in the hope of reaching their native places.

India TV reporters spoke to migrant workers at several places. Three main points emerged. One, these workers do not have any clear cut information about running of trains, Two, they do not know from where the trains will originate. Three, they do not know which forms to fill, how much to pay, and whom to pay.

Many workers fear that they may be forced to remain in two weeks’ quarantine when they reach home and therefore, they have opted to sneak out on foot, to evade both police and quarantine.

Migrant workers are travelling on foot from Mumbai to places like Bhopal, Kolkata, Kutch (Gujarat). Many worker have opted use bicycles on their way to Lucknow, Patna and Bhagalpur.

India TV reporter Manish Bhattacharya met migrant workers walking along the railway tracks in Jaipur. These workers have come from Jodhpur, Rajasthan. They intend to travel 850 km on foot to reach Fatehpur in UP. Already these workers have covered 550 km on foot.

When asked, these workers said they had registered their names for special train, but got an sms asking them to wait for 10-15 days. These workers said, they had no money to pay either house rent or bus fare and their food stocks have dwindled. They have therefore opted to march on foot. Many of these workers knew about the Aurangabad tragedy, but said they would return home on foot rather than starve in cities.

Migrant workers are travelling on foot from faraway places like Ahmedabad, Mangaluru, Kathua, and Asansol, and there only aim is to reach their native villages. The maximum migration is from Maharashtra and Gujarat, the economic power houses that employ most of the migrant workers.

India TV reporter Nirnay Kapoor reported that so far, 4.25 lakh workers have been sent to their home states from Gujarat. 1.21 lakh workers were sent in 98 special trains to UP, Odisha, Bihar, Jharkhand and Madhya Pradesh.

In Ahmedabad, the state government has set up a call center with a toll free number. A migrant worker has to ring up the number, get himself registered, a registration link is sent to him, and based on registration data, requests for special trains are sent. On an average, 20,000 workers are registering their names. There are more than 42 lakh migrant workers in Gujarat, and it has become difficult to cope up with the demands. The migrant workers are in no mood to wait.

There are sharks waiting to make a fast buck by fleecing these desperate migrant workers. Noida police have arrested two persons, who alongwith their gang leader Monu, took two buses to localities populated by migrant workers from Bihar. They first offered to take the workers for free, but when the workers came with their belongings, they charged Rs 3,000 each from the workers. When police reached the spot, the gang leader sneaked away with the money. His two assistants were nabbed.

In Moradabad, UP, a gang of robbers waylaid migrant workers walking from Bijnore towards Lucknow and robbed them of their cash. Local villagers intervened and one of the robbers was caught and thrashed. His associate fled with the looted cash.
But the bigger challenge is yet to come. In Haryana around one lakh migrant workers have applied online to return to work. These migrants were transported out of Haryana few days ago. As they got to know that the factories are reopening, they want to be back at work. Soon other states will also face this problem.

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Why private doctors refuse to open their clinics?

akb3010In my prime time show ‘Aaj Ki Baat’ on India TV Thursday night, we showed videos of how patients were lying on beds in Mumbai’s Sion and Cooper hospitals, while dead bodies of those who died of Coronavirus were wrapped in black polythene covers and left lying on beds in the same ward.

Just imagine the level of trauma and depression that COVID-19 patients must have undergone in those hospitals. Nobody had ever imagined that things would deteriorate to such a level in a city like Mumbai.

BJP leaders Nitesh Rane and Kirit Somaiya posted these videos on social media alleging that bodies are not being sent to mortuaries and are lying on beds for more than 24 hours. The video from Cooper hospital was posted by Raj Thackeray’s party leader Akhil Chitre. Mumbai mayor Kishori Pednekar went to the hospitals and ordered probe.

India TV reporter Rajiv Singh went to both the hospitals. Doctors told him that the bodies were not left lying on beds due to negligence. In some cases, COVID-19 test reports were being awaited.

Doctors said, there were instances when bodies were handed over to relatives but later the test reports showed that the patients had died of Coronavirus. The health workers had to trace all contacts including those who had attended funerals and condolence gatherings.

The standard protocol is that the body of a Corona patient cannot be handed over unless the test report arrives, and if the report is positive, the cremation has to be done under full security by health workers. Only a few family members are allowed to attend.

Asked why the bodies were not kept in mortuaries, doctors pointed out that all the bodies were wrapped in black polythene because there was shortage of body wrap covers. They pointed out that the videos were probably taken when the bodies were wrapped in black polythene.

When a patient dies of Coronavirus, the body is thoroughly sanitized and then the body is wrapped in covers. This process takes time, and, according to doctors, there are health workers who are unwilling to carry out this process out of fear, though they are provided with PPEs.

After processing, the family members are called and the body is sent for funeral. The dean of a hospital said that in several cases, family members even refuse to take bodies and disconnect phone calls. This results in piling up of bodies in mortuaries.

The total number of COVID-19 cases in Mumbai has already crossed 11,000, while the total cases in Maharashtra is nearing 17,000. In one day, 1,250 fresh cases were reported. There was report of 72 prisoners and 7 jail staff reporting Corona positive in Mumbai’s Arthur Road jail.

Conditions in some Mumbai hospitals may be bad, but overall preparations to tackled COVID-19 are in full swing.

A mega hospital with 1,000 beds is being set up at Bandra Kurla Complex. Its capacity can be expanded to 5,000 beds. Isolation wards have been prepared at Mahalaxmi Race Course, Nehru Science Centre and Nehru Planetarium. The number of ICU beds in Mumbai for critically ill patients has been increased from 200 to 10,000.

Maharashtra chief minister Uddhav Thackeray has requested Army, Navy and Railways to keep ICU beds ready if required. These preparations are being made because a central team had predicted that the number of Corona patients could reach 6,50,000 by end of May. Though doctors in Mumbai do not agree with this assessment, yet the state government has set up a task force of nine top doctors to supervise treatment of COVID-19 patients.

There is one flaw left. Most of the private doctors in Mumbai, who work in private hospitals or run nursing homes, have stopped working. Private nursing homes are not opening because if a single COVID-19 patient comes, the entire staff will have to be quarantined and the nursing home has to be practically sealed.

Maharashtra chief minister has appealed to nearly 25,000 private doctors to resume working. The state government has threatened to cancel their licences if they do not resume work. The state government has directed that all private doctors, except those with serious ailments or above 55 years of age, will have to resume work and treat COVID-19 patients as per standard protocol for at least 15 days in a month.

There are reports that private doctors have stopped working in UP, MP, Gujarat and Bihar too.

In Bihar, many government doctors too have stopped reporting for duty. Nearly 362 doctors have been reported absent from duty in 37 district hospitals. Notices have been issued to these doctors by the state government threatening legal action. On the other hand, private doctors in Bihar have closed down their hospitals and nursing homes since March 22.

There are 48,000 beds in private hospitals, while there are 22,000 beds in government hospitals in Bihar. All the government hospitals are presently bearing the burden of looking after COVID-19 patients. A senior Bihar government official said that more than 90 per cent of private doctors are not even treating patients having common diseases. Nearly 90 per cent OPDs in hospitals have stopped functioning.

Similarly in Gujarat, the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation has threatened to cancel licences of all private hospitals and nursing homes if they do not reopen and start treating patients within the next 48 hours.

In Uttar Pradesh, the story is a little different. Private hospitals stopped working because of strict action taken by the state government. In Agra, three private hospitals had treated COVID-19 patients and discharged them without informing the government, resulting in spread of the Coronavirus disease in the city. FIRs were filed against the hospital owners and doctors, following which most of the private hospitals in the state stopped working.

UP health minister says, staff working in 660 private hospitals in the state have now been trained on how to treat COVID-19 parients. There are nearly 5,000 private hospitals and nursing homes, and out of them 660 hospitals have been given permission to treat COVID-19 patients by following standard protocol.

Doctors in both government and private hospitals are, no doubt, putting in their best while treating COVID-19 patients. They undertake risks to their own lives. The nation respects these doctors and health workers. But to play truant and refusing to treat even common patients, like those doctors in Bihar, is a sin.

The government should try to address the fears and problems of private doctors and hospitals who are unable to resume work. It extraordinary times the solutions also have to be extraordinary.

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Deal sternly with those who flout lockdown, social distancing norms

akb0210As the number of Coronavirus cases in India crossed the 50,000 mark at 52,935 on Wednesday, hitting a new peak of 3,602 new cases in a single day, India TV received several disturbing videos which are definitely a cause of concern for all of us.

One video relates to the brutal, murderous attack on a Sikh citizen Inder Singh Rana by a group of youths in Tilak Nagar, Mumbai. In my prime time show ‘Aaj Ki Baat’, I apologised before showing some of the disturbing visuals to highlight how some misguided youths can resort almost to murder, when asked to wear face masks on the road.

Inder Singh Rana told Salim Siddiqui and his friends to wear masks on the road. Out of pique, Salim came back with a sword and knife along with his friends, and stabbed the man several times. The sword was used to slice his head, but his turban saved him. Inder Singh is fighting for his life in an ICU. His brother Kirti Singh was also injured in the attack.

Police have arrested the culprits. The main accused, I learn, is part of the underworld. He has been booked earlier also. I appeal to all of you not to give a communal twist to the incident. A killer has no religion. In the eyes of law, he is an enemy of civil society.

Inder Singh did not commit any sin. He had only advised Salim and his friends to wear masks. In Mumbai, moving on streets without masks can invite a fine of Rs 2,000. What Salim and his friends did was a crime against society. India TV reporter Rajiv Singh went to the locality and spoke to both the families, who admitted that wearing of mask was the only reason behind this attack.

In Tonk, Rajasthan, a group of youths sitting on the roadside were chewing paan and spitting on the road on Tuesday night. This was objected to by some senior citizens. Soon a brawl ensued, and groups of youths began stoning cars and homes causing head injuries to six persons.

Police intervened and rounded up nearly 20 youths. Police picket has been deployed to prevent communal violence, because the youths spitting on the road were Muslims and those objecting were Hindus.

I would again request to all not to give a communal twist to this matter. This is plainly defiance of lockdown guidelines which prohibit people from spitting in public places. There are 136 Coronavirus cases in Tonk, but the Malpura locality, where the violence took place, is a green zone. The Coronavirus does not differentiate between a Hindu, a Muslim, or a Christian. Senior citizens did the right thing in objecting to spitting in public places.

Another incident took place in Husnia Masjid Chowk locality in Buldhana, Maharashtra. This locality has a large number of Coronavirus patients, but youths often loiter around without masks on roads after dusk. When a policeman Rajendra Nikhalje objected to this, the youths, one of whom was carrying an iron rod, attacked the policeman, who managed to escape on his bike. Police arrested three youths, including the main accused Javed, while three others are absconding.

Flouting of social distancing norms is being noticed mostly near liquor shops. In Kalyanpuri, Delhi, there was a huge crowd outside a liquor shop, with people jostling to reach ahead. In Gole Market, Delhi, a two and a half km long queue stretched right up to a hospital treating Corona patients.. Paramilitary force had to be deployed to maintain social distancing.

I want to frankly tell all of you: your life and the lives of your family members are in your hands. The government, police, health workers have done their bit and they are doing whatever that is possible. Police cannot keep a 24-hour vigil on lockdown violators.

You have to protect yourselves from Coronavirus, which is not going to vanish in a week or two. It will take a much longer time if we continue to flout social distancing and lockdown norms. The only way to protect yourselves and your children is by staying away from others and wearing masks when going out of your homes.

On the day of Buddha Poornima, let us think of service, sacrifice and self control. This message from Lord Buddha will help us fight the corona crisis.

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Close down liquor shops if crowds do not follow social distancing norms

AKB2610The Coronavirus pandemic graph in India is rising, with the death toll crossing 1600 at 1,688 and the total number of Corona cases inching towards the 50,000 mark. It is presently at 49,333. India recorded the highest surge in the last 24 hours with 3,875 fresh cases. Of course, 12,726 persons have recovered from the virus attack till now due to the efforts of our Corona warriors.

I am giving these scary figures because I want to caution our viewers about the danger that is lurking in our midst. Social distancing norms are being thrown to the winds by thousands of people who are coming out to buy liquor in almost all metros.

There is utter madness prevailing outside most of the liquor shops in cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Bengaluru. Last night, Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation ordered indefinite closing of liquor shops in Mumbai in view of the unmanageable crowds.

Most distressing of all are reports about crimes and family quarrels that are taking place after the ban on sale of liquor was lifted. In my prime time show ‘Aaj Ki Baat’, we showed a video from Etawah, UP, where a drunk man quarreled with his wife demanding more money to buy liquor, and in the process, lifted a brick to smash on her head. The man was overpowered, police was called in, and he was taken into custody.

There was another video from UP where a policeman in uniform, in a drunken state, tried to show off his swagger before a crowd waiting outside a liquor shop. The crowd bashed up the policeman and he had to run for his life. The policeman has been suspended and sent to lines. In Bengaluru, there were two liquor-related murders. In both the cases, two men killed their friends after a bout of drinking.

In Banda, UP, two youths shot dead an old man who had objected to drinking liquor. In Baran, Rajasthan, tipplers after consuming liquor resorted to hooliganism on the roads. In Kolkata, there was this strange spectacle of a long queue of tipplers outside a wine shop, and another queue of poor people lining up before a hunger kitchen.

In Nainital, Uttarakhand, there was a long line of tipplers waiting in a queue with umbrellas outside a liquor shop braving thunder, rain and hailstorm. In Jodhpur, Rajasthan, women wearing ‘ghoonghat’ over their heads stood outside liquor shops to buy liquor for their menfolk.

There were protests by women too. In Raipur and Visakhapatnam, women staged protest outside liquor shops demanding reimposition of ban on sale of liquor, citing domestic quarrels.

The common topic being discussed in homes is why the Centre and state governments allowed sale of liquor at a time when the pandemic is yet to subside. The reason is: money. State governments, which have been spending on public welfare for the last 42 days, are now in a precarious financial position.

There is this question: Is public health less important than money? The answer is: both are equally important. Without funds, the state governments cannot carry on the fight against COVID-19 to its logical end.

Let me explain. Apart from GST collections, which the Centre and states share among themselves, liquor and fuel are the two main sources of revenue collection by state governments. Roughly 15-20 per cent of the revenue collection by states comes from liquor.

According to an RBI report, during financial year 2018-19, state governments in India earned Rs 1,50,658 crore from liquor alone. In FY 2019-20 this figure jumped by 16 pc to Rs 1,75,501 crore. Right on top is Uttar Pradesh, which alone collected more than Rs 31,000 crore revenue from alcohol. Clearly, liquor shops are nothing less than ATMs for state governments.

Karnataka comes second. It collected Rs 20,950 crore from liquor in 2019-20. In the third position is Maharashtra, which collected Rs 17,478 crore from liquor. West Bengal earned Rs 11,874 crore, Telangana, where poverty is widespread, collected Rs 10,901 crore and is at fifth place. Punjab, which has the dubious distinction of having a large number of tipplers addicted to their ‘Patiala peg’, earned only Rs 5000 crore from liquor.

There is complete prohibition on sale of liquor in Gujarat and Bihar, while Andhra Pradesh, which had imposed ban on liquor, has resorted to Prohibition Cess and has allowed sale of liquor to earn revenue.

These figures, in a nutshell, explain why the chief ministers pressed on Prime Minister Narendra Modi to agree to lifting ban on sale of liquor in order to fill up their empty coffers.

On the other hand, protests by women over sale of liquor are also justified. The states may be earning revenue from liquor, but alcohol consumption is destroying peaceful life in homes. Imbibing alcohol is an individual’s own choice and it is also understandable that the state governments need money from sale of liquor. But, let us ponder for a moment: what is the price that we are paying for this?

For last 42 days, the same policemen who were preparing food packets for the poor, delivering ration among the weaker sections, tracing underground Tablighi Jamaat members and sending them to quarantine centers, are now being posted outside liquor shops to keep the crowds in orderly queues. The state governments have imposed another burden on the police.

For the last one and a half months, citizens are practically confined to their homes, children are not allowed to go and play in parks, doctors, nurses, police personnel have been away from their families for more than a month, ensuring that we stay in good health and the nation is protected from the pandemic.

There is no vaccine or medicine to cure Coronavirus disease, only social distancing is the easiest means of protection. Liquor shops were permitted only on condition that social distancing norms will be followed and there will be no crowd outside liquor shops. But when people themselves are throwing these norms to the wind, the only option left for the government is to close down liquor shops.

Heavens will not fall if there is shortfall in revenue collections. We cannot allow the pandemic to swamp our population just because the state governments need funds.

Those who are crowding liquor shops are committing a big social sin. They are endangering their own lives, their family members and the community at large. Their sin should not be pardoned just because they are contributing to the state’s coffers. The first punishment that should be meted out to such violators of social distancing norms is: close down the liquor shops till the pandemic subsides.

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Why play politics in the name of poor migrant workers

AKB2610Thousands of migrant workers gathered in Surat, Pune, Ahmedabad, Mumbai, Bengaluru and other cities on Monday demanding that they be sent back to their home states in special trains. In the last four days, the Railways have run 50 special trains transporting more than 50,000 migrant workers to their home states.

There were clashes between migrant workers and police in Surat, Bengaluru and Pune. Police had to fire teargas shells in Surat after workers resorted to stoning and ransacking, while in Pune, police resorted to a mild lathicharge.

During the initial three days when the special trains were run, there was no panic among migrant workers. On Monday, thousands of migrant workers assembled in different cities demanding that they be sent back home in trains. Obviously, the grapevines were active on social media among workers, most of whom hailed from UP, Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal.

Now that most of the industries in western India have started reopening and they need workers, there seems to be an element of surprise in why these workers have opted to leave for their native places. I believe, the main reason could be that some politicians are playing cheap politics.

On Monday morning, Congress president Sonia Gandhi issued a statement asking all state party units to bear the cost of travel of migrant workers travelling in special trains. In her statement, she alleged: “What is particularly disturbing is that the Central government and the Rail ministry are charging them for train tickets in this hour of crisis.” Her son Rahul Gandhi followed up with derisive remarks about the Centre on Twitter.

I want to pose a simple question to the Congress leaders: Just tell me where are those railway ticket counters or internet websites from where tickets for special train are being sold?

Let me state the facts. It is true that each worker paid the basic sleeper fare plus Rs 30 superfast charge and Rs 20 reservation charge for a ticket. But Railway is bearing 85 per cent of the transportation cost, (that includes loss due to only 60 per cent occupancy in coaches and return of empty train) while some state governments are bearing the remaining 15 per cent. The Railway is also bearing the cost of meals and drinking water provided to the workers. Workers who returned to Patna from Mumbai and from Rajasthan to Lucknow by special trains on Monday revealed that they didn’t have to pay full fare.

Clearly, Congress leaders are misguiding poor migrant workers. They are alleging that the Railway is collecting full travel fare from those who have had no work for the last 40 days and have no money for even food. The fact is that non-BJP governments like Kerala, Maharashtra and Rajasthan collected 15 % train fare from these poor workers, but the central leadership of Congress is blaming the Centre.

There is , however, a valid question: if the Railway can bear 85 per cent of the total transportation cost, then why not 100 per cent?

I spoke to railway Officials. They gave a logical reply. Had the Railways announced free travel for all migrant workers, the crowds at major railway stations would have been unmanageable.

They pointed out to how more than a lakh workers with their families turned out at Anand Vihar, merely on the basis of rumours that the UP government was organizing special buses for them. Similarly, on the basis of rumours on social media, thousands gathered outside Bandra station and the Maharashtra CM Uddhav Thackeray had to appeal to Railways to run special trains.

It was only when Jharkhand CM Hemant Soren sent request for a special train to the Railway ministry that the matter was given serious thought and the first special train was planned and operated under complete secrecy to avoid unmanageable crowds.

The Railways did not want big crowds to gather at major railway stations. They passed on the onus of collecting fare to the state governments who were bilaterally organizing these trips. Had the Railways run free special trains, most of the state governments would have demanded more of such trains, because they were not footing the bill.

If huge crowds had packed into railway coaches, the entire objective of lockdown will be defeated. Had the Railways announced free special trains for all migrant workers and stranded persons, the gains that were accrued in the last 40 days of lockdown would have been frittered away.

Congress president Sonia Gandhi questioned why Railways did not foot the bill for migrant workers, when it donated Rs 151 crores to the PM Care Relief fund? What is Rs 151 crore compared to thousands of crores that are being spent on the poor during this national crisis? Let me give you some figures.

The Centre has spent Rs 45,000 crore in the last one month on poor people, women, farmers and other weaker sections of society. Nearly 33 crore people have been benefitted.

Till April 23, the Centre has spent Rs 31,235 crore on the poor through free rations and money transferred to their accounts, through Rs 16,146 crore transferred to the accounts of 8 crore farmers at the rate of Rs 2,000 each, through Rs 10,025 crore transferred to the accounts of 20.5 crore women in their Jan Dhan accounts at the rate of Rs 500 each. This amount will be transferred every month for the next three months.

Similarly, the Centre transferred Rs 1,405 crore in the accounts of 2.87 crore senior citizens, widows and disabled persons. They will be getting Rs 500 crore p.m. for the next three months. Rs 3,497 crore was transferred to the accounts of 2.17 lakh construction workers.

The Centre has distributed 2.66 crore free LPG cylinders to the homes of poor families in the last one month. So far 3.05 crore free LPG cylinders have been booked. Poor families will be getting wheat, rice and pulses at cheap prices for the next three months.

The question that naturally arises is : if the Centre can spend thousands of crores on the poor, why did it charge train fare from migrant workers? Because money is not the issue.

Had the Railways arranged free special trains, the very purpose of lockdown would have been defeated and we would have been staring at the horror of a community spread of the pandemic. Moreover, the huge crowds that would have gathered at railway stations for a free ride would have been unmanageable.

Moreover, with lockdown restrictions being relaxed, industries and businesses are now reopening and they need workers. Many of these workers are rethinking. Some want to stay back and go to work in their industries.

To speak in favour of the poor is a right thing, but when political leaders speak, they must understand the consequences of their statements, in the interest of the society and the nation.

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How our lives will change after May 3

AKB2610The Centre on Friday extended the nationwide lockdown to another two weeks from May 4, by classifying the COVID affected zones into Red, Orange and Green.

In 319 Green zone districts, which have had no Corona cases in the last 21 days, state governments have been allowed to bring near normalcy. Plying of taxes, autos, rickshaws and buses (at 50 per cent capacity) will be allowed.

All activities will be permitted in Green Zone districts except limited number of activities that are prohibited across the country, like air, rail, Metro, inter-state movement by road, running of educational institutions and coaching centres, cinema halls, malls, gymnasiums, sports complexes as well as all social, religious, political and cultural gatherings. Air, rail, and road movement between states will be allowed for select purposes.

Liquor shops and pan and tobacco shops will be allowed to open in Green Zone subject to enforcement of social distancing norms. However, consumption of paan, gutkha, tobacco and liquor in public places will remain banned in public. Wearing face cover and downloading of Aarogya Setu app have been made mandatory both for public and private sector staff.

In 284 Orange Zone districts, where no new cases have been detected in the last 14 days, taxis and cab aggregators will be permitted with one driver and two passengers only. Inter-district movement of individuals and vehicles will be allowed for permitted activities only in Orange Zone. E-commerce firms can start delivering both essential and non-essential items in Orange and Green Zones, but not in Red Zones.

All goods traffic will be permitted to ply, regardless of zones, and no state or UT government shall stop movement of cargo for cross land-border trade with neighboring countries.

The toughest restrictions will be enforced in 130 Red Zone districts, where the number of Corona cases is still on the rise. Domestic helps and driver can travel to households for work between 7 am and 7 pm, though not to and from containment areas (hot spots). Barber shops, spas and salons will remain closed in Red Zone, though they can operate in Orange and Green Zones.

Industrial establishments under SEZs and EOUs, manufacturing of essential goods and IT hardware can resume work in urban areas of Red Zone, under standard protocols. All industrial activities can resume in rural areas.

Children of age under 10 years and senior citizens will continue to be barred from moving out of their homes. In Red Zone districts, contact tracing will be intensified, door-to-door tests will be carried out, and all people living in this zone must compulsorily carry Aarogya Setu app on their phones. No auto, taxis, cabs, buses will be allowed to ply in Red Zone.

Clearly, the lives of common people will change a lot after May 4. On one hand, we have to protect ourselves and our community from virus spread, and on the other hand, the government needs to allow economic activity so that the wheels of development and commerce can move. Let me make it clear: the time for celebrations is yet to come.

The entire world is today watching how India is tackling the COVID-19 pandemic. In a nation of 1.35 billion people, there were chances of community transmission, but our Corona warriors have successfully stemmed it from happening, till now. Powerful and economically developed countries in the West failed to stop community transmission, and the death toll in many of those countries are currently ranging in five digits, and rising.

Several doomsday prophets had predicted that nearly 20 crore Indians will catch the virus and the death toll will be in the range of lakhs. They had direly predicted that it would become difficult to count the number of corpses. I have read reports in the western media about how India, with its vast slums, illiterate people, ill-equipped infrastructure and abysmal social hygiene, will find it difficult to tackle the pandemic.

The people of India have come out in flying colors through this challenge. Not only have they enforced social distancing in remote villages, they are also managing quarantine centres in their school buildings.

We need two more weeks of lockdown for the decisive battle against the pandemic, that is hopefully in its final phase in the Red Zone (hot spots). If we strictly follow guidelines and protocols, we can stop the pandemic effectively. The entire world will then applaud India for this endeavor. I am repeating again: the danger is far from over. Let us fight this battle with determination and victory will be ours.

There was good news on Friday, when the Railways decided to run six ‘Sharmik Special’ trains to ferry migrant workers to their native states. The first one started from Lingampally (Hyderabad) to Hatia (Jharkhand), and the second one started from Aluva (Kerala) to Bhubaneswar (Odisha). Special trains for migrant workers have been planned from Nashik to Bhopal, Jaipur to Patna, Kota to Hatia and Nashik to Lucknow (rescheduled).

The Railways have clarified that these special trains are not meant for ordinary passengers. The state governments will identify migrants and give details to the Railways, who will issue tickets in bulk. Only 54 passengers will travel in a sleeper coach having 72 berths, and Railway Protection Force staff shall ensure there is social distancing among the passengers. The state governments will bring migrants to railway stations in buses, they will be screened, and shall be given masks and sanitizers.

At Lingampally (Hyderabad) station, the joy on the faces of migrant workers and their family members sitting in the special train was evident. These workers had been waiting to go home for the last 40 days because they had no work nor did they have any source of income.

The Centre was aware of the problems of migrant workers but there were risks of the virus spreading if it had allowed them to travel. Now that the lockdown has been extended by two more weeks, there were chances of these workers getting restive. These workers, on reaching their home states, will have to stay in two weeks’ quarantine before reaching their homes.

For Railway Minister Piyush Goyal, transporting these migrant workers to their home states will not be an easy job.

There are presently 60 to 70 lakh workers from Uttar Pradesh working in other states. There are nearly 50 lakh migrant workers from Madhya Pradesh working in different states. There are roughly 42 to 45 lakh other migrant workers working in other states. The total number of migrants may reach four to five crores, and transporting them in special trains, after thorough screening and ensuring social distancing, is a gigantic task.

In the recent past, we in India have seen our government achieving tough targets and facing enormous challenges. This time, too, I am confident the Railways will come out with flying colors.

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Grossly inhuman: Hoarders of food meant for poor, are a blot on humanity

AKB2610In my prime time show ‘Aaj Ki Baat’ on Thursday night, we showed visuals of meal packets rotting inside a house in Meerut, and people making prank calls to police in Punjab, Rajasthan and UP to say that they have been starving for several days. When police and local district officials reached the spots, they found the callers having a merry time, consuming biryani and drinking liquor. Needless to say, the police booked all these pranksters.

How can these mischief makers be so inhuman at a time when the deathly clouds of Coronavirus hang over our cities and homes? Millions of poor people are struggling to get two morsels of food every day, standing in queues for hours to get their share of meal packets, and these devils in human clothing, hoard food packets inside their homes, allowing these to rot.

With the nationwide lockdown completing 38 days, there are worries in the minds of policy planners how to feed the millions of poor families who do not have any source of income. Policemen and women are busy preparing rotis and meals for the poor, meals are being packed in the gurdwaras to be distributed among the poor, local officials organizing hunger kitchens to serve the needy, and here we have people who are, to say the least, a blot on the face of humanity.

In Meerut, India TV reporter found rooms full of meal packets rotting. These were collected from hunger kitchens, depriving the needy of their morsel of food. In another house in Meerut, there were rooms full of dozens of bags of atta, pulses and rice hoarded by people, after collecting them from local officials and NGOs, posing as needy and poor.

There was this family in Jalandhar, which rang up the helpline saying it has been starving for several days. When police reached the home with food, they found the family cooking spicy food and having large stocks of wheat, rice and pulses. When police threatened to book the family members, the family members apologized for making the prank call. Police let them off after a warning.

In Bhiwadi, Rajasthan, three young men sent an SOS on Twitter to former Union Minister Upendra Kushwaha saying they have been starving for the last 12 days and needed immediate help. Kushwaha took up the matter with the Chief Medical Officer and the district collector. Local DSP, tehsildar and municipal commissioner rushed to Tijari locality and found the three men having a liquor party with sumptuous dishes. Police had to file an FIR against these three young men.

In Sikar, Rajasthan, a distress call went to 181 from a man, Nabi Sher Pathan saying his family has been starving for the last four days. When the local councillor along with police went to his home, Pathan sheepishly admitted that he had make the prank call. An FIR was filed against him.

In Muradnagar near Ghaziabad, a woman made a call on 112 to tell police that she was in dire need of food. When the local councillor along with police reached her home. they found plenty of bags full of atta, rice and pulses, already collected several times by the lady and hoarded inside a room. When asked by police, the lady said she wanted to sell these items to her neighbours.

On one hand we have this bunch of unscrupulous people who have made a business out of poverty, mocking at the hungry millions. And on the other hand we have this huge army of people who are risking their lives to help the poor. These are our religious and social organisations which will win the battle against hunger, come what may. In a vast nation of 1.3 billion people, there may be bad apples like mischievous pranksters and hoarders, but they are mere drops in a sea of humanity. Let’s keep our focus on the people who need food and support.

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