Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister JAI RAM THAKUR, 55, is a five-time BJP MLA. In the middle of his tenure, Thakur, who also holds the health portfolio, has been dealing with the raging coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic in his state.
A rising BJP star leader, Thakur recently faced a political row sparked by a scam involving bribery allegations against a state health department director in Covid PPE kits purchases that surfaced through an audio clip in May and led to resignation of the state BJP chief.
However, an unfazed Thakur has continued to grapple with these challenges while seeking to steer the tiny, picturesque state through the Covid storm.
Q) How do you assess the Covid-19 situation in Himachal Pradesh?
Covid-19 cases in the country are increasing. The number of cases has unexpectedly risen in Himachal also, which is a matter of concern. But there is no community spread. Maximum positive cases have travel history, some from contacts, and in isolated cases the history is not known. See the case of Delhi, where Covid cases are spiralling every day. Compared to many other states in the country, we have done far better. We implemented the institutional and home quarantines forcefully.
Q) Do you think the decision to bring large number of people from outside amid the Covid lockdown was judicious?
HP could have become corona free in May first week with one active case left. But we had to act as per the conditions prevailing in the country. In a meeting with the Prime Minister, the Chief Ministers shared their concerns that people took long, long journeys – even over 1,000 kilometres – on foot, some with kids, to reach their homes within the country. Many were outside India. It was painful. The PM said that we will do whatever is to be done to check the spread of Covid-19, but in this hour of crisis, everyone wants to go home. This was an emotional decision. The CMs were asked to facilitate people in their states to arrive back comfortably. So we also did that and brought back more than two lakh people home, despite knowing that the Covid cases would increase.
Q) Didn’t the government put 70 lakh people living in HP at risk for those two lakh arrivals?
It was a catch-22 situation. But the Himachalis outside Himachal were in serious trouble; they included a large number of people who had lost their jobs and had no resources to live on. It was the government’s responsibility to help them come back during lockdown on humanitarian grounds. The cases did increase, but we took precautions.
Q) A widespread allegation is that your government brought people into the state without proper testing and quarantine mechanism at the border?
HP had the best mechanism on the border for Covid-19 in the entire country. People who came from Delhi reached our border Parwanoo without any checks in Punjab, Haryana or Chandigarh territory. But they could not enter HP without proper check. It was not practical to quarantine people at the border, given their numbers, which were as high as 5,000 a day sometimes. They were quarantined in districts, based on the zone they came from. Tests were mandatory for all.
Q) Why have you gone back to your earlier stand by again restricting entry into HP?
We have gone stricter now as many people had started entering with fake information, hiding the original destination and zone they started from. So we have made some documents mandatory for the passes. More so because most people who were really in trouble outside Himachal have already come back.
Q) Where did your strategy fail?
We changed our strategy as per the situation. The strong feedback mechanism helped us. I stayed connected with cross sections, including district authorities and elected representatives at the grassroots through video conferences. Initially, the stress was due to lack of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), ventilators, testing facility etc. Now we are well-equipped in every sense. The testing capacity has gone fairly high – from 130 per day to 1,500.
Q) As a first-time CM, how did you find the going in the Covid time?
Nobody had the experience to fight Covid-19, whether leadership, administration or health set-up across the world. First-time or experienced, no CM has ever faced such a challenge in life, where a virus threw life and economy out of gear. It was tough, but I kept learning. There may have been shortcomings, but we were able to reduce the impact of Covid to an extent. The Active Case Finding of HP was appreciated by the PM and other states were asked to follow us. Whatever we could do, we did. Even Punjab, Haryana, Uttarakhand and Delhi sought information from us. In fact, Himachal is safe and the care here is good, that’s why many people want to come back here in Covid (time) even today.
Q) What is the way forward?
We all have understood that we have to live with Corona in times to come, so better take precautions. Corona cases are increasing but people are getting used to the situation and life is limping back to normal. We will have to address the issues of economic derailment now, with people going jobless and industry, especially tourism, suffering in the state. We will, however, decide on opening schools, temples and hotels as per Government of India’s directions.