Manoj Jha, a member of the Rajya Sabha and spokesperson of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), the principal opposition party in Bihar, says the state hasn't received the attention and support it deserves during the Coronavirus outbreak from the Centre as a cooperative federal unit.
In an interview with Outlook's Rajat Mishra, Jha says the message of lockdown was confined to the urban-middle-class of metropolitan cities and it lacked the concerns of subaltern groups, including migrant workers.
As far as the coronavirus pandemic is concerned, how do you see the situation of Bihar?
Bihar worries me for two reasons. One, lots of migrant workers have returned and except for tokenism, nothing much has happened on the ground. The extent of tests is probably the lowest. And, we all know, the condition of health infrastructure in Bihar and in India. What takes my worry to a higher level is that our chief minister demanded five lakh testing kits and he got 4000-5000. And in this time of crisis, I think Bihar is not receiving the kind of attention or the support it deserves from the central government as a cooperative federal unit.
Why do you think Bihar is not getting enough attention from the Centre?
I think two or three things are very important. First, we just had one centre for testing and now we have five or six. The number of ventilators in Bihar is one of the lowest in India. I can tell you that in a large number of hospitals doctors are managing with gamchas. That puts us in a very precarious situation.
I used to read the difference between India and Bharat... Lakhs of migrants and their plight has given us a feeling that nobody cares for us. I have seen it all myself. I saw when Prime Minister was appealing to the people to stay home, stay safe. Largely, he didn't understand that the idea of home is not simply confined to an urban middle-class. And home is a home. Even if it is a broken home, a dilapidated home, it's a psychological space. And there, not just the government, we all have failed. That's again, a concern for Bihar in particular.
How do you see government's response to stranded labourers across India?
First of all, let me put it very cleary. When governments communicate, they should send their message to everyone. Whether it was the state or the central government, the communication was confined to the urban middle class in metropolitan cities. This communication did not have the language or concerns of subaltern groups, including migrant workers.
While distributing ration, I have seen in Gurugram and in Delhi that 8-9 people live in a 10 by 10 room. Unfortunately, my government terms physical distancing as social distancing, and I disagree with that term. It should be a physical distancing.
Now, how do you want them to maintain physical distance when 10 people live under one roof. Given the nature of communication, PM's address did not have any engagement. I am telling you the address was all about the metropolitan centres. But they missed out on the first section of our population.
As far as financial help by the state government of Bihar or the central government is concerned, are you satisfied with it?
I am not. Let's break Rs 1,000 the government has supposedly given. I raised this matter through different platforms. Look, all these bits of help are linked to Aadhaar card and Aadhaar cards are linked to the mobile number and many workers do not have Aadhaar card linked with a mobile number so such problems are leaving out many. So, in that case, Bihar Bhavan in Delhi should be made the centre which provides help to all stranded people. Now, even from the centre, look at 500-rupee help, comes to Rs 17 per day. And the middle class spends more than 17 rupees on a packet of milk every day. So this help stands nowhere.
So you have also been a vocal critic of a steep cut in Members of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme (MPLAD) fund? Why?
I was not concerned about cutting the MPLAD part. I was saying that if you were fighting Corona pandemic, why not make it specific that the MPs choose one district or two in case of Rajya Sabha. And they build the local health infrastructure in the district and local hospitals because I am not seeing any fundamental change in hospitals situated in my area and districts. Thus my point is that MPs would have consolidated and made the robust health infrastructure in their own constituencies.
Since you are a professor too. How do you see the arrests of university students particularly in such a critical time?
I will tell you very frankly. But you know when the whole world is fighting pandemic. You chose this time to pick up the students, many of them 20-21-year-old students from Jamia and other universities. I mean, what does it show? It shows that you have chosen a time when the courts are not functioning regularly and you are trying to convert it into a police state.
Ever since the Tablighi Jammat event, Muslims all across India have been subjected to denigration and discrimination...
I think they are not only denigrated they have been demonised. You know what I said in the beginning that we have criminalised corona carriers and demonised them as a result of it. I think maybe we will successfully fight this pandemic for different reasons, including God’s support but many other pandemics are taking place around us. I hope that we don't come out it as a more divided society, where a section is demonised.