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The second Covid -19 wave and high mortality in Himachal Pradesh have put Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur under a lot of pressure. The death toll stood at 750 on Wednesday. Other challenges include maintaining the pace of development hit by the pandemic ensuring completion of flagships projects, lead the BJP in the upcoming panchayat polls and fight the Congress’s game plans on his failures. Ashwani Sharma of the Outlook spoke to him on issues facing Himachal Pradesh Excerpts:
Q) Why the sudden spurt in Covid -19 cases when the worst-hit states are showing signs of improvement?
The coronavirus situation in Himachal Pradesh is not good. The number of deaths and the rate of positivity has been highest between October 30 and November 31. We are doing our best to reverse the trend. However, one should understand that it’s not the fault of the government alone. The people are equally responsible for becoming careless, complacent and ignoring the advisories like wearing masks, social distancing and visiting places with large gatherings.
Q) The Congress says it’s the government’s fault that Shimla has turned into the “corona capital” of India.
You see, two reasons have come out very clearly. There have been festivals and also big weddings recently. Thousands of people, who participated in such weddings, behaved or acted in a manner as if the corona will not affect them. These celebrations, DJ parties, unwanted movements, dinner parties in closed halls and “natis” (local folk dance) etc where the masks and social distancing became a casualty. It gave an open invitation to the infection. Many ignored the symptoms and did not get the tests done. Seventy to 80 per cent deaths happened in the hospitals where these types of cases were admitted. Secondly, the winters when the families stay together inside in their closed places with no ventilation also aggravated the crisis. This is still a challenge for us.
Q) All Opposition parties are backing farmers' stir and talks with the farmer leaders are deadlocked. Is not it a big crisis for the Narendra Modi government?
It has become clear that the political parties have found farmers as a new potent weapon to gun for Modi. This is no longer a farmers' movement. The farmers, I am sure, will realise that laws are in their interest and they refuse to be part of the anti-Modi narrative. In Himachal Pradesh, they have acted wisely and refused to be misled by the political parties.
Q) Many Covid patients have alleged mismanagement in the hospitals
Wherever such complaints have come to our notice, we intervened effectively. No system is foolproof. I don't deny lapses and loopholes. We are fighting a disaster-like situation. Many countries with the best health infrastructure are also struggling to contain the virus.
Q) When do you think it will subside?
We are keeping a very close watch on the situation, monitoring it daily, calling up the patients admitted in the hospitals and those in home isolation. Senior doctors have been asked to visit patients in the Covid wards at least once in the day and monitor those in home isolation. The number of people gatherings at social, political and religious functions has been fixed at 50.The field officers are checking all wedding functions. Some FIRs have also been lodged against the violators as a deterrent step. I hope by December 15, we will see the infection cycle breaking. But the restrictions will continue to remain in force.
Q) If things don't improve, will there be a lockdown again?
There is no need for a lockdown. The Hon’ble High Court last week had told the government to consider making Covid tests mandatory for outsiders at the borders. With due respect to the court, I don't think it is necessary. Other steps suggested will be considered suitably. We will do our best. Those with co-morbidities are certainly a vulnerable class and need to be protected.
Q) Opposition says you cancelled the winter session of the Assembly to cover up your failure to handle Covid-19.
(Laughs) I don't have to respond to everything which the Opposition says just for sake of criticism. We held a 10-day monsoon session when most states had a symbolic two or three-day sittings only sometime back. The winter session was notified for December 9 to 11 at Dharamshala. We realised that the session was not necessary. Rather, it will increase the chances of infection as it involves huge logistics. The cabinet decided to cancel it. The Opposition has to understand the compulsions behind such a decision. No other state has convened such a session and Parliament too has chosen to avoid its sittings.
Q) How has Covid really affected the state’s development?
It is true that the implementation of the schemes and new projects have suffered enormously. Still, we have been able to prioritise the schemes. The focus is on those basis infrastructure projects and public welfare apart from Covid management.
Q) Will you reconsider your plan for celebrations of three years of the government?
We had some plans to showcase major achievements of the government and success of a few flagship programmes on December 27, the day our government turns three. But under the Covid situation, the celebrations will not be possible. Maybe we will have some symbolic function on a virtual platform.
Q) One of your pet projects is greenfield international airport. Are you confident that it will materialise before the state goes to the polls in 2022?
Himachal Pradesh has three airports – Shimla, Kangra and Kullu. None of these has landing facilities for bigger planes like ATR 72. So, we proposed a bigger airport of international standards in Mandi. All surveys have been done. The AAI has given its clearance already. An MoU has also been signed through a joint venture company. The airport will have a unidirectional runway. Some changes in the initial plan have been made for the proposed terminal to reduce costs and ensure that land acquisitions can be done smoothly.
Q) There have been voices against the project particularly land owners, even protests.
Opposition to mega-development or infrastructure projects is always there. We will safeguard the interests of the genuine land losers and rehabilitate them. No major felling of trees is involved but some residential houses will be affected. Our teams on the ground will resolve these issues. The project is at an advanced stage and will not be shelved.
Q) Are you going ahead with panchayat polls in January 2021? Don’t you think these can be postponed in view of the Covid spurt?
This is a constitutional necessity thus cannot be postponed. It's for the state election commission to evolve a SoPs for the candidates, their campaign and polling. Jammu & Kashmir has held DDC elections and Bihar also held Assembly polls. I don't think Covid-19 should be a reason to delay the polls.
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