Why Centre should listen to Bengal CM’s call for giving states fiscal room in fight against Covid-19

The number of COVID-19 cases in India has risen sharply in the past week. The ongoing lockdown has disrupted the lives of hundreds of millions. This is a national battle, but it is also a battle being waged by individual states, districts and cities. In Bengal, for instance, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee – she is the state’s health minister as well – has taken a proactive, “people first” approach to the pandemic challenge.

When faced with such a crisis, preparation is key. Mamata Banerjee read the signs early. In early March, she was warning that the novel coronavirus could lead to a health emergency. She set up a Rs 200 crore emergency fund, making Bengal the first state to take such an initiative. We ordered 400,000 masks, 400,000 CPU machines and 300 ventilators. We also ordered new ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation) machines, which play a crucial role when a patient’s heart and lungs begin to fail.

More than stockpiling, it was crucial to distribute essential medical items and get them to the districts. Some 110,000 PPE (personal protective equipment) kits, 50,000 N95 masks, 18,000 litres of hand sanitiser and 3,000 thermal guns have been distributed across the state. These numbers will go up in the coming days, as and if need arises.

Among the most at risk from COVID-19 are health and emergency workers. They are working day and night, risking their lives to save the lives of others. They have their anxieties, as well as families and dependents. They need to go to the frontline with as little stress as possible.

For such professionals – doctors, nurses, healthcare workers, ASHAs and ICDS (Integrated Child Development Services) workers, sanitation workers, couriers, police personnel, and their families – the Bengal government has introduced a Rs 10 lakh health insurance cover. Benefits are not limited to state government employees. Central government and even private sector employees working in Bengal can avail this insurance scheme. As Bengal CM put it, anyone working for the welfare of Bengal’s people is our responsibility.

Medical facilities are being seriously ramped up. The 2,200-bed Calcutta Medical College and Hospital – among the oldest in Asia, with a two-century legacy – is becoming an exclusive COVID-19 hospital, with the number of beds increased to 3,000. A new, 500-bed hospital in Rajarhat, just east of Kolkata, has been set aside exclusively for quarantine. Howrah’s Dumurjola Indoor Stadium has also been converted into a quarantine centre. At R.G. Kar Medical College and Hospital, another well-known Kolkata institution, a 50-bed isolation ward is being set up on a temporary basis. The M.R. Bangur Hospital has been geared up for COVID-19, with an additional 150 beds.

Many of the facilities described above are in the Kolkata metropolitan area and in southern Bengal. While this region is particularly susceptible to COVID-19, due to proximity to airports and national and international travellers, the lockdown is affecting people across the state. It is not possible for patients, COVID-19 patients or otherwise, to travel long distances to city hospitals for treatment. In any case, a long commute risks greater spread of infection. Therefore, one hospital in each of Bengal’s 22 districts has been dedicated to COVID-19 patients. To ease the pressure of regular patients on hospitals, free TB medicines have been given in bulk for a month to ensure patients do not have to travel daily.

The COVID-19 crisis has both a health and a social impact. Incomes have been affected, especially for those at the bottom of the pyramid. Bengal CM is conscious that no person should go hungry. A safety net is required. In Bengal, social security pensions and allowances are being paid for two months in advance. About 80 million people are being given free rations for six months and two million people – the poorest of the poor – are getting five kg of rice extra a month.

Since schools are closed, midday meals are being home delivered to children under the ICDS programme. Food rations are being provided to even those without ration cards, including migrant workers and the homeless. Twenty-seven night shelters have been set up to house the homeless and feed them.

Those worst hit by the lockdown are construction workers, labourers, roadside vendors and daily wage-earners. The Bengal government has started a new programme, “Procheshta”, whereby Rs 1,000 will be given as a cash grant to those in the unorganised sector. About six million people, including domestic and migrant workers, will benefit.

The plight of migrant workers has been a major concern for the Bengal CM. The state is both a host to and a source of migrant workers and acutely conscious of their precarious predicament. Mamata Banerjee has written to chief ministers of 18 other states urging coordinated efforts to shelter and take care of migrant labourers. She has assured them that 40,000 guestworkers from other states, currently in Bengal, are being looked after and provided adequate assistance.

Smooth transport of essential goods and commodities is key to the lockdown’s success. Special cells have been set up for long-distance transfer and movement of commodities. Each cell is headed by an IAS officer at the level of secretary to the state government. At the local level, police stations are monitoring smooth supplies and, in particular, helping deliver essential supplies, including medicines, to homes of senior citizens.

The measures I have just described have been extensive. They have involved substantial human and financial resources of the Bengal administration. Each state has a similar experience. The net result is a huge burden on state finances. It is obvious that the lockdown and its impact will lead to GST collections plummeting. GST revenue given to the states will also fall, in absolute terms.

In a state like Bengal, already battling a debt trap that is the legacy of three decades of financial mismanagement, COVID-19 poses an unforeseen challenge. It risks compromising the fiscal prudence of the last ten years. In this context, the Bengal CM has written to the Prime Minister requesting an increase in withdrawal limits for states under the Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management Act – from the current three per cent of GDP to five per cent. This will give the states more fiscal room, imperative when facing a situation unprecedented in Indian history.

I hope the Bengal Chief Minister’s suggestion is taken in the right spirit. State governments have put their best foot forward in the battle against COVID-19. Their response has been free of politics and part of a truly national effort.

I appreciate you taking about half of nine minutes to read this article! Enough said.

[This article appeared on News18.com | Saturday, April 4, 2020]