To

Smt Nirmala Sitharaman

Union Finance Minister

 

Dear Smt Sitharaman,

Kindly refer to my letter dated 20-3-2020 addressed to the Prime Minister on the ongoing fight against COVID19. I have enclosed a copy of that letter for your reference.

The campaign against COVID19 is assuming urgency in view of the rapidly increasing rate at which the States have been reporting virus-positive cases.

The Central and the State governments cannot afford to lose even a day in the campaign to contain the spread of the virus, in ramping up the medical infrastructure, in equipping the medical/ para-medical staff to insulate themselves from getting infected, in protecting the lakhs of the sanitation workers who are equally, if not more, exposed to the contagion and in providing livelihood relief to millions of low-income families who have lost their livelihoods as a result of the lock down imposed across the country.

In the coming one or two months, it is likely that the number of COVID19 positive cases will peak, bringing the infrastructure under an enormous stress and making community transmission of the virus a reality. While the Centre has the overall responsibility to help the States, it is the States that have the cutting-edge responsibility for containing the virus spread.

Here are some suggestions as to how your Ministry can play a vital role in this COVID19 mission.

Help the Union Health Ministry:

The Union Ministry of Health has the overall responsibility to set up additional Corona testing facilities across the country, enable the industry to manufacture coveralls, masks, gloves, hand sanitisers, ventilators etc. and coordinate the Centre’s and the States’ efforts. The Health Ministry has put in a commendable effort that needs to be fully supported. If they need more budgetary allocations, your Ministry should readily provide the same at any time, if necessary by diverting funds from other less essential schemes.

As a result of panic-driven hoarding of masks, gloves and sanitisers, many sanitation workers and para-medical personnel are going round on their duties without wearing safe masks/gloves and without sanitisers. The Central and the State governments should intervene and ensure that every worker engaged in anti-Covid19 work is equipped with safety-certified masks, gloves and sanitisers. Hoarders should be proceeded against. Price controls should be imposed and enforced. PSUs, private companies and other govt agencies should be coopted in this effort. In some States, the jail inmates are being encouraged to produce masks to prescribed specifications.

I understand that, though the first case of COVID19 was detected in India on 31-1-2020, till date, no orders have been placed by the Health Ministry for the supply of protective equipment, due to “procedural” reasons (https://scroll.in/article/956866/investigation-crucial-coronavirus-gear-supply-clouded-by-allegations-of-government-malintention). I hope that this news report is not entirely correct. However, this is not the time for blame games. It is the time to move forward urgently, without looking back.

Instead of getting bogged down in procedures, the govt should ask the industry not only to work to their full capacity but, to the extent possible, divert all its resources to manufacture more of such equipment so that the COVID19 campaign may not get constrained by equipment shortages. The Finance Ministry and the Health Ministry should constitute a team of eminent doctors to place orders on a nomination basis to speed up delivery at this crucial hour. They should be given blanket freedom to take decisions. The CAG can be kept informed.

I understand that there will be an acute shortage of state-of-the-art ventilators (https://scroll.in/pulse/956930/explainer-battling-coronavirus-will-take-more-than-just-buying-additional-ventilators-for-hospitals).

Hospitals in the United States have roughly 160,000 ventilators. There are a further 12,700 in the National Strategic Stockpile. I understand that there is a total of only 30,000 ventilators in India. Compared to USA, India’s large population, exposed to the virus, requires a much larger number of ventilators. India should therefore resort to urgent ventilator imports, pending the ramping up of domestic manufacture and the creation of additional indigenous manufacturing capacity. If the virus spread is much more than expected, there will not be enough time for the government to procure ventilators from overseas sources. By now, the global ventilator market must have already come under a severe stress. Ventilator shortage will enhance the rate of mortality in the case of patients critically ill.

In cutting the procedural delays, from the financial point of view, your Ministry can help the Health Ministry.

Help the States:

The States have come under a severe fiscal stress due to the threat of the virus, as it is the States that need to operate the COVID19 detection systems, create quarantine and treatment facilities, prove social security nets and so on.

Kerala has undertaken these measures in right earnest as brought out in the following article.

https://thewire.in/economy/interview-india-economic-package-coronavirus

The States, where similar social security cover is not available, may study the Kerala model urgently.

Considering that the States will face an uphill task during the last week of this month and possibly throughout the month of April, the Finance Ministry will have to re-schedule the release of a sufficiently large proportion of the funds due to the States under the “devolution” entitlement for the year. If there are arrears of any kind due to a State, the same should be released forthwith.

Similarly, under the various Central schemes of social security, the bulk of the releases to the beneficiaries should be made during the next five weeks, in consultation with the States.

The lock-down imposed by the States to contain the virus spread has disrupted the lives of the marginal workers. They stand severely deprived of their livelihoods. They also face greater exposure to the virus, compared to the others, as physically they are more susceptible and the facilities available to them are meagre. Special security safety nets are urgently needed for providing them timely relief.

Since all these measures involve significant public expenditure, the Ministry of Finance should clamp austerity in the functioning of the government, including cutting down on non-essential expenditure and severely curtailing official travel and meetings.

What the Centre preaches to the people at large, it should implement it within its own ambit. Here is an example that should make the authorities ponder over this.

Mary Kom, the well known boxer and a member of the Rajya Sabha is reported to have attended a breakfast hosted by the President  at  Rashtrapati Bhavan on March 18, even though she was supposed to be under home quarantine at that time. (://www.businesstoday.in/current/economy-politics/coronavirus-mary-kom-escaped-mandatory-quarantine-to-attend-breakfast-with-president-kovind/story/398866.html). What distresses me in this context is that Rashtrapati Bhavan should choose to host such a large gathering involving public expenditure at a time when the nation is facing the scourge of COVID19! In such a gathering, it is not just the Parliamentarians who might have got exposed to the virus but hundreds of auxiliary staff who too might have got exposed.

As I had mentioned in my letter dated 20-3-2020, it will go a long way towards fighting COVID19, if the Prime Minister at his level calls upon the political parties to self-regulate and the private industry to join the campaign voluntarily. Instead of asking for tax sops and statutory concessions, the industry should join the national fight against COVID19 like any other citizen. It should be a combined effort  without which the virus may soon overtake each one of us.

I hope that you will discuss the above suggestions at the highest level and take immediate steps.

Regards,

Yours sincerely,

E A S Sarma

Former Secretary to GOI

Visakhapatnam

23-3-2020


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