New Delhi: Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel has emerged as a favourite leader for the Congress top leadership, after he brought down the 15-year rule of the BJP in the state in 2018 Assembly polls. He is credited with having implemented all the projects recommended by the central leadership. As an OBC leader, he has been in the forefront of the party’s campaigns in several states.
The coronavirus pandemic has thrown down a challenge before him – like all states, the economy of Chhattisgarh is in doldrums. And Maoists continue to claw at the internal security of the nascent state.
Speaking to Saiyed Moziz Imam Zaidi of IANS, he describes how he has been able to contain the spread of coronavirus and has attempted to solve the problems of migrant workers. In the same breath, he says if the Centre does not help his state at this stage, the government will have problem in paying salaries to the employees. He also wants a special economic package, which he says, is key to survival. He also supports the extended countrywide lockdown, saying the state would follow all such future decisions of the Centre.
Excerpts from the Bhupesh Baghel’ interview:
Q: You have decided to bring back Chhattisgarh students from Rajasthan’s Kota. How many students are there and how will you bring them back?
A: To bring students from Kota, we have got the approval from the Union government. There are 1,500 students from Chhattisgarh there as per a list that we got from all the districts. We have dispatched 75 buses along with a team of doctors and officials because they have to cross at least three states. I have requested the Central government to allow these buses. The consent is awaited.
Q: You have written to Minister of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution Ram Vilas Paswan. Any specific reason?
A: Chhattisgarh is called paddy bowl of the country. More than 83 lakh metric tonne paddy is produced annually in the state. As per the procurement plan, as much as Rs 1,800 per quintal is shared by the Union government and the rest by the state. I have sent a reminder to the Minister (Paswan) to lift the paddy for the Central pool. The Centre has said it would lift only 24 lakh metric tonne. However, we already have a stock of 31 lakh 11 thousand tonne with us after deducting our PDS share. So, we want the Centre to lift all the remaining stock.
Q: There was a confrontation between the state and Centre over bonus on MSP. This time, will you bear the cost of bonus or Centre?
A: There was a general election last year. The Union government allowed the states two years to give bonus from their treasury. We gave Rs 2,500 per quintal, including the bonus, but the Union government maintained that if the states give bonuses, it will not procure from them. The point is we are procuring on behalf of the Union government… there was a time when the Centre put pressure on states to share more foodgrain in the central pool. But after the Green Revolution, farmers, through their own efforts, are getting more yield. In 2014, after the Modi government came to power, it said the procurement would not be made from states who will give bonuses. So, we are paying the bonus under Rajiv Gandhi Kisan Nyay Yojna.
Q: How are you controlling Covid-19? What is the impact on the state? You have written a letter on restriction on interstate transport…
A: There is no cure for the virus right now. So, prevention is the best cure. The first thing that we did was to seal the state – Chhattisgarh shares borders with seven states. We stopped all the transportation in the state. We have benefited from it. We quarantined everyone who had been abroad and traced their contacts and isolated them. If we recorded any case, we immediately sealed the whole area. First the state borders were sealed followed by districts and then, people blocked their villages themselves.
Q: Are you in favour of extending the lockdown or lifting it in phases?
A: Whatever the government of India decides, we will follow it. But I have said that students and migrants should be brought back. There are many people who are stuck for different reasons. In our state too, people from other states are stuck — they should be allowed to go to their respective places, and if the states want, they can be placed them in quarantine.
Q: You have a meeting with the Prime Minister on Monday. Have you got the share of your GST or are you facing problems regarding resources?
A: We have got Rs 1,500 crore from our share of Rs 2,000 crore, but there is no economic activity. From registry to transportation, mines and sale of liquor — everything has stopped. The states have no revenue, and if things go on like this, we will not be able to pay salaries to the employees.
Q: The ICMR has started giving testing kits… has the state got adequate number of testing kits?
A: The guidelines issued by the Union government about testing are that we have to test those who have symptoms. But there are people who are testing positive without showing any symptoms. The government should provide more kits so that more testing could be done. Personal Protection Equipment kits, too, should be provided. As a precaution, we had closed all markets and public places before the lockdown was announced and told people to maintain physical distance.
Q: The state has vast population of tribals. What kind of difficulties did you face to implement the lockdown what steps did you take?
A: Implementing lockdown was the easiest in the tribal belt of the state. If you talk about Bastar, which is surrounded by Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, the tribals took utmost care and did not allow anybody to enter the villages, and those who returned from other states, were given food and shelter and not allowed to enter. Even the tribals put up banners and thorny bushes around their hamlets. The cockfight, which is an integral part in the region, was stopped apparently for the first time in history.
Q: How did you face the challenges from the Naxalites during the lockdown? They have managed to do a few things….
A: First, they said that they would adhere to the ceasefire. Then they flouted it. Our security forces are vigilant. But we have got complaints from the tribals that they are snatching rice and other foodgrains given to the tribals by the government.
Q: In Prime Minister’s meeting scheduled for Monday, what is your plan? The suggestions made by Congress-ruled Chief Ministers were not listened to as Sonia Gandhi has highlighted.
A: It will depend on the Prime Minister — what agenda he is going to come out with and whom he wants to consult. If I get a chance, I will speak, otherwise I will offer my suggestions in writing. Last time I had raised a few issues such as the problems of migrants and the MSME sector and demanded a special package for the MSME as industry and trade are dysfunctional. I requested that the limit of bank loans should be increased so trade is back on track.
Q: Your state has registered an FIR against a TV Editor and now the apex court has put a stay on it. Will you go ahead and take action?
A: I have not spoken to the lawyers yet. I will speak to them and will take a decision accordingly. Everything will be done as per the Constitution but we will not let him go scot-free.
Q: I am told that due to Covid-19, the state apparatus is working day and night including you the Chief Minister?
A: I am working as I had been working… but yes, the work load has increased, but people have chosen us to serve them, and I am doing my duty.