By Pankti Jog*
Ever since March 24, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the nation-wide lockdown, civil society organizations (CSOs), religious bodies and citizen initiative groups have been working tirelessly to provide food to the lockdown-affected people, especially migrant workers. In fact, an impression has gained ground that government efforts have been minuscule as compared with that of CSOs. Facts in our possession suggest that, frequently, the officialdom has been reporting numbers of how the affected people are being helped from CSO data.
It is not without reason that a simple question that keeps coming to CSO activists’ mind is, did the Government of India (GoI) get any funds for direct, including medical, relief? And how much was the fund given by GoI to states? A search on the website of all the key departments of the Gujarat government and the Centre has gone in vein. Hence, we decided to file a Right to Information (RTI) application with the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) in June, inquiring about how much money was given to the Gujarat government by GoI.
The query was immediately transferred to the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, giving the impression that the Union health ministry was supporting the state government to fight Covid-19. In the past, many a time, the state government had blamed the Centre for inadequate disbursement of funds, and it was expected that this time, at least, Gujarat would surely get good amount of support from the Centre to fight the Covid-19 pandemic effectively.
However, the RTI reply that was received from the ministry was surprising, to say the least. It said that the Union health ministry has not given any grants or funds to the state government for fighting the Covid-19 disaster, adding, all that it has given is support in terms of personal protection equipment (PPE), masks and ventilators.
There seems to be lack of transparency and accountability in terms of what actually is being done with IBRD loan amount
The RTI reply revealed that the Union health ministry gave around 15-20 lakh N95 masks, 9.38 lakh PPE kits, 8.5 lakh hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) tablets and 1,504 ventilators. Looking at the population of Gujarat and number of Corona-19 positive cases in the state, this help appears negligible for a population of 6.5 crore.
The GoI is known to have a taken a loan of Rs 7,700 crore from the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD) on April 3, 2020 for masks, PPEs, testing, laboratory, equipment, recruiting new staff in medical services, treatment, having Covid-19 specialised hospitals, beds, data management, awareness, community participation etc.
The loan proposal and the agreement elaborate how GoI is supposed to use the loan amount for strengthening relief measures, treatment facilities, and increasing awareness level and community participation in the fight against Covid-19. However, from all accounts, there seems to be lack of transparency and accountability in terms of what actually is being done with this loan amount.
The RTI helpline run by the Mahiti Adhikar Gujarat Pahel (MAGP) has been getting calls (on 099240 85000) inquiring about the number of beds in state government-run Covid-19 hospitals with regard to ventilators, especially from relatives of patients before they decide to opt for a private hospital. However, the state government has not cared to declare any details about the 1,504 ventilators GoI has given, especially how these were allocated to different hospitals across the state. Thus Covid-19 relief fund availability and expenses still remains a top secret.
*With Maniti Adhikar Gujarat Pahel (MAGP)