On April 19, social media was abuzz with rumours over the health of Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath’s father, Anand Singh Bisht. The next morning, at 10.30 am, Adityanath was in a meeting with senior government officials at his 5, Kalidas Marg, residence. Unusually, he had kept his Covid mask on that day. At 10.44 am, Ballu Rai, a close aide of the chief minister, interrupted the meeting, to give him a slip of paper. After reading the slip, Adityanath asked Rai to call someone. The call didn’t last long and the meeting continued. Adityanath was silent for a few moments but then resumed talks with the officials. However, everyone could see tears soaking into the mask he was wearing. Only after the meeting got over did he tell officials that his father had passed away. The next day, Adityanath started the daily meeting a little late, at 11 am, after watching the last rites of his father being performed in faraway Haridwar on TV. Dr S.K. Dwivedi, retired professor of political science at Lucknow University, says, “The kind of dedication CM Adityanath has shown during the lockdown is unprecedented.”
Soon after the lockdown was declared, Adityanath formed his core ‘Team-11’ of senior officials. Each was assigned a particular responsibility. The CM also held a meeting with the officials of the medical education and health departments to develop a protocol for tests and treatment of COVID-19. Rajnish Dubey, principal secretary for medical education, was handed the responsibility of creating Covid-specific hospitals in each district. Dubey says the biggest challenge was to “get the medical colleges vacated so that they could be converted to Covid hospitals”. But it was done, and within two weeks of the lockdown, 24 government and 28 private medical colleges were ready. Dubey says a comprehensive report, generated every day at 8 pm, details the requirements for treatment at different places.
On March 24, the King George Medical University (KGMU) in Lucknow was the only one in the state that was equipped with test facilities for COVID-19. That too for just 200 samples a day. The responsibility for setting up a Covid testing network in UP was given to Dr Amita Jain, head of the department of microbiology at KGMU. She trained the pathologists, paramedical staff and others in the pathology departments of the state’s medical colleges through an ‘external quality assurance programme’. Within two weeks of the lockdown, the Sanjay Gandhi Post-Graduate Institute (SGPGI) of Medical Sciences in Lucknow, the LLR Medical College in Meerut, the Rural Institute of Medical Sciences in Saifai, medical colleges in Jhansi and Gorakhpur as well as the central labs at the Aligarh Muslim University, Banaras Hindu University and the Command Hospital at Lucknow had started tests for the coronavirus. By May 17, 26 labs in UP were handling 6,500 samples daily.
Dr Jain sends a summary of the Covid test reports from different centres to the chief minister’s office (CMO), the medical education and health departments at 7.30 am daily. Alok Kumar, secretary in the CMO, then contacts the district magistrates in the districts reporting a spike in Corona cases, identifies the affected region and assesses the action taken. Dr Jain’s data and the district reports are discussed at the CM’s daily morning briefings. As on May 20, the state had seen 4,926 Covid positive cases with 123 deaths.
Meanwhile, the CM Helpline-1076 call centre, operating from the Cyber Tower building in Gomti Nagar in the capital, has become the nerve centre of the state’s Covid response. The helpline, the country’s largest, has 1,020 operators working round-the-clock to solve citizens’ problems. At the beginning of the lockdown, it was instrumental in contacting the village pradhans and elected members of local bodies in the districts to prepare a list of those suffering from respiratory issues and fever and monitoring them. In the second phase, the public representatives were requested to monitor the health of arriving migrants. In the third phase, their feedback was taken on issues like rations, food distribution and quarantine facilities. Alok Kumar, who played a key role in setting up the helpline, explains, “The helpline registers all Covid-related calls separately. Operators also call back registered migrants to get feedback on issues related to home quarantine.” Complaints are routed to the concerned DMs with a plea that they be resolved within 24 hours. The technical support unit (TSU) at the department of medical health has also created a portal to integrate data from surveillance officers, labs and medical faculty. It plays a crucial role in analysing data and contact-tracing of Covid-positive patients.
Last December, additional chief secretary in the commercial tax department, Alok Sinha, conducted a survey of all the commercial establishments in the state to ascertain the level of GST registration. At the time, he had no idea the exercise would prove useful down the line. Adityanath then gave Sinha additional charge as agriculture production commissioner (APC) of the state. When Team-11 was formed, Sinha was also made head of the committee for home delivery of goods. With the lockdown on, the government faced a big challenge in creating a supply chain to ensure home delivery of vegetables, medicines, rations and other essentials. Which is when the survey details of shops and businesses came in handy to organise supplies.
Sinha set up a 24-hour control room at the APC office in the secretariat. This was linked to the helplines of the CM and relief commissioner. The data pouring in was analysed to monitor activities in the districts. And according to this, on May 15, 43,786 people were vending vegetables and fruits in the state. Sinha rolls out more stats. “Goods are being supplied from 23,693 grocery stores across the state. As many as 51,000 doorstep delivery boys are engaged in the process. There are 918 private and 717 government community kitchens working in the state providing food to 1.02 million people every day. Till date, we have distributed more than 45 million food packets in the state.”
But even these numbers pale before the magnitude of the problems at hand. According to home department statistics, about 1.5 million migrant labourers have returned to the state between March 28 and May 15. Another 500,000 are expected before May 31. Getting them home safely is in itself creating many problems. Not to mention the petty politics involved. On May 16, Congress UP in-charge Priyanka Gandhi wrote a letter to Adityanath, offering 1,000 buses to ferry migrants back home. The buses came to the UP border, but were not allowed in.
Such a long journey: Migrant workers travelling back to their villages, in Lucknow
The migrants situation is now threatening to get out of hand. On May 16, hundreds of desperate people travelling on foot, by cycles and on trucks were stopped at the UP border for not having registered on the portal created by the state government for returnees. As national television and social media put out visuals of young families wilting in the May heat, Samajwadi Party (SP) president and former chief minister Akhilesh Yadav made a telling comment, “These migrants are covering thousands of miles on footit’s an indicator of how the Yogi government has left them to their fate. With this (the BJP) government, the poor suffer the most.” BJP state spokesperson Chandra Mohan was quick to strike back, “Akhilesh is only active on social media. No one from the SP is on the ground providing any help to the needy.” Additional chief secretary, home, Awanish Kumar Awasthi, says Shramik special trains are continuously running to bring migrant workers back home. “Till May 20, 1,044 trains have plied for UP, which is a record for the whole country,” he says.
Thousands of these hapless people are still to reach home. Once they do, feeding and quarantining them and, later, finding them jobs, will be a tall order. The UP relief commissioner’s office says it will use “skill capturing” to find work for the new arrivals. Relief commissioner Sanjay Goyal says, “Our office has identified 66 types of skill or semi-skill trades to be used for ‘skill capturing’ and assessment of the potential of the migrant labourers.”
As of now, immediate employment is being offered in the form of MNREGA jobs. As on May 15, the rural development department says 1,473,595 MNREGA workers were engaged in personal and community works in the state. Manoj Kumar Singh, principal secretary, rural development, says, “The department has given new job cards to 25,000 migrants who have reached here from other states. Some 15,000 who were not on the rolls have also been added.” Singh says the department is targeting employment for 2 million people under MNREGA. If it achieves this, the state will be spending a colossal Rs 40 crore a day on wages. But first UP must get all its people safely back home. For Adityanath and his team, there is still a long way to go.