Invest in people first: Arvind Kejriwal
Delhi which was called the ‘Covid Capital’ has become a role model for pandemic management and prevention. In this background, Delhi Chief Minister Aravind Kejriwal talked about the Delhi model COVID prevention, plans of AAP, relationship with Kerala and various political subjects, in an email interview to Mathrubhumi correspondent.
Voters of Delhi brought you back to power in February after a tough poll-war termed as the “most ugly and polarised campaign in the history of the national capital.” Within months, you were destined to fight the most rapidly transmitting virus. You are almost winning that too. The PM has asked other states to implement the Delhi model. If we were to ask you to define the Delhi Model to fight Covid – what is it?
Till the end of May, the situation in Delhi was under control. We had anticipated a rise in the number of Corona cases with the opening of the lockdown in Delhi, but the surge was more than expected. Now, two months later, there has been a complete turnaround. We have only around 11,000 active cases - 16th highest in the country from a point where we were second highest. Our recovery rate is 90% which is the highest in the country. 75% of our hospital beds are vacant.
This was possible because of three key principles that constitute the Delhi Model.
The first principle and foundation of the Delhi Model is teamwork. The government cannot fight the pandemic without support from various stakeholders and interest groups. So we reached out to everyone and asked for their cooperation. We reached out to the Central government, various non-governmental organizations, Resident Welfare associations, health workers and of course the two crore people of Delhi. Everyone came together to fight COVID-19, successfully.
The second principle of the Delhi Model was acknowledging, appreciating and encouraging constructive criticism from stakeholders. And responding to these by working towards fixing the problems highlighted by others. For instance, in early June, we started receiving a lot of complaints of the Lok Nayak hospital, Delhi government’s largest COVID hospital with 2000 beds. Rather than clashing with those highlighting the issues, we understood them and fixed all those issues one by one. The media was particularly helpful in mediating the concerns and pointing us towards the right direction.
The third principle is that no matter how bad the situation gets, you as a government cannot give up. Recently, the health minister from Karnataka said: ‘Now only God can save us’. I can understand the anxiety and helplessness of that minister. But as a government, you cannot give up – because if you give up, then you cannot imagine the number of deaths that will lead you to.
In terms of specific actions too, we pioneered many interventions like home isolation, a dedicated Corona app giving real time availability of Covid beds and ventilators in both private and government hospitals and Plasma therapy, all of which were critical to deal with the surge in cases. In fact, Delhi’s home isolation model is a global case study today. It has proven to be extremely successful in treating patients with mild symptoms, which in turn freed up hospital beds for critical patients.
The migrant workers suffered the most by the pandemic. Now they are returning back. What measures is your government taking to ensure they find their livelihoods back?
Migrant workers are the backbone of Delhi’s economy. Due to the imposition of a sudden lockdown, many of them were stuck with no food and shelter in Delhi. At that time, we responded fast and set up over 1100 hunger relief centers that were, at their peak, feeding 10 lakh people two meals every day. We also set up over 500 night shelters in the city. After the Central government allowed travel of migrant workers through special trains, we arranged their travel and paid the cost so that these workers can reach their home safely.
Now we are seeing large scale migration of migrant workers back to Delhi and their biggest need at this time is jobs. Interestingly, at the same time, many businesses who have started opening up are complaining that they are facing difficulty in finding labour. To facilitate both employers and workers impacted by lockdown, we have launched a jobs portal called “Rozgar Bazaar” at jobs.delhi.gov.in where both employers and job-seekers can register through smartphone and find each other. The response we have received is overwhelming. In just one month, over 10 lakh job-seekers have registered while 9200 companies have registered over 9 lakh jobs. This will go a long way in solving the employment problem.
What are your views on India's Covid trajectory?
All the governments, Central and state governments, are trying to do their best but the overall situation is still of concern. We are seeing around 70,000 new infections and 1,000 deaths daily due to Corona in the country. Only when we start seeing a drop in new infections and a major reduction in deaths, we can say that things are getting better. In Delhi, the daily infections were over 4000 at its peak, they are at around 1000-1500 today. The deaths were over 120 every day, this too has come down to 10-15 daily. Even that needs to go down to zero. I think this is such an unprecedented pandemic in our history, that we must learn from the experiences of each other and from around the world.
You have a cordial relationship with the Kerala govt. Kerala was successful in containing the virus in the beginning. Now there is fear of community spread. How did Kerala experience help in your fight against Covid? What can Kerala adopt from Delhi’s case?
We learnt from everyone’s experiences in our fight against Coronavirus. Kerala had the advantage of successfully battling epidemics in the past, and has a very effective decentralized mechanism for contact tracing and isolating patients. Pinarayi ji and Health Minister Shailaji ji have been doing some very good work. We also saw and learnt from the containment strategy of Dharavi and similarly from several countries around the world.
Every state of the country, including Kerala, faces unique challenges and it is for the government here to decide what would work best for its people. We are happy to share any of our experiences to save the lives of our fellow countrymen. For example, many states earlier had the policy of forcibly quarantining every Covid positive patient in a government facility, irrespective of their symptoms. Now many states have adopted Delhi’s Home Isolation model of treatment for mild patients. Many states have also opened Plasma banks and are actively facilitating plasma therapy for critical patients. I appreciate the role of media in sharing successful practices in Delhi’s fight against Covid.
Was there a point in this fight when the numbers worried you? What was that single factor that gave you the confidence to fight on?
Yes, the situation in June was a bit worrying when the numbers started increasing suddenly. We did not expect that. Delhi was being called the Corona capital of the country. But we never lost hope. What gave me confidence is faith in the collective ability of the two crore people of Delhi. We have achieved big things in the past. Delhi’s people managed to bring down pollution by 25% in last five years and also ensured zero deaths due to dengue last year due to a collective campaign. That is when we decided to reach out and seek everybody’s help to deal with the Covid situation in Delhi - Central government, private hospitals, hotels, resident welfare associations, NGOs and religious organisations, and they all responded positively. That is why teamwork is the main pillar of Delhi model.
There is a scenario of all-round lethargy and gloom. What should India need to re-start engines of economy and drive the country back on the recovery path?
First, we will need to remove the fear of Corona from people’s minds, while ensuring they remain careful of social distancing, maintaining hand hygiene and wearing masks. This will start happening when we manage to control the spread of Corona in state after state. Only then can businesses start opening up and consumers will start spending freely. We are beginning to see this happen in Delhi, since the Covid situation in Delhi has substantially improved.
Second, governments need to avoid imposing arbitrary lockdowns. I am seeing many states imposing two day or five day lockdowns. They are not going to help, they will only hurt the economy further. Delhi is the best example of how we managed to control the spread of Covid due to sound management, and without resorting to lockdowns. Lockdowns have a limited role in giving some time to states to prepare their healthcare facilities, but eventually we all have to learn to live with Corona until a vaccine is found.
Beyond these, each state will need to take specific measures to revive its economy. Just like we needed a plan to manage the Covid situation, we will need a plan at the Central and state level to fight the economic slowdown. Centre has announced a few steps already but I feel it needs to do more to drive direct spending and demand, and also help states financially because it is the states that are at the forefront of fighting Corona.
What steps are you taking to revive Delhi’s economy?
We have been taking many decisions to help revive Delhi’s economy. In the last month, we reduced the VAT on Diesel by Rs 8.38 per litre, allowed street vendors and weekly markets to start operating, de-linked hotels and banquet halls linked to our Covid hospitals so that they can start functioning normally and launched the Rozgar Bazaar jobs portal to connect employers and job-seekers, which has received an overwhelming response. We are identifying specific sectors to give a push to where there is potential to create new jobs, just like we did by launching Delhi’s Electric Vehicle policy and announcing our vision of making Delhi the Electric Vehicle capital of India. In addition, I am holding regular meetings with traders, industrial associations, and businesses and listening to their suggestions so that together we can get Delhi’s economy back on track, just like the entire city came together to deal with Corona.
Once you said in an interview, AAP has given birth to a new ideology, what is that ideology? What is its relevance for the future of the country?
“Kaam ki rajneeti” is the essence of AAP’s ideology and the Delhi model of governance. Today politics in this country has become synonymous with fighting over religious and caste issues, and in constant buying and selling of MLAs. Nobody seems to care about what is happening to the country, its people. We believe in collective effort and ensuring dignity of life for every common man. Every person, rich or poor, should have the right to quality education, health, water, electricity and all such basic facilities. I believe that our country can truly become no. 1 in the world if we invest in our people first. We have the smartest people in the world, so many CEOs of top global firms are from India, yet we are a developing country. No country has become a developed country without investing in the health and education of its people, yet we failed to do so for the last 70 years. We have done that in Delhi. Today, the entire country and the world are talking about the revolution happening in Delhi’s government schools, about our Mohalla clinics and how we have fought Covid successfully. We have managed to do this by working together with the two crore people of Delhi.
Some say there could be room for someone like you at the national stage. But what we see is a clear distinction between Arvind Kejriwal of 2013 to 2015 and now as far as relations between Delhi and Centre are concerned. Earlier, it was a confrontational relationship. Now it is far more accommodating and less confrontational. Why so?
My allegiance is with the people of Delhi and as their Chief Minister, I am ready to go to any extent to ensure their well-being. If that means I have to go and plead for help with the BJP-ruled Central government, I will do so. This entire episode of surge in Covid cases is one example where we knew that we needed everyone’s support, including Centre, to marshall all the resources to save people’s lives. If at that time I had brought my ego and fought with BJP-ruled Centre, who would lose? At the same time, we have repeatedly raised our concerns on the manner in which Delhi Police, which reports to the Central government, has been investigating the Delhi riots cases, as pointed out by the Delhi High Court too. When the Central government canceled Delhi’s successful home isolation program, we fought to have it reinstated and managed to do so eventually.
Your view is that India should take a hard stand on China. What are the strategies in your mind to teach China a lesson? Will an economic boycott have any impact on that country’s approach to us?
China has captured our land. The country and we are with the Central government and the Army, but we want to get our land back. Nothing less is acceptable. Twenty of our soldiers were martyred. Any inability to get the land back would not be tolerated by the country and it would also be an insult to the martyrdom of our soldiers. For the past so many years we have been trying to befriend China. India should extend the hand of friendship while being cautious. We should be ready for every move of China. We should not be caught off guard. Regardless of what action the government takes, people want out land back. The government is required to take all steps for this. Secondly, the standoff is also a big economic opportunity. India’s dependence in terms of imports from China is not healthy. Even our toys are coming from China. This is not good. It would be understandable if we were importing advanced technology from there. Instead, we are importing even goods for our daily needs which is affecting local production and jobs. I believe this is the opportunity when the central government should on a war footing create huge production facilities. A sector-wise list of our dependence should be prepared and industrialists should be invited. They should be given all facilities. It will end our dependence on China, create jobs and boost our economy.
As the main opposition party, we are seeing Congress governments in trouble in state after state. Who will challenge BJP in 2024? How do you think the scenario is going to evolve? Will AAP be a national alternative?
What we are seeing in Rajasthan now and Madhya Pradesh before is very sad. At a time when China is troubling us at the border and Coronavirus has spread across the country, the top two national parties are fighting in Rajasthan. Who will protect the country from China and coronavirus? I am more bothered about the country. At this time, the central government and BJP should have taken the entire country together to fight coronavirus and deal with China.
Instead, they are doing dirty politics and horse-trading of MLAs. Efforts for toppling the government are going on. This is wrong. In many states, voting for one has become as good as voting for the other since MLAs are being bought and sold. The same thing happened first in Goa, then Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and now Rajasthan. The voters feel completely cheated. There is a vacuum at the national level. The main Opposition party, Congress, is dead, and there seems to be no alternative to BJP. People are happy with neither the BJP, nor Congress.
In such a scenario, an alternative should emerge in the country. It will be presumptuous on my part to say that AAP will fill the gap at the national level. Our organization is very small. But people all over the country definitely respect AAP and love it. We have shown that we can win with honest funding and on the track record of governance. Due to the work done in health, education, electricity, water and now Covid management, people have hope in AAP and want it to rise up to that role. Only time will tell if AAP will be able to fill that vacuum.
You came to politics as an advocate of Jan Lokpal Bill. Both Jan Lokpal and Swaraj Bills figure at the top of AAP’s manifesto. How achievable are these initiatives?
In our last term, we got elected in February 2015 and in December, the Delhi Assembly passed the Jan Lokpal Bill. Since Delhi is only a half-state, each bill has to be approved by the the Central government, before it can take effect. Unfortunately, the Jan Lokpal bill is still pending with the Central government. A total of 19 such bills passed by Delhi Assembly are pending with the Central government and we hope they will all be cleared soon.
AAP’s website claims that it is India’s fastest growing party. But it is still confined mostly in Delhi. Yes, you did well in Punjab. Apart from a few states, AAP is still in a nascent stage. Why is it so? What are your plans to take off as a national party?
We are a young party and it takes time to expand all over India. We have formed the government thrice in Delhi and are the main opposition in Punjab. No other party has managed to do that in such a short span of time. We want to take our form of politics and governance to all parts of India, so we will definitely expand into other states when the time is right. We have recently declared that we will fight all the seats in the Uttarakhand elections.
In Kerala, the initial enthusiasm towards AAP almost subsides now. What are your plans in Kerala?
First of all, I wish all the Malayalis in Kerala, Delhi and anywhere in the world reading this a very happy Onam. These are unprecedented times but on this festive occasion, I wish them and their families all the happiness and prosperity. We are grateful for the love and affection that people of Kerala have towards AAP. Malayalis have also made immense contribution to the economy and culture of the national capital. AAP is a young party but with a zeal to serve the nation in all possible ways. Currently, AAP volunteers in Kerala are assisting the people in screening for symptoms of Corona. Low oxygen levels is the most dangerous symptom of Corona, something that can go unnoticed until patients get very serious. AAP volunteers are setting up “Oxygen Jaanch Kendras” in as many villages and mohallas of Kerala as possible and will be going door to door to check people’s oxygen levels using Oximeters. I urge all the people of Kerala to come forward and volunteer in this campaign.