The long summer of the coronavirus battle has given way to the monsoon, but for the Naveen Patnaik government, it has been a season of going through fire and water. Literally. From mounting COVID-19 cases to addressing the problems of a large migrant workforce; a distressed economy that requires immediate attention to conducting Lord Jagannath’s annual Rath Yatra amidst a pandemic scare, the challenges have been manifold.
In his June 4 message, Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik described the current month as most crucial for the state in its fight against the pandemic. Expectedly, the Covid count has shown an upward trend. In the last three weeks, the numbers have jumped by 150% — from 2,014 (June 1) to 5,160 (June 21). The government, which faced criticism for not ramping up daily tests despite having adequate labs, has changed strategy and gone in for house-to-house screening to tackle the problem.
During the 20 years of his rule, deft disaster management had been Naveen’s hallmark. It reflected in his strategies of tackling the problem of bulging number of returnees from other states through the establishment of temporary medical camps in each of its 6,798 panchayats where they were quarantined and screened. When cyclone Amphan threatened to strike, his administration was ready despite the paucity of time. With the onset of rains, the government has shifted gear.
In rural areas, Covid Care Homes are being set up where screened people would be housed and treated. At least 70,000 can be accommodated in these facilities. Despite a whopping 5.6 lakh migrant workers returning home during the lockdown, Odisha continues to be in a comfortable position so far as the Covid fight is concerned. Naveen took a conscious decision of not going forward with the Centre’s Unlock 1.0 by clamping weekend shutdowns in 11 districts and a prolonged night curfew.
However, bigger tasks lie ahead — restoration of livelihood, rising unemployment and re-booting the economy. The real challenge would be to provide gainful employment to the returnee migrant workers. Putting the primary focus on MGNREGS may not yield expected results. Though the state government has planned to create 20 crore mandays under the flagship rural employment scheme, monsoon may throw cold water on rural infrastructure projects to be undertaken under various schemes.
Besides, much would depend on the willingness of this workforce to demand employment since a large chunk is skilled, having worked in various industrial clusters of Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh as well as Kerala. The difference in remuneration received in their original place of employment and the manual works under MGNREGS would have to be factored in.
The government has launched a skill mapping exercise and that needs to be fast-tracked. Experts believe the lockdown has presented the state an opportunity to understand the labour sector and its dynamics for future use. Right now though, it is caught between a virus and an ancient religious festival that stands as an embodiment of the Odia spirit. After the Supreme Court stayed the Rath Yatra in Puri and elsewhere in view of the pandemic, the government ratified the order. But there is an upsurge of sentiment in favour of the annual festival.
Puri Shankaracharya Swami Nischalananda Saraswati and Gajapati Dibyasingh Deb have thrown their weight behind the fest. Petitions seeking modification of the order will be heard by the SC on Monday. For millions in Odisha and outside, the Rath Yatra remains the singularly most important religious event. Lord Jagannath is integral to the way of life in the state as almost everything is woven around the Holy Trinity and their abode in Puri. Worshipped, revered and loved as living Gods, the syncretic nature of the cult of Jagannath also is the ultimate representation and expression of the state. For now, all eyes are on the SC.
Deputy Resident Editor, Odisha