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8 am to midnight, it’s ‘out-of-sight’ Amit Shah who’s quietly managing India’s Covid crisis

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Union Home Minister Amit Shah and Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan during an interaction with doctors and representatives of IMA through video conference on 22 April 2020
Union Home Minister Amit Shah and Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan during an interaction with doctors and representatives of IMA through video conference on 22 April 2020 | PTI via Twitter


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New Delhi: Union Home Minister Amit Shah, who was managing most of the coronavirus-related work from a control room at his residence and via video conferences, is now back in his office in the North Block.

The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), which Shah heads, is the nodal ministry for all Covid-19-related work.

Sources in the MHA told ThePrint Shah has been coming to office for the last 10 days. Everyday he reaches the North Block in Raisina Hill at 8.30 am and works beyond midnight — clearing all advisories, directions, guidelines issued by his ministry, and most importantly, ensuring smooth coordination between the Centre and the states.

In the first half of his working day, Shah holds a detailed meeting with Home Secretary A.K. Bhalla, and after 4 pm, with all the joint secretaries, who are in-charge of the 24×7 Covid-19 control rooms that have been set up in the North Block. 

“At 8 am, he takes one meeting before starting from home and monitors what all is being reported across media sections from the control room at his residence. He reaches office at 8.30 am daily and has two meetings with Home Secretary A.K. Bhalla. He takes detailed feedback and also discusses the roadmap ahead,” an MHA source said. 

“He then takes a meeting with the JS (joint secretaries) at the control room to discuss problems being faced by the states, if there is a coordination issue, if any new guidelines need to be issued or any new initiatives need to be taken regarding health and infrastructure. Post that he works on solving those issues,” the source added.  

“Till he clears all files, he doesn’t leave. Most of the time, he is in the office until 12.30 am,” the source said.

According to the source, after Shah started holding regular meetings with the heads of the control room, many decisions were taken to ensure better Centre-state coordination.

For instance, after the home ministry was conveyed that the West Bengal administration was “obstructing Central teams to carry out a review and on-spot assessment of the implementation of the lockdown”, instant orders were issued by the home secretary asking local administration to cooperate.

A letter was written to the Bengal government by the home secretary, stating that Bengal should comply with the MHA orders and make arrangements for the central teams to carry out their responsibilities.

Moreover, the decision to issue an ordinance to amend the Epidemic Diseases Act 1897 — giving it more teeth to protect doctors and health workers treating Covid-19 patients facing violence and harassment across the country — was also taken after Shah and Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan did a video conference with doctors Wednesday morning to hear their grievances. 

According to the amendments, any attack on health workers — be it doctors, paramedics, nurses or ASHA (Accredited Social Health Activist) workers — will be a cognisable and non-bailable offence. The offence will carry a jail term between 3 months and 5 years, and a fine ranging from Rs 50,000 to Rs 2 lakh.

“It was Shah who initiated this as he has been of the view that anyone attacking any health worker must be brought to book,” the source said.


Also read: Modi govt is seeking $6 billion of loans to fight coronavirus


Taking constant feedback from Covid panels

In March, a high-level committee of 15 ministers headed by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh was constituted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to oversee Covid-related matters across the country.

However, in practical terms, it is Shah, who is overseeing matters of Centre-state coordination, said MHA sources.

Shah also heads most of the committees on Covid-19 and seeks constant updates from them on various developments. 

“He (Shah) is the one managing most of the crisis… And this was true even in the beginning of the lockdown,” the source said.

“He is the PM’s troubleshooter through the Covid crisis”, the source added. 

The source also said that Shah is in direct touch with the empowered groups of secretaries and constantly takes feedback from them.

These empowered groups of secretaries were constituted by PM Modi last month to ensure quick implementation of decisions taken to check the spread of coronavirus.

“… he could make late night calls and ask for something to be done, and it would be immediately examined even by the empowered groups,” the source said.

It was, for example, on Shah’s intervention that the ICMR (Indian Council of Medical Research) agreed to expand the number of testing laboratories after the government received brickbats for not expanding testing facilities in the country. 

“The home minister had asked if the AIIMS could set up new laboratories for testing, since the ICMR had been so slow,” said a second MHA source. 

“It was after that the ICMR activated more laboratories,” the source added. 

Similarly, it was after a meeting with Shah that the Indian Medical Association decided to call off its protest demanding a central law to protect healthcare workers from attacks. 

“He (Shah) also assured the IMA of a central law against violence. He appealed on behalf of the prime minister to defer the symbolic protest,” a statement by the IMA had said Wednesday. 

This apart, a proposal for a mobile testing lab in ESI hospital, Hyderabad, which is supposed to be inaugurated Thursday by Rajnath Singh and the DRDO, was initiated by Minister of State (Home) G. Kishan Reddy and instantly approved by Shah.


Also read: In India’s fight against coronavirus, one arm failed miserably — Parliament


‘The troubleshooter’

From calling chief ministers of different states to intervening in hyper-technical medical issues, the home minister is still the number 2 in the Modi government’s second term in power and the “troubleshooter” for all practical purposes, a source in the Covid-19 task force said.

This task force was formed in March-end to deal exclusively with issues related to the lockdown.

“Most of the orders issued under the NDMA (National Disaster Management Authority) have his nod… Nothing from the MHA is happening without his approval,” the source said. 

“He is in constant touch with the home secretary — so all the orders that you see from him are being overseen by the home minister… The cabinet secretary and the home secretary regularly brief him on all matters.” 

From assuring Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan of Centre’s help to resolve disputes with BJP-ruled Karnataka to constantly keeping in touch with other CMs like Rajasthan’s Ashok Gehlot over the migrant crisis and calling up Maharashtra CM Uddhav Thackarey over the Bandra incident last week — it is the home minister who has been reviewing the law and order situation pertaining to the lockdown and the Covid-19 crisis across the country. 

“No other minister is free to call up CMs… Even though he is not technically heading the high-level committee of ministers formed to look into Covid-related matters, it is him who intervenes when there is any issue in any state,” the task force source added.


Also read: Modi’s poorly planned lockdown won’t save us from coronavirus, but will kill economy


 

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Andhra doctor, suspended for alleging PPE shortage, now beaten by cops for ‘creating nuisance’

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doctor with a stethoscope
A doctor with a stethoscope (Representative image) | Pixabay


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Bengaluru: A doctor with a government hospital in Andhra Pradesh, who was suspended for questioning the shortage of PPE kits, was admitted to a mental health facility Sunday, a day after he was allegedly manhandled by the police and arrested for creating nuisance in Visakhapatnam.

Dr Sudhakar Rao, a government civil surgeon, was beaten, his hands tied behind his back and dragged by police officers Sunday. During the incident, Sudhakar allegedly verbally abused the Jagan Mohan Reddy government in an inebriated state. Videos of the incident have since been widely shared online.

“The police control room received a call about a person creating nuisance on Beach Road Hospital in Visakhapatnam. The Fourth Town police was rushed there and found that the person was the suspended doctor, Sudhakar.

“When the police tried to control him, he snatched the mobile phone of an officer and threw it away. He is suffering from mental disorder and he was drunk. He was sent for a medical examination,” Vishakapatnam Police Commissioner R.K. Meena told the media Sunday.

Sudhakar was admitted to a mental hospital Sunday after doctors at the King George Hospital in Vishakapatnam said he suffered from anxiety.

“Since the doctor is in anxiety and talking irrelevant things, I have referred him to a mental care hospital in Visakhapatnam,” said Dr Radha Rani, medical superintendent, King George Hospital.

A statement released by the hospital said: “Dr Sudhakar was brought to the KGH casualty ward at 6.30 pm. From the smell, it was found that he was in a drunk condition. Under the influence of alcohol, he did not cooperate with anybody there and kept abusing all. Still, his pulse, BP were checked. Pulse was 98, BP 140/100. Blood samples were sent to forensic lab to ascertain alcohol content in his blood.”


Also read: 6 toilets for 20 houses, inadequate testing: Why Mumbai’s Worli chawls are a Covid hotspot


‘Treatment towards Sudhakar was inhuman’

Sudhakar, who spent more than 10 years at the Narsipatnam Government Hospital in Andhra Pradesh, was suspended from his duties in March after he openly criticised the Reddy government for failing to provide PPE kits and N95 masks to doctors treating Covid-19 patients.

He had alleged that the state government was giving N95 masks and PPE kits meant for doctors to politicians and the police.

A video of Sudhakar criticising the government was also shared widely. In the clip, he can be heard saying: “We are putting our lives at risk here. We are asked to use the same mask for 15 days and a fresh mask will be provided only twice a month.”

Speaking to ThePrint, Dr P. Gangadhar Rao, member of the National COVID Committee of the Indian Medical Association, said the manner in which Sudhakar was manhandled by the police was “inhuman” and “violated” human rights.

“We strongly condemn the way he was taken into custody. He was not carrying a weapon, he was alone, the number of policemen outnumbered him. Why treat him like that? We also saw a video where a policeman beats him with a lathi,” said Dr Gangadhar.

He added that Rao was one of the most experienced anaesthetists the Andhra Pradesh government had.

“Our next step of action is to get Sudhakar to write an unconditional apology for having used filthy language, abusing the chief minister and the government. We will then take our appeal to the CM seeking that he be reinstated,” Gangadhar said.


Also read: Face shields, gowns, masks — the new attire for cabin crew post lockdown


 

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