Chandigarh, April 14 (Punjab Mail USA)- Citing the gravity of the situation, Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh on Tuesday announced that the state would follow complete curfew/lockdown till May 3, in line with the  extension in the national lockdown, even as he assured all the political parties in the state of aggressive measures, including large-scale testing, in continuing war against the COVID pandemic.

Even as he appreciated the support extended by them to his government, the Chief Minister urged all political parties in the state to unitedly tight the battle against COVID-19, rising above political considerations. He said the state government would actively consider all their suggestions to ensure an effective and holistic response to the current crisis.

At an all-party VC meet to discuss the critical issue of COVID-19, the Chief Minister said the entire country, and in fact the world, was going through bad times, with Punjab no exception. The lockdown so far had helped curb the spread, and the state’s count of cases was currently among the lowest in the country, he said.  Pointing out that medical experts were suggesting that 5 weeks of lockdown could really improve the situation, he promised all-out efforts to succeed in the battle against the pandemic.

In response to various suggestions made during the meeting, the Chief Minister said he had taken note of all, especially the concerns relating to the workers, and would take steps to address the same. Acceding to his government’s request, the Centre had already allowed commencement of operations in industries that could accommodate migrant labourers, and four had already started operating in Bathinda, with Ludhiana also gearing up to begin working, he said. The task force set up to formulate the exit strategy for the state would make its recommendations within 10 days on the way forward, he pointed out.

The Chief Minister told the meeting that the state government was continuously scaling up the testing to check the spread of the pandemic, with all three medical colleges in the state were now equipped to conduct the tests with a capacity of 1200 a day. This was in addition to the tests being conducted by PGI Chandigarh, while the Ludhiana DMC and CMC were awaiting approval to commence testing.  Captain Amarinder also assured the various party leaders that random testing, which has begun today in two districts, would be expanded to all districts eventually, and would also be conducted in villages. He also assured them of all measures to ensure protection of the frontline workers, saying all were being given PPE kits.

On a suggestion from the Akali chief Sukhbir Badal, the Chief Minister directed the Health Department to consider getting approval for testing at the SGPC run hospitals, in order to scale up the tests further. He further said that he had written to the Prime Minister seeking release of the MPLAD funds to enable the MPs to use it for the fight against COVID in their districts, and had also sought Rs 729 crore for upgradation of hospitals on priority.

On their part, leaders of all the parties extended their unequivocal support to the government. “We are with you,” they categorically told the Chief Minister, appreciating the work being done by the state government in handling the COVID-19 crisis and the lockdown.

There was consensus among all parties on the need to take strict action against, even takeover of, private hospitals not supporting the government in these critical times. On the issue of most private hospitals and OPDs being closed, Captain Amarinder said they had already been issued a stern warning and action would be taken against those not heeding it. In many cases, he said, the infrastructure of private hospitals was being used by the government in the pandemic battle. Health Minister Balbir Sidhu said equipment of such hospitals had been hired on CGHS rates.

In response to a question, the Chief Minister said three hospitals in Pathankot had been notified as COVID hospitals and necessary equipment was being provided to all.

All leaders also unanimously called for comprehensive steps for the revival of the industry post the lockdown. Several of them raised the issue of the Sikh pilgrims stranded at Hazoor Sahib in Nanded, in response to which the Chief Minister assured that he had already spoken to the central government and the pilgrims would be brought back as soon as the Centre allows inter-state movement.

The various party leaders appreciated the prompt action taken by the police against the perpetrators of the Patiala act and wanted quick and exemplary punishment. BJP’s Ashwani Sharma hailed the state government’s handling of the issue as a morale booster for the police force and other frontline workers.

All party leaders were in consensus on the need to take care of the migrant labourers to ensure that the farmers do not face any problems in the harvesting/procurement season. They also wanted incentives, in the form of enhanced salaries or bonus, for employees battling the crisis, as well as insurance cover for all frontline workers, including journalists.

Amid concerns expressed by most party leaders that distribution of food was not being done properly on the ground, Food Minister Bharat Bhushan Ashu termed it a misconception, pointing out that 1.41 crore card holders had been given their rations.

While thanking the Chief Minister for leading from the front, PPCC President Sunil Jakhar thanked all the parties for their support to the government in these tough times, when the entire country stood united. He endorsed the suggestion of some of the party leaders, including SAD’s Sukhbir Badal and BJP’s Ashwani Sharma, for district level coordination among all parties and for supply of dry rations to gurdwaras and NGOs to enable them to prepare more meals for distribution.

Jakhar also suggested use of peddle-operated hand wash station at the Mandis, and called upon all to persuade the migrant labourers not to leave the state. He urged the SAD-BJP to use their influence in the GoI to allow cotton mills to be opened, since the state was increasing the area under cotton cultivation to promote diversification. He further asked the SAD-BJP to persuade the government at the Centre to announce a package for small and medium industries immediately, and also take over the payment of all private thermal power plants.

He suggested an all-party delegation to approach the Centre for a massive financial relief package for Punjab, which continues to feed the nation even in this critical time.

In response to a concern expressed by Shiromani Akali Dal chief Sukhbir Badal, ACS (Development) Vishwajit Khanna said there was no limit on the produce that a farmer could bring to the Mandis, with passes to be issued as per their respective yields. He also assured Sukhbir that masks and sanitisers had been provided to the Mandi Board and Arhtiyas and procuring agencies would be further supplementing the same. Countering another concern of the SAD president, Khanna said there was no shortage of milk and Punjab was in fact looking for orders from deficient states for supply of powdered milk.

On Sukhbir’s demand for deferment of payment against cooperative bank loans by 3 months, Khanna pointed out that the Chief Minister had already deferred the same for one quarter. The ACS also made it clear there was no shortage of cotton seeds, with orders already placed for 28 lakh units (packets of 450 grams each) against the requirement of 25 lakh units by May 15. Of these, 12 lakh units had already been received, he said, adding that the state was diversifying an additional one lakh hectares to cotton cultivation to save water and power, thus taking the total to 5 lakh hectares.  Sukhbir suggested exempting the cancer hospital in Bathinda from COVID-19 activities.

Aam Aadmi  Party (AAP) state president & MP Bhagwant Mann wanted deferment of all payment/repayment on loans of private banks and no wage cutting by companies. He suggested more publicity for the COVA app, which he said was extremely useful in the fight against the Coronavirus.

Ashwani Sharma of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was in favour of revoking the cancellation of blue cards to streamline distribution of food supplies by the government. He suggested waiver of all utility bills, with waiver or reduction in school fee, as the middle class was also suffering in the current crisis. Dairy and poultry farmers also needed more support, he added.

Jasbir Singh Garhi, state president of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), recommended confirmation of all contractual health and sanitation employees. He asked for insurance cover for all frontline workers, including journalists. He further urged the government to arrange for people stranded in Punjab to go back to their homes, and also suggested opening of stationery shops to help out the students.

CPI Secretary Bant Brar said Union Minister and SAD leader Harsimrat Kaur Badal should use her offices to secure the release of pending funds and higher share in relief grants for Punjab. He wanted hospitals refusing patients to be taken over by the state government.

SAD’s Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa wanted the government to expedite the orders/delivery of ventilators to ensure adequate supply in all hospitals. Dhindsa also proposed making special arrangements for Punjabis stuck in other places, including students in other countries, and said the state government should take up the issue with the Centre.

Sukhwinder Singh Sekhon of CPI(M) urged all parties to collectively press for central assistance. Expressing concern over reports of people not buying milk from Gujjars, he said that such discrimination should not be tolerated.