Having brought about a remarkable turnaround in the Covid situation in the capital, chief minister Arvind Kejriwal tells Alok K N Mishra, in a wide-ranging interview, how faced with a daunting task, his government never lost its nerve and sought cooperation from all quarters to evolve a Delhi model with increased testing and home isolation. Striking a conciliatory note with the Centre, he, however, expressed his reservations about the LG’s move to do away with Delhi govt’s panel of lawyers for the northeast riot cases and the abrupt transfer of Delhi’s director of education
There has been a consistent turnaround in the Covid situation in Delhi and the positivity rate is dipping sharply. More and more testing, home isolation and increase in the number of beds have been the key factors we know. Since complacency is bound to set in, what strategy are you going to adopt now?
Two things are required to be done. First, no complacency should be allowed to set in. Corona is an unpredictable virus and its future behaviour is unknown. The only parallel is the 1918 Spanish Flu. It had three peaks, and the second peak was much worse. No one can predict the course of coronavirus. All that is being said is conjecture. That is why, we must take all precautions. We must wear masks and maintain social distancing. Some people have become less careful, and I wish to appeal through your newspaper to people to continue being careful and take all precautions.
Attention has to be given to the economy too. People are losing jobs, businesses are getting affected. Distress among people is high. People should actively start participating in economic activities while taking all precautions.
Tell us about the aggressive testing going on at the ground level. RWAs have been approached to give lists. One sero survey is over and more are going to take place. What is your strategy and objective?
Three kinds of tests are being done – antigen, RT-PCR and antibody tests. The antibody tests reveal whether a person has been exposed to Covid-19 infection in the past 15 days but does not tell you about those currently affected.
Antigen tests reveal the status of current infection. These test are being conducted on a large scale in various nooks and corners of the city. The government is approaching citizens to get themselves tested. Like you said, RWAs are being approached and various centres have been opened. Public announcements are being made.
For RT-PCR tests, it is the people who come to the government hospitals and flu clinics. A couple of newspapers were critical about the smaller number of RTPCR tests and a greater number of antigen tests. It is claimed that more false negatives are being reported in antigen tests. We are not exerting any control on anything and are trying to work up to the maximum capacity. Delhi has a maximum capacity of carrying out 10,000 to 11,000 RT-PCR test daily. With maximum efforts, up to 9,000 tests are done. Now that Covid cases are declining, fewer people are coming. Since the government approaches people – symptomatic or asymptomatic –for antigen tests, naturally more people test negative. RTPCR also has only 70% accuracy. Even our health minister first tested negative when subjected to RT-PCR.
Are you contemplating closing the borders—like UP and Haryana did earlier because now the situation elsewhere threatens Delhi?
In principle, I am not in favour of closing borders. How long can you keep them closed? The sero survey report has shown that a quarter of Delhi’s population has antibodies. The survey was started on June 27 and deals with data up to June 10. The pandemic began in the country largely by the end of March. In three months, 25% got antibodies. From June 10 to now, it may have increased by around 8%. I do not know at what percentage herd immunity is achieved because experts have different estimates. But we can safely say that we are approaching herd immunity. In such a scenario, sealing the borders is not required.
You were earlier apprehensive that people from outside will come to Delhi.
There was a reason for it. In the month of June, central government experts had come up with a formula. A portal had been set up and only the state governments had access to that. On feeding the data of the past 10 to 15 days, the portal would give you projections. It projected that by July 31, Delhi will have 5.5 lakh Covid-19 cases and 80,000 beds would be required.
All hospitals of Delhi, including private, together had 50,000 beds. In case of 80,000 cases, there would have been a shortage of beds. That’s why I had said that for two months, all the hospitals of Delhi would be reserved for people living in Delhi. Now, we are ready to treat all of them if they come here.
Delhi seemed to be more reluctant than other states in imposing a cap on testing and hospital charges and other states took the lead.
That difference was only of around a week. In the scenario of a pandemic, capping may have consequences. We treaded with caution. Three states – Tamil Nadu, Gujarat and Maharashtra – had capped the prices before us. We studied their models and capped the price for testing and hospital beds.
How do you explain the fact that people preferred private hospitals over government ones?
Yes, that’s correct and drew my attention as well. In the first week of June, I got details of occupancy of beds in Delhi hospitals. I saw that on one hand, 1,500 beds were vacant, but stories were being carried in the media about non-availability of beds. When I made enquiries, I learnt that there were 700 beds in private and 3,000 beds in government hospitals. Out of the 700 private beds, around 645 beds were occupied while 1,500 out of 3,000 government beds were vacant. It could also be because more people belonging to the upper strata of society were getting the infection.
There are two factors behind this. The first is the 70-year-old mindset of government hospitals and schools being in a bad shape. Now Delhi government schools are very good, but the rich still prefer private schools. Secondly, there were those horror stories from LNJP.
We worked on a war footing and took multiple steps. Deaths among suspected cases were very high at that time due to many people not getting beds. We reserved 40% beds in private hospitals. We wanted to take all stakeholders into confidence in whatever decision we took. Without the support of the hospitals, Covid management in Delhi would have collapsed. Reserving 40% beds added 5,000 beds. We then spoke to owners of hotels and 2,000 more beds were added.
Why did Union home minister Amit Shah have to visit LNJP, a Delhi government hospital, when there were reports of patients being neglected? Did your government let Centre seize the initiative here?
It is everybody’s hospital and he is welcome to visit. The turnaround in Delhi was due to collective efforts. We realized that we cannot do it alone. We took everyone’s help, including that of the central government, private hospitals, hotels, banquets and NGOs. Due to collective efforts, the turnaround happened. The advice of experts from the Centre was also available to us.
There has been a visible tussle between the Centre and Delhi government over claiming credit for the positive change in the situation. What has been the Centre’s contribution, if at all, do you think?
I have said that they can take all the credit, and we will take all the responsibility. They provided help, whenever we sought it. They gave us oxygen cylinders, PPE kits, testing kits. In June, we faced shortage of testing capacity. We sought help from the Centre and they provided rapid antigen testing kits to Delhi before all.
The Delhi government did complain about the Centre’s interference, particularly in imposing new guidelines for home isolation.
Home isolation was very critical. It is unique not only in the country but in the world. No other country has this facility. We heard horror stories of how patients were lying on the road in Italy. All those getting infected were being taken to hospitals. The hospitals were full, leaving no space for serious patients. In case Delhi had reported 50,000 active cases, there would have been a severe shortage of beds. Home isolation removes a major burden from the health infrastructure. Secondly, it gives people comfort that they can get themselves treated at their home since no one wants to go to a quarantine centre. That fear discourages people from getting tested, and when they finally do, once their condition deteriorates, it is difficult to save their life. We made home isolation very comfortable. We hired a tele-calling company for regular tele-consultation. We have given oximeter to all patients. It helped many people and they supported it.
What was it then that the LG found wrong?
Centre had a misconception about home isolation. According to a study, the central government believed that 45% deaths take place in the first 48 hours. So, they said home isolation is leading to more deaths. We gave them data showing that home isolation deaths are negligible. By that time, 15,000 patients had recovered from home isolation and only around 25 people had died. Only six deaths have taken place under home isolation between July 1 and 15. Had they not withdrawn the home isolation cancellation order, the turnaround in Delhi would not have been possible.
At any stage during the unfolding of the epidemic, did you begin to worry about the enormous challenge facing your government?
We never said die…it was our principle. We never lost hope. Recently, the Karnataka health minister said “now only God can save us”. The day the government gives up, you can think what calamity would happen. The government cannot give up.
You were very keen to resume economic activity and the unlocking has facilitated that, but recovery is yet to begin. There is a scenario of all-round gloom and doom. What do you think of this and what are your plans to kickstart economic activity?
The biggest plan is to remove the fear of Covid from the minds of people. As the Covid situation improves, migration towards Delhi has begun on a large scale. Workers are returning. As the situation improves and fear subsides, participation in economic activities will increase.
Do you think the Centre mishandled the migrants crisis? Was it a good idea not to let them go home initially? Delhi government was attacked for taking the lead but later state governments took the same route?
The timing of the central government was very bad. Ultimately, they had to send them home, but by then the Covid situation had deteriorated. Those who returned now carried the infection to their villages. I think the Centre made some mistakes in its calculations.
When the PM asks other states to implement the Delhi model, what do you think he means?
The Delhi model has three principles. Everyone has to realise that it requires collective efforts of governments, society and other stakeholders. Keeping politics aside for sometime is very important.
Secondly, criticism should be taken positively. Reports about shortcomings would come from various sources. Several videos used to surface on social media about people facing problems. It is natural to feel angry. It would appear like an agenda driven by the Opposition. We noted down all negative points. LNJP Hospital is the biggest example. There were some shortcomings. It was battered by the media. It was the biggest villain of Covid in the first week of June. We improved each and everything with small but many interventions. CCTV cameras were installed. The same media after three weeks is praising LNJP as the best hospital in Delhi. Had we not taken the criticism positively, it would not have happened.
One day at 11pm I saw a video on Twitter while I was going to sleep. A person was standing outside a private hospital with his ailing father. He was critical with a heart condition. A test had been done two days ago. After he tested positive, the hospital had asked him to take him to a Covid hospital. He did not know where to take his father. I called the person and made arrangements for him. We then launched the corona app to make the information reach more people.
The third principle is never giving up. The Delhi model consists of home isolation, aggressive testing and isolation, creation of a large number of beds, and plasma therapy.
Delhi government’s revenue has been hit very badly. How do you plan to generate the revenue you require for developing Delhi?
For the mainstream economy to be back on its feet again, vanishing of the Covid-19 fear among the people is needed. Mainstream activities have to be encouraged. I believe resumption of the Metro services will play a big role. We will be writing to the Centre to consider running of the Metro. Markets are open but are without customers. I know some restaurant owners who had to close their establishments after opening due to shortage of customers. The time has come for people to participate in the economy with adequate precautions.
Do you think the Centre should have followed a uniform strategy to take on Covid and not left it to individual states to do as they please? Which are the states where, you think, the situation is particularly worrying? What did they do wrong?
It is not appropriate for me to find fault with the states. I think every state has a unique situation and I think every state government is doing a good job. The coronavirus is rapidly spreading throughout the country. In Delhi, we took everyone along. Similarly, the entire country will have to come together. Aggressive consultation and discussions are needed, creation of some platforms are needed. Everyone will have to work together. Some good work is being done in different states. Kerala had done good work initially. We should learn from one another and move ahead.
Why do you think the Centre is so keen on having its own set of lawyers to argue in the northeast Delhi riots case?
It is unfortunate. The universal principle is that the investigative agency and prosecutors should be completely independent of each other. You have to ensure independent investigation and a fair trial. In Delhi, the police is under the Centre while the Delhi government has the power to appoint lawyers. For lower courts, the police wrote to us in June that we want a certain panel of lawyers. We said the police cannot decide on lawyers because then the prosecution would be prejudiced. That is not a good situation. Then LG said that the police lawyers should be approved by the government. We wrote on the file asking the LG if the lawyers appointed by the government don’t have the capability. The LG wrote back that was not an issue but nevertheless asked for the police lawyers to be appointed.
What could be the motive?
There is some problem in intent. In the last two cases, the court stated that the police wants the investigation to be taken in a particular direction. Recently, the court said that they are taking the entire judiciary for a ride. If the courts have questioned the impartiality of the police, it is more important that the lawyers should be independent of the police.
Do you think Delhi Police has conducted fair investigations?
The courts have raised questions on the investigations of the police from time to time. In such a scenario, appointment of independent lawyers is more important. They are using the extraordinary power that LG enjoys under the Constitution. The SC had stated that the extraordinary power should be used in the rarest of rare cases. Obviously, appointment of advocates cannot be a rarest of the rare case.
Do you think there was a design behind the education director’s transfer out of Delhi soon after the board results were declared. The deputy CM has hinted at that.
I would not say there is a design because there is no evidence for that. I believe that no country can develop without its people getting quality education. Children in all the developed countries get quality education. Education is in a bad shape across the country. Delhi has given a ray of hope. A 98% result in government schools is unheard of. It has never happened in the past 70 years. So those who made it happen should be praised and consulted for improving education in the country rather than being sent to Andamans.
What message are we sending? We are an elected government and should be consulted. Then people will stop making accusations that there is a design. How will the government work in such a situation?
When the country is facing a huge economic crisis, do you think the Centre should go ahead with the Central Vista redevelopment project which entails a huge expenditure?
I feel that when the country is staring at a challenging revenue situation, it can be postponed and should be postponed. All the state governments are in financial distress and need funds. In Delhi, besides the Delhi government, the corporations too are in financial distress. In such a scenario, we have put several of our projects on hold. There won’t be any harm if the Central Vista project is postponed.
Amidst the Covid headache, India has been facing a very serious challenge from China on its borders. Why do you think the country is facing this situation?
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.
Why has the situation come to this pass?
China has always backstabbed us while we have always extended the hand of friendship to China. In 1962, Jawaharlal Nehru considered China a very good friend and made efforts for friendship. Even then, China had backstabbed. 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.
Will an economic boycott have any impact on that country’s approach to us?
Regardless of what action the government takes, people want out land back. The government is required to take all steps for this. Secondly, it is 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.
Is the unravelling of the main Opposition party, Congress, a threat to democracy? Who will challenge BJP in 2024? How do think the scenario is going to evolve?
Currently, there is a huge political vacuum at the national level. At a time when China is troubling us at the border and the coronavirus has spread in the country, both 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. 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 will definitely emerge in the country in future. Only time will tell what that alternative would be.
Are you positioning AAP for that role?
AAP is a small party. It will be presumptuous on my part to say that AAP will fill that gap at the national level. Our organization is very small. But people all over the country definitely respect AAP and love it. Due to the work done in electricity, water, health, education 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.
There 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. Is that a reflection of you having given up on any immediate national ambition?
Arvind Kejriwal is not important. Arvind Kejriwal does not have any national ambition. We never thought of contesting elections or forming a political party when we used to run an NGO. The entire country knows that we didn’t form a political party or contest elections out of choice but due to compulsions. The then Congress government did not accept our demands. The country is important. People are very powerful and they will give an alternative.