NEW DELHI: A letter written by Delhi health minister Satyendar Jain to Union home secretary Ajay Bhalla, accusing the ministry of home affairs (MHA) of putting pressure on state government officials to stall the proposed increase in Covid-19 testing sparked a major row on Thursday, immediately attracting a strong rebuttal from MHA which dismissed the charge as “false and baseless”.
The letter was triggered by a note written by Delhi’s principal secretary, health, Vikram Dev Dutt, proposing that the views of an expert committee, headed by Dr V K Paul, may be taken on the proposed enhancement in testing in Delhi for technical guidance on various issues, such as a mix of RT-PCR and rapid antigen tests, areas and demographics. The Delhi government claimed the note was written under pressure from MHA with the intention to block the proposed increase in tests.
In a statement, the MHA dismissed Jain’s allegation, emphasising that it was the MHA which had pushed for increasing the number of tests in the Capital. “It may be recalled that it was after the intervention of home minister Amit Shah that daily tests in Delhi, which were averaging around 4,000 till mid of June, have gone up to around 18,000 to 20,000 per day in a calibrated manner. The marked improvement in the Covid-19 situation in Delhi has been possible due to this enhanced testing and other containment measures,” it said.
It joined issue specifically with the content of the note of Delhi’s principal health secretary: the centrepiece of Jain’s charge that the Centre was blocking Delhi’s plan to enhance tests. The ministery pointed out that the note written by Dutt had made no mention of any instruction from the ministry on increasing testing in Delhi and had only proposed that the views of the expert committee headed by Dr Paul may be sought.
After the MHA issued the statement, Jain expressed the hope that the officers would get the message. “I am sure that the officers, who were reluctant to increase testing today, citing pressure from MHA, will immediately increase testing in Delhi,” he said on Twitter.
In another tweet, Jain said, “Our CM has acted in cooperation with the central government to tackle Covid-19 in Delhi. We should continue to act in the same spirit of cooperation for the well-being of Delhiites.”
Chief minister Arvind Kejriwal had announced on Wednesday that Delhi was going to double Covid-19 tests to 40,000 a day as a precautionary measure due to the recent increase in cases.
Jain had in his letter to Bhalla said that “home ministry was stopping Delhi government from conducting more tests”. The MHA is the cadre-controlling authority for bureaucrats working in the Delhi government. The minister said he was very shocked to “learn from some officers about the MHA’s pressure on Delhi government officials” because the Delhi government and the Centre had been fighting the pandemic together.
Calling the alleged pressure illegal and unconstitutional, Jain mentioned in the letter that Dutt’s letter had not been shown either to him or the chief minister. Dutt did not react to TOI’s requests for comment.
The health minister asserted in the letter that Delhi’s elected government was capable of taking all decisions. “The strategy of more and more tests has been hailed as a good strategy the world over. Due to this strategy, the Delhi government has so far been successful in keeping the Covid-19 situation under control,” he said, wondering why they were now being stopped from ramping up testing from 20,000 to 40,000.
Jain wanted to write to Shah but wrote to the home secretary instead because the home minister is still in hospital. “The number of Covid-19 cases is rising in Delhi for the past few days. As a responsible government, it is our duty to make quick interventions,” he said.
Meanwhile, some district officials said they were preparing plans to mobilise market associations, RWAs, civil defence volunteers and councillors for doubling the number of daily tests to 40,000. All shopkeepers in markets would be asked to go for the test. Slums and other densely populated areas will be in focus. Around 80% rapid antigen and 20% RT-PCR tests are likely to be carried out.
Harleen Kaur, district magistrate (South East), said her officials were gearing up for the big exercise. “The same teams will do more tests and we will get more teams as per our need,” she said. “We are committed to all directions given to us.”
Aam Aadmi Party spokesperson Raghav Chadha, meanwhile, joined the attack on MHA. “The central government must stop this illegal and unconstitutional pressure which can have a massive negative impact on the health situation in Delhi,” Chadha said. He said the “order was inexplicable, unexplainable and incomprehensible”.