In a campaign video released ahead of the municipal corporations elections held in March, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in Himachal Pradesh claimed that the Jairam Thakur-led government had been a “messiah” during the COVID-19 pandemic. In his public addresses, Chief Minister Thakur is often seen boasting about the “development” work undertaken by his government, rarely failing to mention the various “welfare” schemes launched by him. While talking to the media, Thakur has often mentioned that Himachal has fared better than other states in managing the coronavirus pandemic.
The CM and his party’s claim could not be further from the truth. Himachal Pradesh’s performance in managing COVID-19 is nowhere close to impressive; it fares worse than neighbouring states on many counts. Human development indicators in the state have also taken a downward turn under the BJP’s watch. Contrary to what the CM would have us believe, his party has indulged in various anti-people moves and the state’s economic growth has been in the doldrums for quite some time.
The state has only six labs for testing COVID-19 samples, and private labs were only allowed to start testing as late as May 2021, at the peak of the second wave. At 35,497.9 (as on July 13,2021), the state has conducted the lowest number of tests per lakh people amongst all the six neighbouring states and union territories, as per data compiled from official state sources.
Other hilly regions have left Himachal far behind too, with Jammu and Kashmir conducting 80,842 tests per lakh people and Uttarakhand administering 52,378 tests per lakh population. What is more concerning is that the state has the highest Test Positivity Ratio (TPR) of one per cent in the region; in comparison J&K's TPR was 0.4%, while Uttarakhand’s TPR stood at 0.2%. The state was also hit hard during the second COVID-19 wave. In less than 30 days in May, the state recorded more COVID-19 deaths than it had in all of 2020. Thus, the CM’s claim that the state has done better than other states in managing the pandemic rings hollow.
The state is also visibly lax in its preparations against future COVID-19 surges. Videos of tourists thronging hill stations often flouting COVID-19 norms have concerned doctors and the Indian Council of Medical Research. Taking a cue from the concerns expressed, the Uttarakhand government made negative RT-PCR tests and proof of hotel bookings mandatory for tourists to gain entry into the state. Gateway districts in Jammu and Kashmir had made negative COVID-19 reports a condition for entry into the state in April itself. However, the HP government is yet to take any such concrete steps to safeguard the people of the state from an upsurge in COVID-19 numbers. This is despite the fact that the district of Kinnaur, which is home to various tourist destinations, clocked in a positivity rate of 30.03% in early July, with the state even inviting a warning from the Central Government. Simply put, Himachal has no checks on the entry of tourists and large gatherings in tourists spots – the current state of affairs is a disaster waiting to happen.
Notably in May 2020, the BJP’s state president Rajeev Bindal had to resign over his alleged association with one of the accused in a COVID-19 bribery case. The BJP, therefore, has no moral high ground to claim it that it did any good work in HP. Even former BJP CM Shanta Kumar had said the alleged scam made one want to “bow one’s head in shame”.
RISE IN COST OF LIVING
While the people of the hill state have been hit hard by the COVID-19 crisis and rising inflation, the state government added salt to injury by increasing electricity charges and hiking bus fares. In June 2020, the BJP government cut the subsidy on electricity for consumption above 125 units. At least four lakh consumers will see an increase of over Rs 40-113 in their monthly bills. Amid rising prices of fuel, the state government has increased the bus fare by an astonishing 25% on two occasions in less than three years.
DECLINE IN SOCIAL INDICATORS
In just over three-and-a-half years, the Jairam Thakur government has managed to undo the progress made by previous state governments towards the welfare of the people. According to the latest findings from the National Family Health Survey, the sex ratio of the total population (females per 1,000 males) went down from 1078 in 2015-2016 to 1040 in 2019-2020, while sex ratio at birth for children born in the last five years went down from 973 to 875 in the same period.
Similarly, children’s health has also been adversely affected and the prevalence of stunting and wasting has grown in the state under BJP’s rule.
DECLINING GROWTH, RISING UNEMPLOYMENT
Under BJP’s rule, the economy of the state is set to record a negative growth rate for the first time in more than a decade. According to the latest Economic Survey of Himachal Pradesh, the state is expected to record a negative growth of 6.2% in the financial year 2020-21. While the pandemic can take some of the blame for the slowdown, declining growth has been a constant feature of the BJP rule. In its first year, the Jairam Thakur government brought the growth rate down by 0.8 percentage points (from a seven per cent growth rate in 2016-2017 to 6.2% in 2017-2018); the growth rate then reached as low as 4.9% in 2019-2020.
According to the latest round of the Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS), the unemployment rate in the state for those between 15-29 years of age during April- June 2020 was a whopping 33.9%. This effectively means that every third youth in the state was unemployed. The overall unemployment rate for the state during April-June 2020 was 14.9%. In July 2020, the state recorded the highest unemployment rate in the country at 24.3% as per data by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE). In contrast, the state’s unemployment rate during BJP’s first year of rule in 2017-2018 was 5.5%. It would be wrong to attribute the increasing unemployment figure to the pandemic, because joblessness has been on the rise before COVID-19 came into the picture. The overall unemployment rate in January-March 2020 was 12.8%, after a gain of 5.3 percentage points from the 7.5% unemployment rate in October-December 2019.
Apart from mishandling COVID-19, BJP leaders have failed to live up to the aspirations of a common Himachali, as job opportunities dwindled even as essential commodities became much dearer. Himachal Pradesh has gained recognition for its achievements in human development, but the ruling party besmirched even that legacy. If the BJP cannot improve the quality of life of Himachali people, the least it could do is not reverse the progress made by its predecessors.
The writer is a Delhi-based independent researcher. The views are personal.