Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan's first response to the media after the massive win on May 2, counting day, showed he had no time to smile, let alone exult.
He began by saying it was 'world laughter day', in a manner that suggested that he too longed to laugh and rejoice but couldn't. He merely acknowledged his front's historic and stupendous win and without wasting any time, as is usual for him in the evenings, started reeling out COVID-19 numbers for the day.
The COVID-19 pandemic is a hard task master. Vijayan and his new-look cabinet will get no time to settle. The number of infected is soaring, hospital beds and ventilators are dwindling and vaccines are hard to come by. If a cricketing analogy can be used, in his second innings, Pinarayi Vijayan has been asked to enter the field during the death overs.
No new chief minister before him, including himself, was denied what is generally called the "honeymoon period". Pinarayi Vijayan has already hinted at three immediate priorities.
The first is to slow down the rampaging virus. The second is job creation. The third, as a kind of thanksgiving, is to increase welfare pensions as promised and also to quickly decide how long the government could sustain the free provision kits for all.
Onmanorama's interactions with serving and former civil servants have thrown up a fourth priority. The need to keep the activities of Kerala Infrastructure Investment Fund Board (KIIFB) alive. This, they say, is necessary to keep the economy oiled.
Controlling the pandemic has become tougher, it now requires more complicated decision making.
Last March, when the virus just struck, extended lockdowns were resorted to. Such a strategy is no more viable. The lockdown had killed the economy. There were catastrophic job losses and the government's total revenue receipts, including central government grants, fell short by a whopping Rs 35,000 crore.
Saving lives and livelihoods
"Therefore, though the second wave looks more virulent, a complete shutdown has been ruled out," a top health official in the COVID-19 expert committee said. "We now need a more dynamic decision making process. The chief minister has asked us to keep monitoring the situation. From the inputs that we have, the situation would aggravate by the middle of May. So we are keeping a close watch on how this mini lockdown, from May 4 to May 9, is impacting the spread. If things turn out to be even more worrisome, the chief minister had already told us that he is open to another mini lockdown," the official said.
Not for a moment the hand can be taken off the pulse. Treatment strategies, too, are evolving with the virus. "The political executive will have to be alert to the inputs the scientific community is providing on a daily basis. Last year, for instance, asymptomatics and mild symptomatics were admitted to COVID-19 hospitals. Now we insist on domiciliary care for them, either in homes or in care homes designated by the government," the official said.
The need for more ICU beds, ventilators and oxygen cylinders can be met only with the help of the political leadership. "The Health Department can deliver only if the political heads are responsive and willing to take bold and swift decisions. A transition period for the new government is too much of a luxury, could even be dangerous, in these extraordinary times," said Dr Adisheshiah, a respiratory medicine expert.
The general consensus is that near universal vaccination is the best way to shake off the virus's grip. "We have placed the order but we are not sure when we will get the adequate number of vaccines. Till then we have to try out a mix of containment measures that will keep both lives and jobs safe," the member of the expert committee said.
At this point, less than 17 per cent of Kerala has been vaccinated. At least 60 per cent of the population should be vaccinated for Kerala to steady itself against the virus.
LDF's fifth mission: Job Creation
The pandemic has killed jobs but it has also thrown up new possibilities for job creation. The need for social distancing has popularised 'work from home' and 'work near home' arrangements. Tapping the national and global potential of such pandemic-induced job arrangements will be the new government's other urgent task.
Unemployment had threatened to nearly derail the LDF government's bid for a second term. A blueprint for such a job creation has already been spelled out in finance minister T M Thomas Isaac's last budget.
The target is 20 lakh jobs in five years. Called the Action Plan for Employment Generation, it will create 'work from home' or 'work near home' facilities and invite national and global players to hire Kerala's skilled human resources. It is said that in the next five years 18 crore people would work outside a centralised close office space.
Talks with major job creators, like IT companies, both in India and outside have already been initiated. "The new labour minister, along with the finance minister, will have to quickly take on the task," a source close to the chief minister said.
Equipping the job aspirants for such high-end jobs is the other arm of the project. Job creation, therefore, would be taken up as the fifth mission of the new LDF government. During the just concluded term, there were four missions: Aardram Mission (health), Haritha Mission (environment), Life (housing) and Education Mission.
Free kits for how long
Along with jobs, a subsistence wage for the elderly and the poor is also a necessity in these times. All monthly welfare pensions have been increased to Rs 1,600 in the LDF government's last budget. The new finance minister will give it his imprimatur and, given the prevailing uncertainty, could even increase the pension to Rs 1,700.
A decision will also have to be taken on the long-term viability of the free provision kits for all. It now costs Rs 350 crore a month. Sources close to the chief minister said the free kits for all would continue at least till August, till the next Onam season. After that, considering the state of the exchequer, at least white card holders will be exempted from the benefit.
Keep KIIFB well oiled
Nonetheless, to keep the economy going, experts Onmanorama talked to said the KIIFB work should be accelerated. It is said that Rs 12,000-15,000 crore would have to be invested in KIIFB works during the 2021-22 fiscal. "This will not just improve infrastructure but would also provide jobs and shore up the economy, especially in rural areas," a senior IAS official said.
To begin with, the new finance minister will have nothing much to worry about. The Board has enough money to fund its projects that would be grounded during the 2021-22 fiscal. "But the new minister should function with the clear awareness that things could turn difficult in the second year. So it is important that loans are lined up in advance," the official said.
Despite the controversy surrounding the constitutionality of KIIFB's actions, the 'body corporate' has still not lost its credibility. In April, NABARD had provided Rs 1,500 crore to KIIFB. The new finance minister, even if it means taking on the Centre, will have to make sure that KIIFB's global standing is not for once compromised.