Amidst Privacy Concerns, Kerala CM Is Caught Between a Rock and a Hard Place

The opposition has alleged that by appointing the US-based tech firm Sprinklr, the state government has risked leaking crucial health data to pharmaceutical companies.

Kochi: Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan held his customary and hugely popular media briefing after a gap of four days on Monday, thanks to the still brewing controversy over the alleged breach of data privacy of 1.75 lakh people due to a deal with a US-based tech firm, Sprinklr.

But to the utter disappointment of most of the reporters present at the event, he chose not to answer the questions on the very controversy. “We as a state are confronting a virus, and it is no magic but hard work and unity among the people which has allowed this breather (with the curve flattening). The controversies built up on false accusations can wait. I have better things to do now, rather than paying heed to those baseless allegations,” said the chief minister.

The opposition leaders had, one by one, been training their guns on Vijayan ever since the leader of the opposition Ramesh Chennithala, started the offensive and accused the chief minister of allowing the US-based tech firm to collate and handle the health data of 1.75 lakh people under quarantine without taking their individual consent. The data, inclusive of the details of their present symptoms and existing health conditions, had been compiled by health care workers and volunteers using a tool developed by Sprinklr for assisting the health care system in making an informed decision about possible treatment protocol.

The Congress-led opposition has alleged that the government, by appointing the tech firm Sprinklr without following due procedures, was risking the leak of crucial health data of thousands of people to pharmaceutical companies. On the other hand, the government maintained that there is no issue of data leakage, as the company is storing records in a server located inside the country.

Moreover, the chief minister has clarified that Sprinklr is not a public relations firm as alleged by the opposition. It was a listed supplier of software and other IT solutions to the state’s Information and Technology Department. But later in a television interview, M. Sivasankar, the Secretary for Information Technology owned up the decision to engage the US-based company which is run by a non-resident Malayali.

Also read: Lockdown: Kerala Human Rights Panel Seeks Report on Man Forced to Carry Ailing Father

Even though the government maintains that there is nothing dubious in the agreement other than the hasty nature of its execution, which they have attributed to the pandemic, the opposition has succeeded in casting a dark cloud of suspicion on the government. They had even made the allegation that the chief minister’s daughter, an entrepreneur in the information technology field had a stake in the deal, which he dismissed with a measure of disdain.

The Kerala high court has now sought an explanation from the Pinarayi Vijayan government regarding the foreign jurisdiction clause in the Sprinklr agreement. The court, while appreciating the efforts made by the government in curbing the spread of the virus, made it clear that while it was not against the agreement, it needed certain undertakings from the state government.

According to the chief minister, Kerala has systematically flattened the curve of coronavirus cases with only 114 active cases against a whopping 291 recoveries on day 80 of the pandemic in the country. Kerala has dropped to the fourteenth spot in a month’s time, from the top of the list, as far as the number of active cases is concerned.

Police personnel conduct a march to enforce the COVID-19 lockdown strictly, in Kochi, Monday, April 20, 2020. Photo: PTI

“This is due to the hard work done by one and all who have been fighting this virus, from the cleaning staff in hospitals to the head loaders of vegetables to the state. The credit of keeping the virus at bay should go to each and every health worker in the state. But we cannot take this time as a breather, we should be on the guard till the virus is contained globally,” said the chief minister.

On April 20, Kerala witnessed 21 recoveries against six new cases, a worrisome fact, given that five of them were returnees from the Middle East, who had been diagnosed well past their prescribed quarantine period of 28 days.

“These are probably asymptomatic non-infectious people being tested at the end of their quarantine period. It has been announced that all quarantined people will be tested now and will be completed in 2-3 days. So after April 25, we should get zero cases” said Dr Arun N.M., a health care professional specialising in internal medicine, who has been active on the ground.

As the state approached two weeks since the lockdown imposed to curb the spread of the coronavirus, the Kerala government was planning to relax some of the restrictions in two least affected zones, allowing monitored movement of private vehicles on an odd-even basis and take away services at restaurants from Monday.

The state government had colour-coded 14 districts of the state into four zones – Red, Green, Orange-A and Orange-B, for containing the COVID-19 pandemic. The red zone comprises Kasaragod, Kannur, Kozhikode and Malappuram districts. Orange-A zone comprises Pathanamthitta, Ernakulam and Kollam while Orange-B zone comprises Alappuzha, Thiruvananthapuram, Palakkad, Thrissur and Wayanad.

Also read: Union Home Ministry Objects to Kerala Easing Lockdown Restrictions

The lockdown will be in full effect until April 24 in this zone before partial relaxations are allowed. Kerala made an exception for some areas by relaxing restrictions for establishments like barber shops – a decision which did not go well with the Union home ministry. The MHA found Kerala’s steps tantamount to dilution of guidelines issued by the Centre and violation of its April 15 order issued under the Disaster Management Act 2005, forcing the Pinarayi Vijayan government to withdraw the decision.

“We are not in a confrontation with the Centre, and will adhere with its guidelines,” chief minister Vijayan said at his diplomatic best when he clarified the issue. Kerala was one of the states which implemented the lockdown with precision barring some sporadic incidents, like the protest by the guest labourers of Payippa, Kottayam, on March 29. The authorities, as well as a vast majority of the people, were very prompt about staying indoors. But many social scientists and political observers are reluctant to attribute credit for Kerala’s success in curbing the menace to the lockdown alone.

Patrick Heller, a professor of Sociology and International Affairs at Brown University said that the local self-governments of Kerala proved to be crucial in containing the pandemic.

“You can get the politics right and you can have a great public health-care system, but its effectiveness in a crisis like this will only be as good as the infamous last kilometre. And this is where two decades of empowering local governments have clearly paid off. Whether in focalising containment efforts in hotspots, tracking down those who have been exposed or managing the broad array of direct benefits that have been distributed to migrant workers, the elderly and the differently abled, the key has been the capacity of state actors and civil society partners to coordinate their efforts at the level of panchayats, districts and municipalities”. Professor Heller observed in the article published in The Hindu.

Employees of Health Tele Helpline centre wearing face masks are seen working at IMA house Ernakulam District in Kochi, Saturday, April 18, 2020. The helpline handles COVID patients in their initial stage. Photo: PTI

Mobilising financial and societal resources, constant communication from the state’s leadership, broad and dense health-care system of the state have been highlighted as the other key factors of Kerala’s success story. The international media has also heaped praise on Kerala’s efforts, terming it “phenomenal“.

Also read: Is India Neglecting Its Migrant Workers Abroad?

The next big challenge before the state will be lakhs of its residents who are currently abroad, especially in Middle Eastern countries and are waiting for the air traffic and travel regulations to be restored. The influx of people from abroad and from the other states, once the lockdown is lifted poses a huge challenge for Kerala.

“We have kept around two lakhs quarantine beds ready, for the Non-Resident Keralites’s who are coming back. If the Centre allows, we will be more than happy to welcome them. We will have to put them under quarantine for almost a month, but we will do it with pleasure. They comprise the backbone of our state, we have to treat with the best we can,” says K.K. Shailaja, Kerala’s health minister.

The central government has yet to give the nod for Non-Resident Indians to return to the country. “We will have to prioritise them. We can start by returning those who have gone to visit their relatives or were attending some academic programs. Weightage should be given to pregnant women and the elderly,” said the chief minister.

As far as the central and state governments are concerned, a worsening of the situation in the Middle East could be the biggest nightmare for the country which will be forced to fly its citizens back.

Amidst all these predicaments, the media is awash with stories surrounding the Sprinklr controversy. The big question is whether dodging the questions will save the chief minister’s grace

Rajeev Ramachandran is an independent journalist based in Kochi.