Exactly a week before Srinagar reported its first COVID-19 case on March 19th, Junaid Azim Mattu, the flamboyant mayor of Srinagar chaired a high-level meeting with medical experts and senior officials of the Srinagar Municipal Corporation (SMC), to frame the strategy to fight the spread of the deadly pandemic. Immediately after the meeting, he announced his first decision: closure of all schools and colleges across Srinagar.
The announcement triggered a hot debate in the J&K administration and was opposed by the then divisional commissioner of Kashmir Basser Khan. But the same evening, the mayor’s decision was formally accepted and extended to the entire valley by the administration and the Mission Director National Health Mission (NHM) of the union territory, Bhupinder Kumar.
In an exclusive interview with Citizen Matters, Mattu, who is leading the fight to contain the spread of the virus, which has so far claimed 38 lives and infected 3500 people in the entire union territory (UT) of J&K, said the announcement was based on logic.
“On March 11th, I had convened a special session at SMC where I had invited epidemiologists, virologists and other experts where it was unanimously decided that all educational institutions in Srinagar must be shut”. In his late 30s, Mattu said it was also decided that public places such as gardens, parks and restaurants would be closed.”
Mattu was born in Srinagar in a politically active family. His grandfather Ghulam Ahmad Ashai was a founding member of Sheikh Abdullah’s Muslim Conference party, later renamed to National Conference. Mattu studied at the Burn Hall School in Srinagar and the Bishop Cotton School in Shimla. He graduated in Business and Finance from Michigan State University and worked as a financial analyst in the United States for some time.
Mattu returned to Jammu and Kashmir in 2009 to be part of “change and empowerment” and joined People’s Conference led by Sajad Gani Lone. In 2013, he joined National Conference and was assigned the role of party spokesman.
In 2018, he switched back to the Peoples Conference. Mattu was elected as the Mayor of Srinagar on November 6, 2018 with 40 votes from corporators, beating his closest rival from the Indian National Congress by 26 votes.
He has been proactive right from the start of his tenure. Soon after becoming Mayor in 2018, he turned his primary focus on making Srinagar one of the cleanest cities in the country. He ensured that every locality got garbage bins installed and Safai Karamcharis reached every locality, including those on Srinagar’s outskirts, to clear them.
Even in the aftermath of the lockdown following abrogation of article 370 last year, except during the first two weeks, garbage lifting from Srinagar areas were restarted, despite the extremely difficult circumstances. Srinagar was also declared an open-defecation free district in January.
Last December, Mattu got into a verbal duel on Twitter when the army started cleaning Dal Lake. His posts triggered a controversy after he wrote: “SMC has not entered into any collaborative operation with the Army for any cleaning, de-weeding operations in Dal Lake. With all due respect to the Army, I don’t think the Army needs to venture into civil governance domains. Taking peripheral weeds out with a backhoe loader parked on the pavement and dumping tons of weeds on the boulevard road isn’t what we need!”
Leading from the front
But tackling COVID was a whole new challenge. Mattu himself had to undergo quarantine for 45 days and stayed away from his family after one of the employees of SMC tested positive, though the mayor said he was never in touch with the employee.
While in quarantine, he used social media and his phones extensively to monitor the anti-COVID drives and to pass necessary directions. He remained proactive on social media round the clock and made dozens of video calls to take stock of the situation on the ground.
Mattu is as active on his Twitter handles (@Junaid_Mattu and @Mayorof Srinagar) as he is on the ground. “Social media is a most effective medium of dissemination of information. It’s a real time medium of gaining feedback. Lots of people get connected here and suggest what we need to do and point out loopholes in our policies as well.”
“We decided to shut schools as all experts believed that young children can be potential carriers of COVID. In fact, we were the first city in the country to announce closure of schools and public places as part of our efforts to minimize the impact of COVID in Srinagar. It wasn’t as if I took the decision in my personal capacity and imposed it on the people of Srinagar. Today, my decision is being widely appreciated,” said Mattu.
Srinagar’s first case was an elderly woman who had returned from Saudi Arabia after performing Umrah. “Soon after the first case was reported, we started implementing our plan framed at the SMC meeting. Just a few hours after the woman tested positive, the SMC team wearing personal protective equipment (PPEs) visited the area and sprayed chemicals to ensure proper sanitization of the area. Not just the area where the woman lived, but all adjoining areas were sanitized as well.”
Reinventing the municipal corporation
Mattu’s first priority in the fight against COVID-19 was to reinvent SMC and make it an “effective institution. I knew the fight against the pandemic would be a lifelong one. I am happy to put on record here that Prime Minister Narendera Modi announced that Srinagar was among the 16 best districts in the fight against COVID. We were at number 6,” Mattu beamed. “We are certainly not as rich as other state capitals, but our will power is much stronger than others for sure.”
“My plan to minimize the impact of COVID was not a borrowed concept but based on the ground situation, the geography and history of Srinagar and the past history of viruses. I respected everybody’s opinion while framing the plan to fight COVID.”
We are still in the middle of the pandemic. Our strategy entailed that while schools, gardens, shops and restaurants need to be closed, banks and hospitals needed to be kept open besides shops selling essential commodities. At banks and hospitals social distancing was made mandatory and all major hospitals were de-contaminated. Today, all government hospitals in Srinagar district have de-contamination tunnels which are used by the frontline COVID warriors, hospital staff, doctors and para-medics.”
“The decontamination tunnels have worked to a large extent, but hospitals continue to remain spots of concern. Apart from de-contamination tunnels, SMC staff covered each hospital in the city where sanitization is conducted on a regular basis. A dedicated team of chemical-spraying staff and engineers are working round the clock to ensure all major hospitals remain sanitized at all times.”
At least 4000 SMC employees are on the ground fighting the battle against COVID. “They are the real COVID warriors. Not all my staff have PPEs, yet they are doing an excellent job. For those involved in chemical spraying and sanitizing the areas where positive cases are reported, PPEs have been given. Our safai karamcharis have only a mask and gloves.”
Mattu laments what he calls the “19th century medical set up” in Srinagar. “Our health care is extremely shoddy. In Srinagar, a majority of hospitals belong to the pre-independence era and those upgraded are not up to the mark. COVID must be a lesson for us. Healthcare has to be a major focus once the pandemic is over.”
SMC plans to set up a state of art hospital at Srinagar bypass which is the common meeting point of north, south and Central Kashmir districts. “Yes, we have a huge chunk of land at the by-pass where I believe a mid-city hospital must be set up. For that we will be inviting private players. This is my dream.”
Matu’s attempts to re-invent the SMC includes a Rs 50 lakh insurance cover for its employees and a bonus for those who are at the frontline of the fight against COVID. “I want a sense of dignity for my safai karamcharis. They should live with their heads high.”
Asked what according to him were the challenges going forward, Mattu said that biggest challenge is to evolve a fresh strategy with active involvement of all government agencies to convince the people of Srinagar that COVID was a serious challenge and will be a long haul one.
“We can’t always implement lockdown. So far, we have had the best ever lockdown implementation for which people deserve the credit. In the long run, we have to move beyond lockdowns and remain vigilant. For that, we need to make certain changes in our lives—make social distancing a norm of life, keep wearing masks and gloves for as long as the pandemic continues to rage. Handwashing has to become a routine affair. The real challenge will start when lockdown is lifted and people will throng roads, offices and other places in the city.”