A new emergency response package worth Rs 23,123 crore to tackle the coronavirus pandemic was announced by the central government on Thursday, following the first meeting of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's revamped cabinet on Thursday.
The announcement outlined the priority for PM Modi who appointed new ministers for health, IT and oil as part of a reshuffle a day ago in a bid to reinvigorate his government amid fierce criticism of its handling of the coronavirus pandemic, the economy and other quarters.
The package will help set up paediatrics departments in 736 districts, 20,000 new ICU beds and acquire buffer stocks of medicines, new health minister Mansukh Mandaviya said.
Out of the 23,000 crore, around Rs 15,000 crore will be spent by the centre and Rs 8,000 crore will be allocated to states, he said, adding the plans will be implemented in the next nine months.
Mr Mandaviya was appointed on Wednesday just hours after Harsh Vardhan, who was the face of the government's efforts to fight COVID-19, was asked to step down along with his deputy.
Official sources said Mr Vardhan had to pay the political price for the government's struggles to cope with a devastating second wave of coronavirus infections.
PM Modi's government has faced sharp criticism for the chaotic rollout of a nationwide immunisation campaign that experts say had worsened the impact of the second wave, killing hundreds of thousands.
The official count of deaths after a surge in COVID-19 infections in April and May passed 4 lakh last week. Experts believe the actual number may be much higher and there are fears of a third wave soon. Millions remain unvaccinated.
Several members of the ruling BJP and a few from allies were sworn in at the Rashtrapati Bhavan to replace 12 ministers that were fired in the first cabinet reshuffle since PM Modi was re-elected in 2019 on a promise to transform India into a political and economic power.
Opposition leader P Chidambaram said the removal of the health minister and his deputy was an acknowledgement that the Modi government had failed in managing the pandemic but the buck should stop with PM Modi.
"There is a lesson for ministers in these resignations. If things go right the credit will go to the PM, if things go wrong the minister will be the fall guy," he said.
PM Modi retained his core team at the foreign, finance, home and defence departments even though the economy is in a deep recession and there are widespread concerns that a surge in COVID-19 infections will stall economic recovery.
The reshuffle also came after the defeat of the BJP in April elections in key West Bengal and ahead of another major test of PM Modi's popularity in state elections in Uttar Pradesh, Goa, Manipur, Punjab and Uttarakhand in February and March next year, which may prove to be a bellwether for his party in 2024 national elections.
Earlier in the evening, PM Modi held a virtual meeting of the new cabinet that now includes 30 ministers while the council includes 77 in all.