Newly-appointed Union Health Minister Mansukh Mandaviya on Thursday announced that the Cabinet has approved a Rs 23,123 crore emergency response package to tackle the coronavirus pandemic.

The decision was taken in the first meeting of the revamped Union Cabinet amid severe criticism of the Modi government’s handling of the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic. On Wednesday, as many as 43 leaders took oath as ministers, 15 of whom were allotted Cabinet rank ministries. Mandaviya replaced Harsh Vardhan as the health minister.

“The Cabinet had allocated Rs 15,000 crore as the first phase of Covid-19 emergency relief package in April 2020,” Mandaviya said, adding that the allocation approved on Thursday was the second tranche.

He said that the amount from the second package will be spent on hospital beds, oxygen supply, critical medicines and other aspects of health infrastructure that were severely affected during the devastating second wave of the pandemic in April and May.

Of the total amount of Rs 23,123 crore, Rs 15,000 crore will be spent by the Centre, while the remaining Rs 8,123 crore will be used by states by March 31, 2022, Mandaviya said.

The package will be used to set up paediatric units in all 736 districts of the country and 20,000 intensive care unit beds, according to an official statement. Beds and ambulances will be added in rural, peri-urban and tribal areas, the government added.

APMCs can use Rs 1 lakh crore fund

Meanwhile, Union Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar announced that the Agricultural Produce Market Committees, more commonly known as mandis, can use the Rs 1 lakh crore allocated earlier to Agriculture Infrastructure Fund under the Centre’s flagship Atmanirbhar Bharat initiative.

The fund was first announced by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman in May. She had said that the fund will be utilised for “farm-gate infrastructure” for small and medium farmers. In an official release on Thursday, the government said that expanding the ambit of the fund to mandis will “achieve a multiplier effect in generating investments”.

Responding to a question on the farmers’ protest against the three agriculture laws, Tomar reiterated that the government was ready for discussions with farm unions on matters other than the repeal of the legislations.

Thousands of farmers have camped outside Delhi since November, demanding that the central government repeal the three laws that open up the country’s agriculture markets to private companies. The farmers have hunkered down with supplies that they say will last them for months, and have resolved to not leave until their demands are met.