Coronavirus case count to guide India’s lockdown future
The group of ministers (GoM) headed by defence minister Rajnath Singh will meet in New Delhi on Tuesday to discuss, among other issues, whether the lockdown put in place to combat the spread of Covid-19 should be extended -- in the backdrop of comments from administrators in at least four states that they would recommend prolonging it beyond April 14, when it is scheduled to end.
According to at least half-a-dozen ministers and senior bureaucrats Hindustan Times spoke to, the meeting of ministers, which will also be attended by Union home minister Amit Shah, will consider the recommendations of the 11 empowered groups set up to manage various aspects of India’s response to the pandemic. None of the people wished to be identified ahead of a decision which, many of them stressed, could be taken as late as the weekend, and depend on how the numbers stand then.
The 62 districts that account for 80% of all cases, however, will most probably continue to be in lockdown, one of the people said. That includes parts of Delhi and Mumbai, a second person added.
One of the big questions before the group will be lives versus livelihoods, according to Niti Aayog member Dr Vinod Paul, who is also the head of one of the 11 empowered groups. “There is no decision yet on how the lockdown will be lifted,’’ he said. “We are assessing the cost of the lockdown economically with the lives that need to be saved.’’
But voices in favour of an extension came hard and fast on Monday, from the chief secretary of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, the chief minister of Telangana, and a senior bureaucrat in Punjab. On Friday, a Maharashtra minister too spoke in favour of an extension.
The ministerial group will have to weigh this against concerns about the economic cost of a lockdown and the impact of a continued lockdown on daily wage workers and the unorganised sector.
According to one of the ministers HT spoke to, in all likelihood, units in less populated and relatively remote areas, may be allowed to reopen -- as long as most of their workers lived in and around the unit.
“There is also major pressure from foreign companies to start India operations with reduced staff,’’ said a third official.
The ministers will also consider a plan on staggered opening of industries from the department of promotion of industry and internal trade, the third official added. This person said that the group is unlikely to spend much time on the status of IT companies, which seem to have made adequate WFH (work from home) provisions.
But the group is expected to consider the status of micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs), which are hurting badly, HT has learnt.
“There is a wide ranging deliberation and consultation that is on now regarding the model to be followed after 14 April. The empowered groups are deliberating on their domains of focus. The IITs and other institutions of research are examining models too. This perhaps is the best way to bring about the most comprehensive and effective model.” said (retd) Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain of the National Disaster Management Authority and a member of one of the empowered groups.
A second minister said that there were concerns about the migrant workforce, and how to get them back to work. “One proposal we have is that factory owners sign commitments saying they will maintain social distancing in the workplace and create a safe environment. If they do, then we will allow those factories,” he said, adding that the nearly two million daily wage workers stranded in quarantine centres were also at risk.
A lot now depends on how the case numbers stack up in the week ahead. “If they see a sudden hike, then the lockdown will be extended despite the grim economic scenario,’’ said a third minister.
“The Prime Minister has asked ministries and departments to prepare their plans. Respective ministries and departments have to prioritise, for example, the agriculture ministry will have to think of how to facilitate farmers in the harvesting season. Procurement will be another focus. But, it is a cautious approach, a graded plan is required. We cannot ignore the fact that the threat of Covid-19 is still there,” a finance ministry official said .
A fourth minister pointed out that the Prime Minister will take a final call after also consulting with the states. “Unlike other decisions... this has to be one which involves consensus, he said.
Some states seem to be veering towards an extension.
Telangana chief minister K Chandrasekhar Rao said India should not lift the nationwide lockdown, “at least not entirely”, until the outbreak is brought further under control. “At least some of the restrictions should stay for a bit more. Otherwise, India will not be able to handle things if the lockdown is hastily lifted,” he said in comments to media.
In Uttar Pradesh, too, a top state government official said the lockdown may not be lifted after April 14, when the current three-week restrictions are set to end.
“Covid-19 positive cases in the state are increasing daily...The state government wishes to make it clear that lockdown is not likely to be lifted till there is a single coronavirus case in the state. The lifting of the lockdown means UP has become coronavirus-free,” Awanish Kumar Awasthi, additional chief secretary, home, said at a press conference in Lucknow.
Punjab, which was the first state to impose a curfew on March 21, is expected to continue with the lockdown in most parts, but issue curfew passes to allow harvesting from April 15. “A final call will be taken on April 12 or 13,” Suresh Kumar, Punjab chief minister’s chief principal secretary, said on Sunday.
Last week, a minister in Maharashtra indicated that the government may extend the lockdown by a couple of weeks, especially in Mumbai and other urban areas of the state.“We are expecting a fall in positive Covid-19 cases by April 15. We will have to extend the lockdown period by a few more weeks. Lifting it fully in a city like Mumbai is unlikely,” health minister Rajesh Tope said on Friday.
While the airline sector and Indian Railways are getting ready to restart operations, officials in the aviation and rail ministry confirmed that there is no confirmation yet that this will happen on April 15.