Need to focus on economy in battle against Covid: PM Modi
This is widely being interpreted as a sign that after May 3, the lockdown will continue in red zones — which are home to clusters of cases — while there can be further relaxations in the less affected zones.Updated: Apr 28, 2020 05:41 IST
Suggesting that India will need to focus on a two-pronged approach — preserving public health and reviving economic activity — Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Monday placed particular emphasis on green zones (which include districts and regions which are free of the coronavirus disease) as the hub of future activity and a model to be aspired for.
This is widely being interpreted as a sign that after May 3, the lockdown will continue in red zones — which are home to clusters of cases — while there can be further relaxations in the less affected zones.
In an interaction with chief ministers on the pandemic on Monday — the fourth such meeting on the subject in just over a month — the PM emphasised the need for continued adherence to social distancing norms; spoke out against stigmatising people with the disease; told states that a high number of cases is not a matter to be ashamed about or fear, but to be dealt with through concerted action; and called for an intensive study of the situation in each district and zone to then assess the kind of activities which can be permitted without the disease spreading.
In the meeting, most state chief ministers called for a continued lockdown in the red zones while easing restrictions in non-Covid districts. They also demanded a clearer protocol on the return of migrant workers, and asked the Centre for comprehensive financial support given the plummeting revenues and fragile fiscal situation in states.
A participant at the meeting, directly quoting the PM, said, “He emphasised that on the one hand, we are challenged by how to save lives and on the other, we also have to equally focus on the financial aspect. Focusing on one more than the other is not possible. That’s why, the PM underlined, we have to strengthen economic activities and increase our strength to combat the virus.”
To implement this formulation in practice, the PM said that each state must study the impact of the lockdown in red zones, orange zones and green zones, where a range of activities have been permitted since April 20, and carefully consider where it is possible to lift restrictions, allow private transport, permit the elderly to move, and resume more economic activity without the disease spreading.
The meeting participant said, “The PM emphasised that there must be extra caution in red zones and hotspots, which are high-risk, with special teams assigned for them. The objective is to ensure that the infection does not move beyond the red zones and safe regions remain safe.”
In this backdrop, the PM called the green zones sacred, and emphasised that while practising social distancing, these regions will contribute to economic activity. “The 300 districts which are safe/ green zones , I believe, should be treated as sacred, like our tirthsthans (pilgrimage sites). Our focus will be how to expand the green zone. How our life will be in the coming days will be determined by the model in the green zone, not in the orange and definitely not the red zone.” It will also help ensure, the PM said, according to the participant quoted above, that the lockdown stayed — but life continued as well. “The mantra he gave to states was to convert red zones to orange, and orange to green zones.”
According to a government assessment in mid-April, 170 districts in 20 states and five Union Territories (UTs) were identified as red zones. Additionally, there were 207 orange zones in the country, and the rest of India’s 730-odd districts were classified as green zones.
A district is considered a red zone if it has large outbreaks, multiple clusters or if the infection doubling rate is less than four days. If such an area does not report any new case for 14 days, it turns into an orange zone. With no cases for another 14 days, the region is then classified as green, or Covid-free.
Commenting on the balancing act between health and the economy, Suyash Rai of Carnegie India said, “India has now ramped up testing and got beds ready. But eventually, to fight Covid-19, you need revenue. Or fiscal resources will dry up this year. So economic activity has to start carefully with all precautions in place.”
The PM also repeatedly invoked a phrase he first used in a meeting with gram panchayat heads — of the need to maintain do gaj doori, or a distance of two yards. He spoke, for the second time after his Mann ki Baat address on Sunday, on the indispensability of masks. The PM also said it was important not to treat those who had tested positive as criminals, while remaining vigilant. To states, he said, “I want to, with all humility, say to all the CMs that if there are a spurt of cases, then your state won’t be seen as guilty. If cases are low in your state, it won’t be seen as great. We don’t want this sentiment. We will just try to tackle it. If numbers increase in your state, don’t be scared.”
Nine chief ministers spoke at the meeting — while some others gave their inputs in writing due to constraints of time. They provided an appraisal of the situation in their respective states, while making specific demands from the Centre.
Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar said it would not be possible to bring migrants back home unless the Centre issued clear directives in this regard. Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik asked for enhanced testing facilities, and a screening of migrant workers for the disease before they were sent home.
Punjab CM Amarinder Singh, in a communiqué to the Centre, asked for opening of all small shops, businesses and industries in all areas except the containment zones. Haryana CM Manohar Lal Khattar asked the Central government to provide clarity on the schedules of various entrance examinations for medical and engineering college as well as for the armed forces, in the backdrop of the disruption in the academic calendar. He also provided details on the economic activities that have been resumed in the state.
Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal did not speak at the meeting, but a senior state government official said that the decision on the lockdown will be taken later in the week — in accordance with the guidelines laid out by the Centre.
Kerala, which was represented by chief secretary Tom Jose in the meeting, has sought staggered removal of the lockdown and an exclusive Covid financial package. Kerala has also asked the Centre to expedite return of 1.8 million migrants from the state, currently in West Asian countries.
Jharkhand CM Hemant Soren has sought relaxation on the ban on inter-state travel so that arrangements could be made to bring back students and migrant workers stuck in other states.
Meghalaya chief minister Conrad Sangma of Meghalaya said he proposed extension of lockdown. “We have mooted to continue with the lockdown post May 3rd with relaxation on activities in green zones or non-Covid affected districts in Meghalaya,” Sangma tweeted after the meeting. Mizoram chief minister Zoramthanga said that the only Covid patient in the state was recovering slowly. “Since we are surrounded by Myanmar, Bangladesh and neighbouring states, which also have Covid-19 patients, we can’t be complacent,” he said, adding that the state will relax the lockdown slightly after May 3 and allow some economic activity slowly.
Another key issue in the intervention of states was that of finances. Five opposition ruled states — Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Kerala, West Bengal and a Rajasthan — have sought close to ₹2.25 lakh crore from the Centre to overcome stress on the state finances due to the national lockdown. This is in addition to demand of the state governments asking the Centre to pay the pending Goods and Services Tax (GST) compensation immediately, increase the borrowing limit from 3% of the state GDP to 5%, suspend repayment of all state development loans for a period of three months and allow flexi funds under Centrally sponsored schemes for Covid management.
Former chief statistician of India, Pronab Sen, said the Centre will have to strike a balance between the financial needs of the states and the central government departments. “There may be a need to re-look at the way the money is shared between the Centre and the states. The Reserve Bank of India has taken several steps to help the states but more could be needed if the lockdown continues for long. It is not time to worry about fiscal slippages and we should relax the Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management norms to reduce human suffering,” he said.
(With inputs from HT Correspondents)