Prof Ujjwal K Chowdhury

PM modi lockdown extensionThe Prime Minister of India has extended the current lockdown in the country till May 3, 2020, with a rider that after April 30, some relaxations for certain sectors may be done. In his inimitable style, he has told this in effect that ask not what your government can do for you, listen what you can do the nation. The onus is again upon the citizens to defeat the COVID19 virus, after the earlier rounds of banging thaali, clapping, burning candles, etc.

The big takeaways from his 30 minutes talk on air on April 15, were: lockdown to be extended till May 3 but conditional easing may be after April 20; more stringent measures in certain areas now; 7 guidelines for India and detailed guidelines about which sectors to be allowed to operate shall be given tomorrow; India has enough beds needed to face the health challenge; and, help the poor and the old and follow lockdown norms.

There cannot be a debate on the need to the lockdown as a national policy today when we have crossed 11,000 cases and are among the 20 most affected nations of the world. So, the Prime Minister is right in extending it and has done it after discussion with the Chief Ministers a day earlier. Many questions on the nature of the lockdown need to be asked though. Further, while several CMs had already extended the lockdown till April 30, it is not comprehensible why the PM chose May 3 as the deadline. May 1-3 being May Day and weekend could have been a reason, which actually would have been a better reason for the people to use for replenishing cash and essentials in their homes on those days before getting in to a work-week after a long gap.

The entire speech did not have any transparency or information regarding the scientific projections used by the government to decide on the national lockdown extension, neither on the use of PM Cares fund which has been reported to have received above Rs.40,000 crores by now, nor on the details of country’s medical preparedness beyond a lac of beds in some 600 plus Corona specific hospitals in the country. While more than a hundred doctors and nurses across India have proven Corona positive largely due to lack of full protection gear (PPE), there was not a word on that. No word on rapid testing kids, ventilators etc. While India just now has 149 tests per million population, the lowest in the nations with more than a thousand cases, even Pakistan has 256 tests per million. No statement on that either.

There was no word spoken on any immediate relief measures, neither for the migrant labour languishing in millions in penury, nor for the farmers facing the major crop season in the next three to four months and unable to gainfully sell their current stocks. There was no talk on universal ration and community kitchen, which some states like Delhi have already started. There was no transition plan for the worst affected start-ups, cultivators and labour class.

Modi Video conference

The Prime Minister claimed that even when India did not have a single case of Corona positive person, heavy screening started in our international airports. Question is then how several infected persons across the nations, including the infected Tablighi Jamaat foreign delegates, could enter India which led to further spread in India. The schools, theatres and malls were closed by March 15 when the number of cases were 100. One wonders then how the figure reached 550 on March 24, when PM announced nationwide lockdown. And if it was all effective, how is the number 10,550 when he extended it on April 15 morning?

Council for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) has noted that 119 million people have no salaries from April of which at least 70 millions are from organized sectors of the economy, rest being migrant labor and disorganized sectors. This is humungous. And India needs a serious financial package to deal with such a major economic crisis. Direct transfer of funds of not less than Rs.10,000 per month (lower than the average per capita income) are needed based on Jan Dhan Accounts, PM Kisan Yojana beneficiaries, MNREGA beneficiaries and SME organized sector skilled and semi skilled labour all of whose accounts are easily available.

The government of India on March 28 had announced a Rs.1.7 lakhs crores package to deal with this crisis which is lower than 1% of the USD 2.7 trillion GDP of India. It is to be noted that the first 20 most affected nations have announced relief packages from 3% China to as high as 14% by UK and 18% by Germany. Even nations with lower infected numbers than India, like Japan and Singapore, have announced 5% or more of their GDPs for medical relief and economic support. India, in spite of being a large nation, has not been able to even allocate 1%, while the need is a minimum of 5%, keeping the lack of medical infrastructure, and the huge impact over the MSMEs and the marginalized people of the nation.

PM has noted that the severity of lockdown is being increased over next one week in the fight against Coronavirus. Every town, every police station area, and every state will be examined on the basis of how strictly the lockdown is being followed there. This appears to be a warning not only to the people or groups who may be taking Corona virus lockdown casually, but also to the local administration and state governments. Thus the Modi government has put the onus on the success of lockdown on people and the local governments. He has given a clear hint that a China-like lockdown may be imposed in areas that do not show improvement in the next one week. China had imposed a lockdown wherein people were allowed to come out of their homes only once in two days. Any violators were dealt with sternly. Apart from the stick, on the carrot note, PM Modi offered return to normalcy for those people, areas and local governments performing up to the mark, and this may happen after April 20. But this easing out of lockdown in these areas will be “conditional”. If new cases emerge after partial lifting of lockdown in any area, total lockdown will be re-imposed. India treats a Corona virus-affected area as hotspot if there are six or more positive cases. The global norm has been of declaring an area as Corona virus hotspot if there are 10 positive cases.

Some of the states such as Kerala, Odisha, Uttarakhand and much of the Northeast are the likely areas where lockdown may be eased after April 20. These states have done better than the rest in containing spread of COVID.

The experience of nations relatively successful in handling the crisis, like Japan, Singapore, South Korea, UAE and South Africa has been that apart from conditional lockdown, they have focused on massive testing, identifying and treating the patients, localizing the infection by identifying hotspots and sealing them and sanitising them along with rapid testing in those areas.

Unfortunately, the strategy in India so far has been all-out lockdown without these follow-up processes in full measures, also considered to be crucial to combat COVID, according to World Health Organization. Indian economy in general, and the poorer half of the population in particular, cannot take the onslaught of another total lockdown for two to three weeks.

Hunger might then kill and cripple more than what Coronavirus will.


The author is a columnist, television panellist, and currently the Pro Vice Chancellor of Kolkata based Adamas University.