Last night, the prime minister was forced to send the nation into shutdown after it became clear that as people, we were incapable of any voluntary discipline. From videos of district magistrates dancing down the streets, to hundreds stuffed into buses, crowds at shops, just about everyone doing whatever they wanted, there was no alternative but to slam the door shut. And he did that.
Why 21 days, you may ask. That is the outside limit of how long the virus can take to infect someone. If one assumes that someone in a family who was out yesterday caught the virus, others in the same family would get exposed after that, so while two weeks may be enough for the first person, an additional week for subsequent exposures is an excellent idea.
That said, the big problem is how to supply and feed a nation which is supposed to be home bound. Giving them shopping time, as is done in general curfews (Goa just had 9-11am), is fine in normal situations but in the time of coronavirus, you don't want to encourage crowds at vegetable and general stores. So what is to be done?
The general silence from the government(s) except for platitudes like Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal's "we will not let you starve", shows that there was no readymade plan to implement a lockdown and the bureaucracy is struggling to put together one that meets two critical criteria
1. Minimal/no social contact
2. Get basic necessities to the needy
Furthermore, the government needs to put cash into the hands of daily workers and others who are not on salary.
A few solutions to the delivery of necessities and minimal social contact are possible and could be implemented very quickly.
For the middle class and above, the problem is that shops are open but don't deliver. Going to them exposes them and many of the online delivery systems are reconfiguring how to deliver under a lockdown. The immediate answer in these urban areas is to assign one or more cycle rickshaw wallahs and three-wheelers to the shops and get them to deliver the goods at a small extra which goes to the transporter. This will provide income to some of those who have no other source of income.
We could also fall back on the thelawallah, who can go house-to-house with fresh fruit and vegetables. There already are some that do it, and there are many thelawallahs, who normally deliver all kinds of other goods, who have nothing to do right now. These people again could be used for doorstep delivery. By keeping a two-metre space while ordering, placing chosen goods away from the thela and dropping the money in a box, social distance would be maintained.
The bigger issue is reaching the poor. Arvind Kejriwal has a package for 70 lakh daily wagers and there must be another 50 lakh on the bread line. To reach them, the government could operationalise machinery it already has and that is the election voting system.
Under that system, there are identified polling stations (schools), which have large compounds with polling booths (three-seven) in each case, and electoral rolls of about 1,200-1,500 per booth. That means there are about 2-300 families per booth. The government should use the polling booth to distribute a readymade package of essential items (rice/wheat dal, onions, masala, oil, potato).
Assign one or two days a week to each polling booth in the school (polling station).
Break the families into three groups of 80-100 families each and use three separate rooms.
SMS each family the hour they should come.
Mark points two metres apart for people to stand in line.
The staff will tick off names so there is no duplication.
In villages it will be less of a problem and a similar plan can be used. Also, villagers generally have better access to grain and vegetables than urban areas. Given that this is harvest season for wheat, mustard, potato and onions, there should be enough supply in the villages and the panchayat should be able to distribute it to the needy if necessary.
Finally, this was the time last year that the Government released the first tranche of Rs 6,000 for farmers under the PM Kisan Samman Nidhi; since this is budgeted it should be done now. A similar amount should be sent to those with Jan Dhan accounts. This way, both the farmers and the urban and rural needy will have funds. The alternate for the rural needy is transfer money into the account of everyone who last year participated in MNREGA.
We need to act fast before people in lockdown begin to get agitated about their next meal. And social anger erupts.
(Ishwari Bajpai is Senior Advisor at NDTV)
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.