PM Modi's Call - To Extend The Full Lockdown Or Tweak It

What yesterday looked like a continuation of the full lockdown for at least another couple of weeks is now possibly beginning to look like a more scaled version of the lockdown. While state governments have been pressing for its continuation and Odisha and Punjab have already extended it to the end of the month, there seem to voices both within the government and from economist close to the government calling for a less drastic approach. They argue that while it is important to save people, you cannot sacrifice the economy.

Punjab is looking at a lockdown that takes into account its need to harvest another bumper crop and Chief Minister Amarinder Singh has suggested that farmers will not be restricted under the lockdown guidelines in their districts. Many other states are in a similar position and need to be able to get labour out to harvest before the crops rot and farmers lose their primary source of income.

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The nationwide lockdown was implemented on March 24 to stop the spread of coronavirus

The fear is whether community spreading of the coronavirus, which seemingly India has broadly avoided, will explode if the lockdown is lifted and result in a massive deaths, social tension and upheaval. This is what politicians fear the most; for them the fear of social and political discontent following a possible huge number of deaths if the shutdown is lifted outweighs the enormous economic price the country will pay by continuing the shutdown.

They would probably feel that India has survived economic downturns before, such as with demonetization, which severely affected the rural economy and the tiny and small sectors but the political fallout was minimal. The BJP swept Uttar Pradesh despite it.

This fear is outright rejected by Bibek Debroy (chairman, Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister) who, along with Vijay Ojha, says "alarmist numbers based on questionable assumptions should not be used to prolong the lockdown, at least not in its present form. Even if there are 25,000 deaths, the economic costs of the present lockdown are disproportionately high."

They argue that "community transmission is almost inevitable (but) that does not warrant a continuation of the present 21-day lockdown in the middle of the Rabi harvesting season."

C Jagannath, Editorial Director of the pro-government Swarajya, endorses this line of thought saying "(Prime Minister Narendra) Modi must think hard before listening to political advice on extending the lockdown in the name of saving people from death. There are some cures worse than the disease, and that disease is called destroying livelihoods to protect lives. Without livelihoods, life itself matters less."

He asks that the PM resist pressure from Chief Ministers and the health bureaucracy, and not extend the lockdown.

While everyone concedes that the key virus hotspots should be kept under lockdown, the fact is that the top 20 hotspots include all metros (except Kolkata) and most of our major towns like Indore, Jaipur, Ahmedabad and Surat etc. If these remain in lockdown, how would the industry and business really recover?

"Allow free movement of export and import goods and goods traffic within cities and between states. Allow free human movement within cities...(and lifting of)... all controls on production, service and retail businesses," suggests Sanjeev Ahluwalia, advisor, Observer Research Foundation. Wouldn't that exponentially increase the risk of an explosion of coronavirus cases and deaths? Would Mumbai, which probably mimics New York in-living cheek by jowl, face a similar onslaught?

At some point, wouldn't the deaths drive people away from industrial and commercial hubs? Isn't that what happened when the huge migration took place after the lockdown? Were these people just daily labourers or income earners? Did they not include a reasonable proportion of people who had jobs but feared living alone in the cities while there was an epidemic? Isn't that why the thousands of truck-drivers who were earning and continuing to earn a living jumped out of their trucks and trekked home?

There also seems to an assumption that Indian labour is like that in the West. While this may be true of labour in urban areas, the vast majority of labour still has links to rural India and much of it is migrant. They don't follow patterns of applying months before leave, or returning from leave on the appointed day. Their village, their families and their marriages and festivals are still the key to their lives. If they had to choose they wouldn't be in towns. Economics drove them to the city, but the fear of death may well continue to keep them away until the numbers in the cities fall to the level where they and their families are comfortable with coming back to the urban centre.

The average family in a village doesn't need a lot to survive on. Their staple dal-roti-mirchi menu is cheap, and if they feel unsafe in the city, then the economics of coming back for work isn't going to kick in for a while just now.

That said, it does make sense for the government to look at opening up most districts in India. Currently, over 400 districts have no cases. Another 200 have less than 10 cases. In the latter it probably true that the cases are limited to particular tehsils. So the government can seal these ones off and allow most of the 600 districts to go back to work. Further, the government should incentivise the people in districts to help with the harvest by giving them Rs 200-odd from the MNREGA account in addition to what the farmer pays them. This would help get the harvest done quickly.

Should there be inter-district, inter-state travel? Is it necessary right now? How many people will buy tickets on planes and trains to come to the urban centres? Isn't running half empty planes a huge economic waste? Should we not be using the railway network to ship goods, especially essential items? And how are you going to maintain social distance at airports, stations, on trains and planes, and in the toilets of both?

The other point is that the economy hasn't completely shut down. More than 10 million kirana (grocery) stores are running in the country, chemists and petrol stations are open, banks are functioning (albeit with difficulty); many industries like pharma are also functioning and a whole world of work from home is happening. So while this is not ideal, nor is the idea of reopening cinema halls, malls and everything else and hoping that the coronavirus will not spread rapidly through our towns and then to the countryside. That devastation will scar the economy much more than the current lockdown is doing.

To respond to Jagannath's fears that the domestic household jobs sector, which employs millions at flexible pay structures, may also shrink - those who get their jobs currently done by maids and drivers will discover that they can manage just fine with dish-washers, floor-cleaning robots and self-driving: One can only say that those Indians who can afford them are too lazy to give up these services very soon.

So let the PM open up rural India, which is where most citizens live, and get our harvest done. If a couple of weeks from now, the number will have fallen to a satisfactory number and we can slowly reopen the rest of the country. Having gone for a lockdown, don't change course or we will end up with the worst of both worlds.

(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.