India has begun to gradually unlock its economy after over two months of stringent restrictions to fight the coronavirus. But unlike the swift start to the all-encompassing shutdown in March, the ‘unlocking’ has been uncertain and patchy. The Centre has allowed states greater flexibility to set rules. But as the latest Google data shows, most states that are suffering from higher infection rates are struggling to free up public movement and economic activity.
Public mobility has certainly risen more and more in recent weeks across India, the data shows. Visits to essential services such as groceries and pharmacies have increased across the country since 17 May, when the lockdown was extended with more relaxations. Footfalls at such locations were closer to normal levels by the end of May than ever before during the lockdown.
But unsurprisingly, the trends across states for May are dissimilar. By 29 May, public movement in Kerala and Tamil Nadu in the south and Bihar, Himachal Pradesh and Punjab in the north had increased sharply as compared to the first week of the lockdown in March. Maharashtra, the worst-hit state, and West Bengal, which was hit by Cyclone Amphan in May, had a muted improvement.
Google’s footfall data covers six common location types such as workplaces, groceries, parks and transit locations, based on GPS signals. The data, available since mid-February, reports the decline in footfalls at each location type for each day as compared to normal. The normal for each day of the week is the average for a baseline five-week period in January and February.
Workplaces, which will help the economy restart, are taking time to revive. The improvement in footfalls at such locations even after 17 May has been weak. The states hit the hardest by the virus, such as Delhi and Maharashtra, still have just about half of the normal activity at workplaces, even though offices and factories have been allowed to reopen.
But in Gujarat, which also has a high virus infection rate, footfalls at workplaces are now around 40% lower than the baseline period - much better than 72% lower in the first week of the lockdown. The situation is similar in Tamil Nadu, another badly-hit state. The improvement in workplace footfalls in the two states was comparable with Haryana’s. The return to offices has been the highest in Kerala, Himachal Pradesh and Punjab.
There are other early signs of economic activity picking up in Punjab, Himachal Pradesh and Haryana. Electricity consumption, a proxy for industrial activity, has improved in May, data from Power System Operating Corporation shows. While still less compared to last year, it has significantly picked up from April’s lows.
A new report by Elara Capital suggests that traffic movement, wholesale market arrivals, power consumption and mobility trends together show that the return to economic activity is better in Kerala, Punjab, Tamil Nadu, Haryana and Karnataka than West Bengal, Telangana and Maharashtra. These are the states that could be expected to steer economic recovery in the coming months.
The traditional centres of economic activity have been hit the most by the pandemic. Infections have spread fast in cosmopolitan business centres such as Mumbai, Delhi and Gujarat. Google mobility data shows that public movement remains the most constrained in the richer parts of India, as measured by states’ economic outputs.
The data also shows that in states where confirmed cases are growing faster, the time spent at residential locations has barely reduced since the start of the lockdown. Nationally, for every 100 hours spent at home before the lockdown, people spent 126 hours during the first week of lockdown and 116 hours in the last week of May.
The decline is much less in Maharashtra, Bihar, Delhi and Odisha, where cases have spread at a faster rate. But the trend is opposite for states such as Kerala, Karnataka, Haryana and Punjab.
As states continue to take greater charge of their economies, the picture could turn in the coming weeks. However, it is clear that states that are able to contain the spread of the infection better will be able to see faster return to economic recovery.