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PM Narendra Modi at an interaction with chief ministers on Wednesday. (Photo: ANI)
PM Narendra Modi at an interaction with chief ministers on Wednesday. (Photo: ANI)

PM Modi rules out any further lockdown, pitches for minimum restrictions

  • PM Modi urged the states to minimize restrictions to boost economic activity, support migrant workers and promote telemedicine
  • This is the PM’s sixth round of meeting with chief ministers, beginning with the first one on 20 March

Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Wednesday ruled out another national lockdown to curb the coronavirus pandemic, while urging states to minimize restrictions to boost economic activity, support migrant workers and promote telemedicine.

In a meeting with 15 states to discuss the way forward, Modi said that India was now in the unlocking phase. On Tuesday, in the first round of the meeting, Modi had met 21 chief ministers and heads of Union territories.

“He (Modi) talked about the need to fight rumours of a lockdown, mentioning that the country is now in the phase of unlocking. We need to now think about phase 2 of Unlock and how to minimize all possibilities of harm to our people," the government said in a statement.

The two-month lockdown, the world’s largest and strictest, was the focal point of India’s strategy to contain the virus that originated in Wuhan, China.

In his Tuesday meeting, Modi said green shoots had sprouted in the economy over the past few weeks, since the country began easing restrictions after a lengthy lockdown.

Wednesday’s video conference was attended by the chief ministers and representatives of Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Delhi, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal, Karnataka, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, Haryana, Jammu and Kashmir, Telangana and Odisha, which account for the highest number of coronavirus cases in the country.

The meeting also comes against the backdrop of clashes along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) between India and China in Ladakh, which have left 20 Indian soldiers dead.

“Six states spoke today," a person who attended the meeting said, requesting anonymity.

This is the prime minister’s sixth round of meeting with chief ministers, beginning with the first one on 20 March.

Modi said the problems of migrants are not over just because they have reached their homes.

The central government has drawn flak from some quarters for its handling of the lockdown. Many believe that while the lockdown was necessary, it was unplanned and led to mass exodus from cities, and that the government’s 20 trillion stimulus package overlooked the plight of hapless migrant workers.

“He also underscored the need to remain alert to effectively tackle the challenges faced by the migrant labourers in the coming months," the government statement added.

Two key states—Bihar and Uttar Pradesh—account for more than 6.5 million returning migrants: Uttar Pradesh with 3.5 million and Bihar with 3 million.

Modi also spoke about supporting the micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs).

The government has announced a package for MSMEs as part of the 20 trillion stimulus to restart a teetering economy. This includes a 20,000 crore package for distressed MSMEs and a 50,000 crore equity infusion through a Fund of Funds. It has also approved the new definition of MSMEs that will include higher investment limit and an additional turnover criterion.

The government has reached out to financially weaker sections, migrant workers and farmers, even as the lockdown hurt small businesses, major job creators and the backbone of the Indian economy.

As part of India’s focus on saving lives and livelihoods, Modi said infrastructure and construction work shall be prioritized in the states.

With the economic situation expected to worsen, India’s new lockdown playbook involves a phased reopening, with the onus largely shifting to the states. Concerns are rising as India’s factory output contracted by a record 55.5% in April as industries remained closed in the first month of the nationwide lockdown.

India is unlocking its economy in phases beginning 8 June, allowing more economic activity in order to spur consumer spending. States feel that there is a need for a staggered withdrawal from the lockdown and maintaining a fine balance between opening up of economic activities and doing more tests.

On Wednesday, Modi also said that inflation was under control.

India’s inflation based on Wholesale Price Index (WPI) contracted by 3.21% in May. Food inflation also eased to 1.13% in May from 2.55% in the preceding month. The retail food inflation in May was at 9.28%, compared to 10.5% a month ago. While urban retail food inflation was at 8.36% in May, that of rural areas was 9.69% in the previous month.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Modi said the experience of the first two weeks of Unlock 1.0 will help the Union and state governments craft strategies for the future. That meeting was attended by representatives from the Union territories, the northeastern states, hill states such as Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, and opposition-ruled states including Punjab, Jharkhand, Kerala and Chhattisgarh.

Modi on Wednesday also pitched for strengthening the health infrastructure, information systems and public participation, and spoke about the growing importance of telemedicine, be it in the case of home quarantine or isolation.

Telemedicine is the usage of electronic or digital media for the distribution of healthcare services, especially when the patient and doctor cannot physically meet each other. It was only recently that the Union health ministry approved long-pending guidelines on telemedicine that allows any registered medical practitioner to treat covid-19 patients remotely or by using telemedicine tools.

“In the same way that our medical and paramedical staff are fighting this battle against coronavirus in the hospitals, we will have to create a large team of senior doctors who can guide the patients through telemedicine and provide them with the correct information," Modi said.

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