Unlock 4 puts the lives versus livelihoods debate back in the spotlight4 min read . Updated: 31 Aug 2020, 07:06 AM IST
- The nationwide lockdown, the world’s largest and strictest, was the focal point of India’s strategy to contain the virus
- Most Indians are still wary of stepping out of their homes five months into the pandemic
Unlock 4 has brought the focus back on the lives vs livelihood debate, with the country trying to restart large swathes of the economy to stave off a devastating economic crisis that could push millions of migrant workers back into poverty.
Reflecting the trade-off, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government on Saturday eased restrictions on a host of activities such as social, cultural, religious and political congregations from 21 September, and green flagged metro rail operations from 7 September in a graded manner.
As the covid count raced past the 3.5 million mark on Saturday and deaths neared 65,000, the new guidelines opened up more activities in areas outside containment zones, in sync with the government’s strategy to allow economic activities to resume in phases.
“State/UT governments shall not impose any local lockdown (state/ district / sub-division / city level), outside containment zones, without prior consultation with the central government," the guidelines stipulated, articulating its shift. It builds on a decentralized strategy, adopted earlier, in view of the varying progress of the disease across the country.
Another important context to the evolving strategy is the fact that most Indians are still wary of stepping out of their homes five months into the pandemic, which points to the long and difficult path to economic recovery. The issues assume importance given that, according to the finance ministry, economic recovery will depend on how the pandemic behaves in the coming days, especially in industrialized states.
States such as Uttar Pradesh have been continuing with the strategy of weekend lockdowns. State police officials said the aim is to prevent the spread of the virus in rural areas and to stop people from moving around.
“Majority of covid cases are in urban areas and we don’t want the disease to spread in rural areas. We take strict action against people who violate the rules under the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897…Weekend lockdown is being strictly enforced," said Akash Tomar, senior superintendent of police, Etawah, adding that authorities are ensuring that livelihoods are not impacted during the exercise.
The nationwide lockdown, the world’s largest and strictest, was the focal point of India’s strategy to contain the virus. It affected supply chains, resulting in a massive disruption to economic activity and employment.
The Centre drew criticism for what was seen as a harsh lockdown, in particular for overlooking the plight of migrants. People from rural areas who live and work in cities and other urban centres—often thousands of kilometres from home—are the bulwark of India’s informal economy. They were also the worst hit by the pandemic.
Many experts believe while the lockdown was necessary, it was unplanned, which is what sparked a mass exodus of migrants from cities.
“The unlock intervention must be tempered based on emerging evidence. Labourers, especially migrant labourers, need to be given livelihood and resumption of their jobs, with the government contributing to lost salaries," said Sakthivel Selvaraj, director, health economics, financing and policy, Public Health Foundation of India, a public-private initiative.
“Demand-side incentives must be put in place to kick-start the economy, favouring demand boosting initiatives among labourers, rural areas, etc."
The government, on its part, has offered free foodgrain and affordable rented homes under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana.
“Large cities which with agglomeration benefits are able to offer livelihood to natives as well as millions of migrants coming from far and wide in search of jobs," said Arup Mitra, a health economist and professor ofeconomics at Delhi University.
The International Monetary Fund has estimated that India will contract by 4.5% in the current fiscal, while Goldman Sachs expects the June quarter to be the worst hit, with the gross domestic product shrinking by 45%. As Unlock 4.0 starts, the government will likely face a fresh challenge in terms of migrants’ livelihoods.
“Should the migrant population travel back to cities, the preparation needs to be made in a tangible way to strengthen the functioning of the urban informal economy and the slum-living which would mean considerable overlaps among housing, employment and health interventions," Mitra said.
This comes at a time when the economic crisis that surfaced much before the pandemic has already started to bite, with massive job losses and industry-wide lay-offs. Cash-strapped states have turned to the Centre for compensation of goods and services tax revenue shortfalls. The Centre has responded by offering borrowing options. This, in turn, has sparked widespread criticism by states, who allege the action is unconstitutional and goes against the spirit of the landmark tax reform agreed between the Centre and the states.
Some experts support the move toward further easing after over five months of lockdown.
“As compared to an earlier stage, right now India may have a better-prepared healthcare system. So even if the opening up of mass transport system leads to some flare-up, the healthcare system may be able to cope up with it," NR Bhanumurthy, vice-chancellor, Dr BR Ambedkar School of Economics University said.
Shreya Nandi, Prashant K.Nanda, Gireesh Chandra Prasad, Neetu Chandra Sharma and Utpal Bhaskar contributed to the story.