The relaxation to economic sectors, subject to fresh guidelines amid the coronavirus-necessitated lockdown, which the Ministry of Home Affairs granted today, calls for cautious handling beyond what the government has suggested. For, the relaxation for standalone shops can be misused despite the definition of “shops” being subjected to stringent laws governing locations and jurisdictions of civic authorities. The rate at which the number of cases of coronavirus infection is increasing, India may, unfortunately, have to extend the lockdown again on 3 May — even though the situation in the country is much better than that in many parts of the world like the countries of western Europe and the United States in terms of percentage of the total population that is affected. The scenario is better here mainly due to the tremendous goodwill Prime Minister Narendra Modi enjoys here, which made people react positively to the timely and prudent appeal to stay at home day after day after day. In the absence of this intervention, given the rate of spread of the contagion in countries like Italy, Spain and the United States, India’s COVID figure could have been about 2,50,000 infected, experts estimate.
Still, given that one community has gone rogue, lunatic, vulgar and violent, which now has the additional excuse of the month of Ramadan when they must observe communal feasts and fasts early morning as sehri and every evening as an iftar following daily roza, it must be ensured that the lockdown is sustained up to the coming Eid. This public conduct of the community was not confined to a faction thereof affiliated to the Tablighi Jamaat — unlike what the establishment and media would have us believe — a majority of Muslims did what they could do to disturb the regime of social distancing. If the faction quarantined attacked health workers, stripped before nurses, defecated in isolation wards, etc, the rest assaulted policemen in the streets and the intellectual section cried foul that the entire community was being stereotyped. The last section of the community was the same that had flatly denied the Nizamuddin Markaz event when the story broke.
Had this bioterrorism never happened, there could have been a 40% reduction in the number of COVID cases. If it is more than 24,000 now, the absence of the jihadi belligerence would have kept the numbers below 10,000. This calculation is based on the data released after the fanaticism of the Tablighis was discovered. And the bellicosity was not limited to the jamaat.
This ‘jihad’ notwithstanding, the economy cannot afford to stay at a standstill. After all, as the prime minister says, “Jaan bhi, jahaan bhi”, sustenance is as important as life. There will be a psychological element at work here. When people shop, it gives them a break from the ennui of life. This is not to advocate splurging but to prescribe a ‘retail therapy’. A functioning retail sector will calm those pacing restlessly at home. One obvious method of running the retail section of the economy is allowing online transactions, which is permitted anyway.
But e-commerce alone, in the absence of physical shopping, would corrode India’s vibrant retail. Therefore, additionally, some relaxation is merited to facilitate physical movement of the people without breaking the norm of social distancing. While the government has said the same, how the balance between work and caution would be maintained needs to be worked out. My suggestion follows to bridge this gap.
The way one needs an appointment to meet a doctor, one could seek appointments with shopkeepers. The shop owner would maintain a log and see to it that no customer turns up arbitrarily. The appointments would be spaced out to avoid crowds in the marketplace. And since not all people are getting the chance to come out together, in the peculiar situation we are in now, markets should be allowed to stay open 24×7 where employees of shops can work in shifts.
Equally important is the necessity to curb the rampant violation of the law seen in the liquor segment. Both online and offline, frauds are having a field day, taking advantage of the people’s urge to unwind at home amid the pall of gloom. Alcohol is a reality of life the state cannot deny. It’s so compelling, even members of a mainstream political party are allegedly entering the fray. Governmental apathy in this segment could lead to a tragedy like, say, deaths due to spurious liquor. In any event, illicit trade cannot be allowed. The home ministry must add some guidelines for this segment of the economy, which the law-enforcement agencies would ensure are implemented right.
The lockdown threatens to affect production as well as supply. When the supply is taken care of in the way described above, the stocks face the risk of running empty if the production does not restart. In the manufacturing sector, therefore, skeletal staff must be allowed to attend office while the employer in every unit would be ultimately responsible for the health and well-being of the workers while the MHA-granted relaxation is on. The employees working hours should, therefore, be rotated in the period of state-permitted relaxation. If the MHA has said the staff strength must not exceed 50%, the Ministry of Labour must add that a given set of staff cannot be exploited just because their job profiles make them indispensable in the workplace.
Exports to the countries relatively less affected by the global pandemic will lubricate the gears of that section of manufacturing and supply chains while even severely affected countries can benefit from Indian medical supplies, which are reliable — unlike the kits from China. By ensuring this modicum of work, the GDP growth that has plummeted due to the worldwide lockdown will begin moving up again. The poor will no longer need to live on grants from the government; they will regain the opportunity to earn. The middle class will enjoy a sense of relief. And the rich will not have to shut shop, affecting themselves and the whole economy.