When Prime Minister Narendra Modi appeared on national television at 8 pm on March 24, 2020, to address the nation on the outbreak of the coronavirus, an air of trepidation was palpable across the length and breadth of the country.
Alluding to the Hindu epic, Ramayana, the Prime Minister said, “For 21 days, forget what is stepping outside. (Imagine) there is a Lakshman Rekha on your doorstep.”
Modi would later allude to another Hindu epic, Mahabharata, in equating the challenge of the 21-day initial lockdown to the 18-day battle.
Barely four hours after his announcement on March 24, at the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world slept, India went into its first coronavirus-induced lockdown. And 68 days, 1,73,763 positive cases and 4,971 deaths later, on May 31, the ministry of home affairs issued an order announcing a phased reopening or ‘Unlock 1’ by dint of which almost all prohibitory orders were lifted, except in containment zones. In the preceding 24 hours, there have been 10,956 new cases and 265 fatalities.
Did the lockdown, dubbed by a section of the media as the ‘world’s strictest’, yield desired results? Was it too early to lift it? Was it too early to impose it in the first place? Well, the jury is out. On June 5, Rahul Gandhi tweeted a graphic saying ‘this is what a failed lockdown looks like’. In one word, it looked scary.
The Wire tried to ascertain whether the timing of India’s lockdown was flawed and whether its purpose was served, by talking to experts.
Locking down a country of 1.3 billion people can surely be an administrative nightmare. So we started by speaking to an administrator with over four decades of experience. Former culture secretary of the government of India Jawhar Sircar thinks the lockdown is a spectacular administrative failure. Not one to mince words, Sircar blames the Prime Minister’s one-upmanship for it.
“Mr Modi does not believe in consultations. His government is run by a few yes-men. In times of such crises, you need discussion, first within the cabinet, then with bureaucrats, and you need contrary opinions. The labour ministry has a dedicated department for handling migrant labourers ever since the Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act came into being in 1979. Where are they? Has anybody seen the labour minister of late? I know Mr Modi’s modus operandi. He loves to be seen as pulling a rabbit out of the hat. But that’s perhaps not a good way to take decisions, particularly when it affects 1.3 billion people,” Sircar told The Wire.
As a senior bureaucrat, how would he have handled the migrant labourers’ issue? Sircar was equally upfront in front to our point-blank query. “Had there been some simple planning, the labourer’s movement would not have snowballed into such a mammoth crisis. The ideal thing to do was to cater to their needs wherever they were. Setting up camps and arranging basic provision and some cash in hand. It doesn’t take much efforts for BDOs to organise these camps. This basic administrative input was missing since there was zero consultation. After that, a relatively small number of labourers would have wanted to go home. That could have been arranged without much hassle.”
Judging from the perspective of healthcare, eminent neurosurgeon Dr Sujoy Sanyal too was forthright in calling the lockdown ill-timed and ill-planned. And he has his reasons for it.
“It was clear from the very beginning that a warm third world country like India was following a different trajectory than, say, Italy or Spain, when it comes to the spread of the disease. Here it was spreading slower, and because of the relatively younger age profile of our population and innate immunity, fatalities were much less than in European countries. But we borrowed the lockdown model from those countries and based it on doomsday predictions from mathematical models without considering the ground reality. Had there been some realistic planning, the government would have realised that it had some time to prepare before going into the lockdown. And then the decision to unlock was equally bizarre, if not more. All scientific models advise unlocking only when you see a sustained decrease in the daily number of fresh cases,” said Dr Sanyal, adding that the lack of planning was evident from the fact that India had allowed export of medical equipment, including PPE, well into March despite instructions to the contrary from the WHO.
“Then comes the issue of the migrant labourers. Within days of the lockdown announcement, the migrant issue was looming large. The government sat on it trying to delay the inevitable. We let them suffer without money or job for two months. Finally, we gave up, and the migrant labourers, a majority of whom were by now infected, streamed out of urban red zones of the country and carried the infection into green rural India. Purulia and Cooch Behar districts of West Bengal are classic examples,” Dr Sanyal added.
Sociologist Dr Dalia Chakrabarti thinks there should be adequate social security for the migrant labourers at their workplace itself. Explaining her stand, she told The Wire, “The impossible journey that the labourers have undertaken shows their desperation, the absolute lack of economic and social security at their places of work and the inadequacy of support provided by the state. We have to remember that they are actually going back to places where they didn’t have enough means to survive. That is why they had left in the first place. And as they go back as potential carrier of the infection, they face the threat of social ostracization. Hundreds of them have died on their way. A better planned lockdown that ensured minimum provisions would have saved the day for many of them.”
The decision to impose a lockdown was always going to be tricky because of its impact on the Indian economy. It may sound harsh, but it was a trade-off between loss of lives and loss of income. We asked economist Saikat Sinha Roy what he thought about the effectiveness of the lockdown, and whether it could be handled better. Sinha Roy too was thoroughly unimpressed.
“The lockdown gave the country some time to ramp up its public health infrastructure. Unfortunately, there was no considerable effort and the health crisis predictably led to an economic crisis,” he said.
Explaining how a better-timed lockdown could have saved the economy to a large extent, Sinha Roy said, “The lockdown could have been delayed by a fortnight. That would have allowed firms to honour the orders placed to them during the last quarter of the year with supply leading to realization of most of the transactions during FY 19. The MSMEs, largely without working capital currently, would not have ended up in such dire states. The sudden shutting down of production and distribution led to a total collapse of the economy rendering millions jobless.”
About the reverse migration of unorganised labourers, Sinha Roy sounded confident that a deferred lockdown could have allowed the government to make arrangements for a social safety net in terms of food and cash, and also helped workers to plan their migration with dignity. That, in turn, would have brought down the amount of collateral damage.
“Last but not the least, if the lockdown had been planned, the nature and extent of requirement for a stimulus package to restart the economy could have been different since large employment-oriented programmes in rural and urban sectors would have proved sufficient. As of now, it looks like an impossible task,” said Roy.