Unlocking Paradox: Law, Eco Revival, Migrant Labour
by Ashok B Sharma on 16 Jun 2020 2 Comments

India has begun the process of gradually unlocking the lockdown with the hope of reviving the ailing economy that was showing a downward trend even before the countrywide lockdown was announced on March 24. The GDP recorded 4.2 per cent in 2019-20 as compared to 6.1 per cent in the previous year. This was the lowest in 11 years. Even in the last quarter of 2019-20 just before the lockdown, the GDP shrunk to 3.1 per cent. Revenue realization in 2019-20 has been below target and as a result fiscal deficit breached the target of 3.8 per cent of GDP to be at 4.59 per cent of GDP.


Lockdown shattered the economy with life coming to standstill. It is not that lockdown has not played a role in saving lives of the people. But India should have proceeded cautiously and imposed stringent containment measures selectively.


COVID was imported by travellers coming from abroad. The first case in India was on January 30, when a student from Wuhan University returned to his home town in Kerala. This should have been a wakeup call. India should have suspended visas for nationals of all COVID-19 infected countries instead of waiting for March 13. All international flights to and from Coronavirus infected countries could have been suspended instead of waiting for March 22. Indians and persons of Indian origin residing in COVID infected countries and who were desirous of coming to India should have been brought back in phases, screened, quarantined and treated if found infected. Foreigners in India could have been evacuated. After taking these measures, government should have thought of selectively imposing lockdown, after passing the Union Budget, on March 23. 


Various mathematical models have argued that had there been no countrywide lockdown, the cases of infection could have been much higher. The argument is that doubling rate of cases prior to lockdown was 3.4 days which has increased to about 15 days. As on June 2, the recovery rate was 48.07 per cent and fatality rate decreased to 2.82 per cent as compared to the world fatality rate of 6.19 per cent. About 73 per cent of COVID deaths were linked to co-morbidity cases.


Upgradation of health infrastructure has taken place and testing facilities increased. Positive impact of lockdown was seen in pollution free air and clean river water. Spitting in public is now a crime. People developed the habit of wearing masks and hand gloves, frequent cleaning of hands and maintaining social distances, which was necessary to break the chain of transmission of the infection. Now the infection has been confined to containment zone clusters – red and orange.


However, with the gradual easing of lockdown, cases of infection have shown a phenomenal rise. India now ranks fifth in the world’s most infected countries. According to Dr Randeep Guleria, director of All India Institute of Medical Sciences, the situation will peak in June-July as per mathematical modeling data. Following Dr Guleria’s statement, the medical superintendent at Safdarjung Hospital, Delhi, Dr Balwinder Arora, qualified that after the peak in June-July, herd immunity may begin to show in August.


The US-based Centre for Disease Dynamics and Economic Policy (CDDEP) has made a more frightful analysis saying even with “hard lockdown, continued social distancing and isolation of cases”, COVID cases will peak to about 111 crore by September. The Centre for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP) gives a longer tenure of next 18 to 24 months for the prevalence of coronavirus before gradually diminishing. These mathematical models have inherent weakness.

The country cannot be kept indefinitely under lockdown. The Prime Minister announced Rs 20 lakh crore package, mostly fiscal incentives and easy credit, to give a boost to the economy. The package covers mostly micro, small and medium sized industries (MSMEs), non-banking finance and housing finance corporations, micro finance institutions, power distribution companies, contractors and real estate projects, industrial clusters, commercial mining in coal and mineral sector, defence production, space and atomic energy and encouraging investments in health sector. Easy credit and insurance are assured to farm sector to boost rural economy.


But capital and liquidity are not enough to restart the economy without adequate labour force and generation of demand. The migrant workers who had come to cities faced difficult times during lockdown. They were without job and unable to pay rent for their accommodation. The government provided free cooked food, but that was not enough for a living. In such a situation, they were anxious to go to their native places, but inter-state borders were sealed.


When belatedly, special shramik trains were arranged, most had to pay for their ticket, even though it was decided that they should travel free and receive free food. There was lack of coordination between the Centre and the States, even though it was decided that Railways would bear 85 per cent of the cost and the concerned State Governments the remaining 15 per cent.


Most migrant workers are unwilling to come back as the distress they suffered still haunts them and the future looks dark with growing number of COVID cases. Government should think of encouraging industries in rural areas.


There is no specific law to deal with a pandemic situation in the country. Public Health (Prevention, Control and Management of Epidemics, Bio-terrorism and Disasters) Bill 2017 has not yet been placed in Parliament. The Union Home Ministry invoked Disaster Management Act 2005 (DMA -2005) and included COVID-19 outbreak as “notified disaster” and a “critical medical condition or pandemic”. It delegated powers to the Union Health and Family Welfare Ministry to enhance preparedness and containment of COVID-19. The State Governments were asked to invoke the archaic Epidemic Disease Act 1897. These two laws acting in tandem brought Indian Penal Code into operation to facilitate the clamping of lockdown.


These laws gave more powers to the government to enforce lockdown without corresponding duties to be performed for the people. The single page archaic Epidemic Disease Act 1897 with only four sections is not sufficient to deal with the current pandemic situation. Only States were allowed to draw from their Disaster Response Fund for necessary activities. Laws with only rights of the State without corresponding obligations will cause a paradoxical situation, especially in the process of unlocking. 

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