Coronavirus (COVID-19): A broad consensus that the national lockdown should be extended by at least two weeks till April-end emerged Saturday after an almost four-hour meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and state Chief Ministers. But with several states pushing for resumption of some economic activities in regions with no COVID-19 cases, Modi said a final strategy would be announced at the earliest after studying their suggestions.
In what perhaps gives a clear indication that the Centre may accede to states’ demands for easing, a statement from the Prime Minister’s Office after the meeting said, “He (Prime Minister) underlined that the motto of the government earlier was ‘jaan hai to jahaan hai’ but now is ‘jaan bhi jahaan bhi’.” This points to a nuanced change in strategy from saving lives a month ago to saving lives as well as livelihoods now.
Another indication came from an announcement by the Chief Minister of BJP-ruled Haryana, Manohar Lal Khattar, who said his state would be divided into three zones — red (districts with maximum Covid cases), orange (vulnerable districts with increasing number of cases) and third zone (districts with zero or negligible cases). “The districts with negligible number of Covid cases will have maximum relaxations,” he said. After initiating the interaction with a less than five-minute address, the Prime Minister asked Home Minister Amit Shah to moderate the video conference. This is the third meeting with CMs after March 20 and April 2. Read in Malayalam
Among the dozen-odd CMs who spoke, Bhupesh Baghel (Chhattisgarh), Pinarayi Vijayan (Kerala) and YSR Jagan Mohan Reddy (Andhra Pradesh) demanded they be given the freedom and authority to decide and allow economic activities, be it farming or industry.
A source present at the meeting said, the areas where activities could be allowed may depend on population density (rural-urban), and the incidence of outbreak, without compromising on social distancing. Normal public may not be allowed to freely move around the way they could before the lockdown, the source said. Guidelines for this graded approach are likely to be spelt out by the Centre at the earliest. Further, the Prime Minister is learnt to have pitched for Aarogya Setu – an app to track and alert those who come physically close to Covid-19 cases, and referred to the possibility of it being an e-pass which could facilitate travel from one place to another.
Most state CMs also pointed to the shortage of financial resources in their fight against the pandemic. Some including Punjab’s Amarinder Singh and Kerala’s Pinarayi Vijayan wanted the Centre to relax the Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management Act, and let the fiscal deficit expand, so that the Centre can borrow more and on-lend to states. While Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao asked for ‘helicopter money’, West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee demanded a Rs 10 lakh crore fiscal relief package (6 per cent of GDP).
The Prime Minister, according to Puducherry Chief Minister V Narayanasamy, told the meeting that farm activities should continue and the government must find ways and means to help workers and fishermen. Construction industries should be divided into three zones – green, orange and red, he quoted the Prime Minister as having said after all the CMs presented their views.
According to Narayanasamy, Modi said lockdown should be enforced even at the district level”. “From one district to another district. people should not move around. The APMC Act would also be amended so that farmers produce can be purchased at the doorsteps of the farmer instead of the farmer coming to the mandi,” he quoted the Prime Minister as having said.
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Another source present in the meeting said, a graded exit post the extended lockdown seemed to be the way going forward. “India will be divided into two kinds of districts – those which reported cases of COVID-19 where restrictions will continue, and the others that are virus free. In the second category, intra-district movements could be permitted,” the source said.
A third source who was part of the video conference said senior officials would be required to attend work but maintain social distancing. “All officers who are entitled to official transport facility are expected to come to office from Monday,” the source said. Class 3 and Class 4 officials could attend at 30, 40 or 50 per cent strength.
A source from a Hindi heartland state said a lot would depend on the progress over the next few weeks. “The Prime Minister was clear that there would be no inter-state opening of traffic, nor inter-district. He said that the same set of rules will apply to all states, and the priority at this point is to save lives,” the source said.