The Centre on Monday issued guidelines for Phase II of the ‘Unlock’. In view of rising Covid-19 cases, most existing curbs such as the ban on reopening schools and colleges, as well as multiplexes, gyms, and bars, and the operation of Metro rail services, have been maintained.
However, the most important part of the order issued on Monday night is that the Centre has taken away the right of states to seal their borders.
Over the past month, since the central government ushered in the phase of reopening of the economy and restoration of public life and normalcy through what was called “Unlock” (as opposed to ‘lockdown’), multiple states have resorted to sealing their borders to arrest the spike in novel coronavirus infections. Some states such as Tamil Nadu and Karnataka have even imposed lockdowns.
The new order from Ministry of Home Affairs is likely to make some states that are struggling with rising Covid numbers uncomfortable — and may become a point of friction between these states and the Centre.
Unlock 2.0: What exactly does the order say?
As part of Unlock II, the government has extended lockdown in containment zones until July 31 — however, it has allowed further relaxations in areas outside of these containment zones. These include reducing night curfew hours to 10 pm-5 am from the currently applicable 9 pm-5 am.
In larger showrooms where there is ample space, more than five customers can be allowed at a time, provided they maintain the stipulated distance of six feet between themselves. This would be a relief to shopping malls.
The Centre has said that despite these relaxations, the states will have the right to impose more restrictions if they deem it necessary for Covid containment. However, they will not be allowed to seal their borders — either for the public or for goods.
“States/ UTs, based on their assessment of the situation, may prohibit certain activities outside the Containment zones, or impose such restrictions as deemed necessary. However, there shall be no restriction on inter-State and intra-State movement of persons and goods including those for cross land-border trade under Treaties with neighbouring countries. No separate permission/ approval/ e-permit will be required for such movements,” the MHA guidelines said.
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What does this part of the order imply?
Its meaning becomes clear when compared with the guidelines in the May 30 order that were issued for the first phase of Unlock. Those earlier guidelines too, had used these words, but had added a caveat:
“If a state/UT, based on reasons for public health and its assessment of the situation, proposes to regulate the movement of persons, it will give wide publicity in advance regarding restrictions to be placed on such movement, and the related procedure to be followed.”
A senior Home Ministry official told The Indian Express that the latest order simply means that no state can seal its borders or prohibit public movement within the state anymore, for whatever reasons. Under The Disaster Management Act, decisions taken by the Centre for disaster mitigation or containment of a disease are binding on states unless the union government itself allows them space to manoeuvre.
So what’s the problem here?
The problem, states may argue, is once again, over-centralisation of pandemic containment measures. The pandemic trajectory is at different stages in different states and all states are accordingly taking measures to contain them. It is in this context that lockdown has been re-imposed in cities such as Bengaluru and Chennai recently even as the rest of the country is opening up for more and more activity.
While states such as UP and Haryana have intermittently sealed their borders with Delhi multiple times in the past couple months, many other states have taken such a decision visa vis their neighbouring states or inter-district movement very recently and may have to withdraw the same.
For example, as recently as June 29, Mumbai sealed its borders with its suburbs. On June 27, Tamil Nadu sealed its borders with Karnataka. Rajasthan announced on June 10 that it was sealing its borders and inter-state movement of public would be allowed based on passes issued by the administration. Due to rising cases in Gujarat, Daman sealed its borders with the state.
All these states and UTs have argued that they had to take these decisions because of rising cases of Covid and their analysis showing the infection was coming from the neighbouring states.
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Why is the Home Ministry doing this then?
The basic aim of the Centre is to open the economy more and more even as it makes efforts to contain the pandemic spread. The economy has suffered a serious setback during the lockdown and the government believes without seamless movement of public and goods across all borders, the economy will continue to struggle.
“Also, we are now at a stage where Covid-19 cannot be fought in silos. It has to be a collective effort. All states have to come together both to contain the pandemic and lift the economy. In context of Delhi, Home Minister Amit Shah has already said that the concept of NCR would not be allowed to be diluted and Haryana, UP and Delhi have to together fight the pandemic,” a Home Ministry official said.
What can states do in this situation?
Legally, states have no option but to follow the MHA’s orders.
However, some states suffering badly may petition the Centre for more freedom to help them deal with their crisis. States have been arguing for long that they understand their situation better and thus should be allowed more elbow room to take decisions. The Centre has indeed given a lot of freedom to states to decide on their covid containment strategy in the past couple of months.
However, to what extent this new decision may make states uncomfortable, and what relaxations the Centre may give, remains to be seen.
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