Kerala Monday rolled back some of the key lockdown relaxations it had decided to allow from April 20 in a phased manner, including the partial opening of restaurants, non-AC barber shops and bookshops, a day after it was warned by the Centre that they were in violation of the guidelines issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs.
In a letter, dated April 19 and sent to Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s office, Union Home Secretary Ajay Bhalla wrote: “I would urge you to rectify the guidelines… in line with the consolidated revised guidelines dated 15th April & 16th April 2020 without any dilution and to ensure strict compliance of lockdown measures.”
On Monday, as confusion prevailed across Kerala with people turning out in streets and markets in large numbers, the state government discussed the MHA letter at a high-level review meeting and decided to adhere to the Centre’s guidelines. By afternoon, the police forced shops selling non-essential items to down shutters and clamped down on movement of vehicles.
After the review meeting, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said public transport would not be allowed during the lockdown period. “The decision to allow managements of institutions to hire special buses for their employees was misunderstood. Barber shops will not be allowed to function until a further decision is taken (they were earlier allowed to open on Saturdays and Sundays). Dining would not be allowed in restaurants. Inspection of vehicles will be implemented more stringently in hotspots,” he said.
This is the first instance of the Centre objecting to a state’s containment measures since the lockdown was first announced on March 24. But Vijayan said “there is no confrontation” between the state and the Centre.
“Things have been done in Kerala as per the general guidelines of the Centre. For certain relaxations, the permission of the Centre would be sought. There are minor changes in certain guidelines, which can be implemented as per the conditions of the states. We have prepared a red zone but not in the manner they (Centre) had suggested,’’ he said.
The Centre’s letter had pointed out that under the Disaster Management Act, the state cannot dilute measures stipulated by the central government, and that the Supreme Court had asked all states to abide by the Centre’s directions to combat the coronavirus outbreak.
The Sunday Express had reported that an examination conducted by the MHA of Kerala’s revised guidelines had concluded that they diluted the Centre’s directives. And that the state’s decision to allow buses within cities, let two people travel in the backseat of cars, and open restaurants, barber shops, electrical workshops and repair shops, had not gone down well with the Centre.
In Sunday’s letter, the MHA referred to Kerala’s April 17 order on “revised guidelines for lockdown measures” and said that the state “has allowed opening of activities which are prohibited” in the Ministry’s order issued two days earlier.
“Such additional activities allowed…includes opening of local workshops; barber shops; restaurants; book stores; MSMEs in municipal limits; bus travel in the cities/ towns for shorter distance (upto 60 km); two passengers in the back seat of four-wheeler; pillion riding on scooters,” the letter said.
The Home Ministry said that this “amounts to dilution of guidelines issued…and violation of MHA order dated 15th April 2020 issued under the Disaster Management Act 2005”.
The letter also informed that in its April 15 order, the Centre had specified that while states can tighten containment measures stipulated by it, they cannot dilute them.
The Kerala government had earlier divided the state into four zones: Red, Orange-A, Orange-B and Green. Relaxations in norms were allowed in non-red zones, including the plying of private vehicles on an odd-even registration basis from April 20 in some districts and April 24 in a few others.
However, on Sunday night, the government issued a list of 88 hotspots under local self-governing bodies. Accordingly, local bodies in Green, Orange-A and Orange-B zones, which had earlier reported positive cases or contacts, were marked as hotspots.
For instance, Thiruvananthapuram Municipal Corporation limits was included as one of the hotspots. But with most residents unaware of the late revision, a large number of private vehicles were seen on roads Monday morning, when some prominent markets also opened. Some hotels, which had remained closed during the lockdown, also lifted their shutters.