On March 24, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi imposed a nationwide lockdown on India, there were, reportedly, a mere 500 COVID-19 cases in India. The situation could have been dealt with by imposing limited restrictions on socio-economic activity and delineating local containment areas/ zones — the strategy adopted successfully by almost all Asian countries. Such a targeted and calibrated approach would have kept the economy alive and avoided the devastation that has been inflicted on the livelihoods of millions of Indians. The impetuous decision on the lockdown needlessly plunged millions of Indians into enormous loss and suffering.
PM Modi’s “bold” decisions and his brand of divisive politics had already pushed the Indian economy into crisis: GDP growth of only 3.1 per cent for January- March 2020 and an unemployment figure of 8.7 per cent. His overnight imposition of the lockdown was yet another “bold” decision, with disastrous consequences. It has depressed economic growth to nil — perhaps even negative — and sent unemployment skyrocketing to about 27 per cent for the week that ended on May 3.
Given the disastrous impact that the nationwide lockdown has had on the livelihoods of millions of poor Indians, it is necessary to look through the smokescreen of the PM’s messaging skills and consider whether the stringent restrictions were justified.
On March 24, there were, reportedly, only nine COVID-19-related deaths in the country. Ten states had no COVID-19 cases at all and eight states had less than 10 cases each. Only Maharashtra and Kerala had more than 50 COVID-19 cases. Considering these circumstances, the situation could and should have been contained by imposing limited restrictions on social gatherings, a few curbs on economic activities, and targeted containment of towns and localities which had COVID-19 cases, as was being done by the state governments.
It is not fully realised by most that since March 14, most states with COVID-19 cases had, at the instance of the Centre, already issued orders under the Epidemic Diseases Act, empowering them to restrict social gatherings and commercial activities — and to designate defined areas as “containment zones” which could be sealed. This would have enabled targeted containment without shutting down the economy. The Modi government has not explained why it was necessary to immediately impose such a nationwide lockdown when the states had already imposed socio-economic restrictions, and had also prepared to designate infected areas/ localities as containment zones.
If the administration had been focused on such specific COVID-19 containment areas, instead of trying to rush into enforcing a country-wide lockdown, the disease could have been better contained, without any grave damage to the economy or the lives of millions of Indians. In fact, it is ironic that on May 30 — after 70 days of lockdown and when there were about 86,422 active cases in 22 states and UTs — the Modi government finally decided to lift the lockdown and, belatedly, adopted the policy of having only local containment zones.
In his lockdown announcement, Modi sought to justify his decision by referring to the experience of Western countries like “USA, France, Germany, Spain and Italy” which had been compelled to impose nationwide lockdowns too. However, this was an inapposite reference. Instead, there were Asian countries (Japan and South Korea) which had showed a much lower mortality rate, and which have successfully contained the virus by imposing limited restrictions — whilst keeping their economies intact.
The government’s subsequent attempts to justify the imposition of the lockdown by contending that in the absence of such lockdown, the COVID-19 cases would have grown exponentially, is both misleading and poses a false binary. It incorrectly presents the options as “lockdown” or “nothing”, instead of an option between a nationwide lockdown and targeted, localised containment of social gatherings and economic activity.
The PM’s announcement of the lockdown was set in terms that gave a misplaced sense that all Indians live in proper residential buildings (with balconies perhaps) and work in offices and large factories. His speech failed to refer to the vast majority of India’s population that works in the non-formal sector including the millions of daily wage workers and migrant workers, who live in slums. For this vast majority, the lockdown resulted in an immediate deprivation of their livelihood. As no provision was made for their transportation home, millions of poor migrant workers were forced to remain in their cramped huts for almost two months, without employment or wages, and often, even without adequate food.
The rationale for the nationwide lockdown requires careful scrutiny as it has had a devastating effect on the economy and life of millions. Reportedly, the lockdown has seen 122 million Indians lose their jobs in April alone. Of these, 91.3 million were small traders and labourers. The CMIE has reported that India’s unemployment rate is now at a record high of 27.1 per cent, up from 8.7 per cent in March. Barclays has reported that the economic growth will be zero for calendar year 2020, and the three-week lockdown would likely have an economic cost of $120 billion, which is now estimated to balloon upto $234.4 billion.
This is the price that we Indians have paid and will continue to pay for yet another “bold” Modi decision. I strongly believe that the millions of Indians who have needlessly suffered the loss of livelihood and wages, and the vast multitudes who are trudging along the highways, will soon realise the truth — the nationwide lockdown was unnecessary. That it was an expression of Modi’s hubris, a grandstanding gesture made with callous disregard of its consequences for India — especially her most poor and vulnerable.
This article first appeared in the print edition on June 4, 2020 under the title ‘A question about the lockdown’.
(The writer is a senior advocate who focuses on matters of public interest)
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