As the third phase of the lockdown winds to a close, several states have reportedly argued against a complete easing of restrictions. At a video conference with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Monday, the chief ministers of at least four states — Maharashtra, Telangana, Punjab, and West Bengal — were of the view that the lockdown should be extended beyond May 17. The CMs of Chhattisgarh, Bihar, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh expressed reservations about the resumption of passenger trains.
But even as they are wary about the virus — justifiably so — the state governments also do not want to lose any time in getting the economy back on the rails. As Arunachal CM Pema Khandu said: “The fight to contain the coronavirus must not have a compromising effect on the economy”. The two imperatives might seem conflicting. But the key to resolving the impasse lies in recognising that different states have different needs and demands, and they should be given a greater say in decisions on which areas to open up and how after May 17.
While announcing the third phase of the lockdown, the Union home ministry allowed the resumption of economic activities in districts that had not seen a single COVID-19 case in the last three weeks of April, the green zones, permitting markets to re-open, factories and industrial units to resume operations, and e-commerce in non-essential items to re-commence. The ministry also relaxed the lockdown in non-hotspot districts, the orange zones, continuing with stringent restrictions in the districts with high caseload, the red zones.
Some states, notably Punjab and Delhi, opposed this district-centred containment approach at the outset. At the latest video conference, their reservations were amplified, with several other CMs, across party affiliations, adding their voice to them. Punjab CM Amarinder Singh’s plea that the authority to slot areas into red, orange and green zones be delegated to states had the backing of BJP-ruled Haryana. And as Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal pointed out, the district-wise formula is impractical for densely-populated areas such as the country’s capital. Kejriwal’s demand to do away with the green, orange, red zones, and cordon off only the containment areas, found support from his Karnataka counterpart, BJP’s B S Yediyurappa.
A major lesson from the nearly two-month-long battle against the coronavirus is that the country’s demographic, economic, and cultural diversities do not allow for a one-size-fits-all approach. Successful strategies to take on the pathogen — for instance, in Kerala, Karnataka, Odisha, parts of Rajasthan and Telangana — have relied on and responded to the local officials’ knowledge of regional specificities. The exit strategy should be based on the understanding that these officials are attuned to the situation on the ground. While the Centre could frame the broad principles, micro-planning — including deciding which areas to open up — should be left to the states.