The way we conduct ourselves in these 21 days will be critical in our fight against the coronavirus.” With these words, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a measure unprecedented in India’s 72-year-old history: A 21-day nationwide lockdown from March 25. Never have the people of the country been asked to stay within the confines of their homes for this long a period, not even when the country has fought wars. Yet extraordinary times demand extraordinary measures. As PM Modi underlined, “stringent social distancing and staying within the Lakshman Rekha of our homes is the only prevention against the coronavirus”, the only way to break its transmission cycle. The PM warned, again, against complacency: “It took 67 days for the number of corona-affected persons to reach one lakh. The number of infected doubled in just 11 days and the virus infected another one lakh in merely four days”.
There will be social and economic consequences and the PM did not equivocate on the challenges. He spoke of the vulnerable sections, and, as in last week’s speech, emphasised the imperative to be compassionate. He lauded the frontline workers, doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers, expressed gratitude to safai karamcharis and praised the private sector and civil society. A reworked social compact — more compassionate — will be necessary to confront the challenges posed by the lockdown. It is now up to civil society, government agencies, the healthcare and corporate sectors to take their cues from the PM’s speech and ensure that the burden of fighting the pandemic does not fall too heavily on those at the margins, the migrant and daily wage labourers, the rickshaw pullers and others for whom these 21 days could prove to be the toughest. The Centre and state governments will need to work together, setting aside their political differences, to ensure that there is no shortage of essential commodities and the supply chains are not broken.
Earlier in the day, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman had announced a slew of measures that could soften the blow of a 21-day lockdown. The deadline for filing of income taxes for the financial year 2018-19 has been extended, as has the last date for filing GST returns. Sitharaman also announced that the threshold for taking companies through the insolvency and bankruptcy proceedings has been increased from Rs 1 lakh to Rs 1 crore. This will prevent creditors from taking small and medium-sized companies, who may be facing temporary cash flow management issues due to the lockdown, and hence are unable to meet their obligations, through the IBC process. The Centre has also advised state governments to transfer funds to construction workers from the cess fund collected by the labour welfare boards. As PM Modi said, “21 days is a long period”. It’s now up to the authorities and the people to own and implement his message — to ensure that not just supply chains, but also social trust, isn’t broken.
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