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Open or not to Open the Lockdown?

Its important to keep in mind the crop harvest and the soon approaching monsoon while reaching a decision on this.

Today this is the hot topic of discussion as the issue pertains to Human Lives versus GDP. The logic put forth by all are based on numerous posts, videos, statistics, tales and fables on how dangerous the virus is and how many lives it can claim - no one knows how genuine these fears are. Hence all such discussions end ad nauseum without a solution. Even at the highest level, the government , who has at its disposal the best of the health experts who too are mulling over this moot question- whether to extend or not to extend the lockdown?

Need for Opening?

India is an agrarian economy and unfortunately the lockdown has come at a time when the rabi crop is ready in the fields and thousands of farmers and farm labours, farm-based industry are directly dependent on it. This 3-week lockdown period has shown a serious impact on the economy, agriculture, industry as well as 120 million migrant labours who are mostly on daily wages. On the other hand ‘social distancing’ is the only prophylactic solution which the medics have at the moment to keep this deadly virus at bay. Each debate on this issue fulcrums on saving humanity verses saving the jobs. Its like a choice between the devil and the deep sea. In such situation ‘calculated risk strategy’ may bring in correct solution. And this is not a middle path. Its a zigzag path bringing in some changes in our daily routine , daily lifestyle for sometime as we may become bereft of some luxuries erstwhile available to us on a platter. Akin to the long wars in the twentieth century when the denizens of the country changed their lifestyle completely and adjusted to the routine which was required at that time. World is going through another war today and this too seems to be a long haul battle. During wars the daily routines are enforced by the government and people diligently adhere to it. Its time now that similar steps be enforced.

Way to Open

Complete opening on a single day can be disastrous. However adopting the ‘caliberated opening’ gradual approach may yield some balance between the society and the economy. Some of the recommendations which can easily be adopted . First, life revolves around sunlight hours, starts from 6 am and closes at 6 pm. Everyone has to reach back home by 5 pm. The public transport stops at 6 pm. There are no social or cultural events after that time. Secondly, office timings be reduced to 4 days and 36 hours a week. The employers adhere to strict guidelines as issued on the subject. There is a complete enforced lockdown from Thursday 6pm to Monday 6 am. Thirdly, Section 144 be imposed for 3 months which debars any social, Cultural, religious gatherings of more than four persons across the country. Use of personal masks to be made compulsory in public places. Fourthly, the Schools and colleges to start online classes and physically open from the session from 01 Aug 20. Fifthly, intracity public transport stops at 6pm on working days. Railways and airlines can take reservation only upto 50% of seats in each class. Medical screening be made a must before boarding a train or a flight. Sixthly, farm work for harvest and sowing to commence with more technology and less manpower. The city markets especially haats and mandis to adhere to fixed time and social distancing norms to be adhered to. Seventhly, the health precautions and quarantining of suspected cases must continue and government must incorporate full private sector hospitals to participate in treating the patients. Capacity of ICUs to be raised. Eightly, some MSMEs sectors like travel, tourism, aviation, education , hospitality which are going to see a serious slump must be given a 1 year bail out package or interest free loans.

The Monson Factor

In less than two months time the monsoons will hit the country and the sowing season would commence. Seeing the positive changes in the environment we can expect a very good and maybe early monsoon by last week of May. Though it will be good for the crops but this could also mean floods in many low lying areas as it happens every year. The NDRF/Army should be ready to take on the relief activities and prevent the spread of this virus during that period. Vulnerable areas must be identified now and relief camp locations selected. Kerela, Maharashtra, Karnataka must start planning for the initial onslaught of Monsoon.

Way Ahead

Tackling Pandemic is a long term battle with no short term solution. Overriding ILO prediction of 24.7 million unemployment in the world as an aftermath of pandemic, the UN has said unemployment figures can cross 25 million. If increasing the lockdown for one/two weeks will flatten the curve, it must be done but beyond that looking at a long term solution, partial opening of the markets with restrictions is doable. India with its 1.3 billion population and a large unorganised sector consisting of farm labourers, street vendors, construction workers , which are the achilles heel of the nation cannot be denied their right to earn their livelihood. The government and public sector is being paid regular wages to sustain themselves and their families. These people must earn their bread daily and as a socialist economy the complete lockdown may not augur well for a the long run. Apropos, a partial and calibrated opening of the markets with multi-prong and sustainable steps for the next 10-12 weeks will surely contain the spread of this pandemic in our country.

*Col Mohinder Pal Singh, PhD is Director at EGROW Foundation. Views expressed in the article are personal.