The decision that Narendra Modi took on March 24, 2020, to impose a total lockdown in the country, will go down as among the most important prime ministerial acts since Independence. Never before in human history have a billion-plus people been forced to confine themselves to their homes. Not even in China, where the novel coronavirus, which causes the disease called COVID-19 made its first appearance, did the leadership resort to such a drastic countrywide shutdown.
In the four wars that India fought since Independence, barring night-time blackouts, people moved around freely, as did goods and services. The wheels of industry never stopped. During the Emergency of 1975-1977, fundamental rights were severely curtailed as was public assembly, but transport and all other activity continued, perhaps even more efficiently, out of fear. Modi and his team, therefore, had no past experience of their own to fall back on or, for that matter, of other countries handling the pandemic to guide their actions after the country went into lockdown.
Officials in the know reveal that they even had to scramble to find out a law they could use to pass a decision, short of declaring a nationwide Emergency. Apart from the stigma attached to that event and the legality of imposing such an order, the assessment was that using the provision might disempower the states at a time when their full cooperation was needed to win the battle against the virus. They then studied the Epidemic Diseases Act that was first promulgated in 1897 to tackle the bubonic plague in Mumbai. That legislation, however, largely vested state governments with limited powers to impose regulations in the event of an outbreak of a dangerous epidemic. The Centre’s powers under this act were restricted to regulating the entry of individuals at various ports.
Finally, officials advised Modi to use the powers the Disaster Management Act, 2005, vested in him as chairperson of the National Disaster Management Authority to impose a national lockdown whose measures the states would have to comply with. Immediately after, principal secretary to the prime minister, Dr P.K. Mishra, and cabinet secretary Rajiv Gauba held a meeting with all state chief secretaries and director-generals of police to ensure the lockdown was strictly enforced and only movement of essential goods and services was permitted.
Endless wait: A man and his young son wait for hours in the hope of finding place on a bus from Delhi to Jhansi, UP. Photo: Bandeep Singh
The decision, say senior officials, came after much deliberation within the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) and key ministries. Steps to fight the virus had started soon after China on January 7 finally admitted that it had identified the coronavirus as the cause of the flu that had swept its Wuhan and Hubei provinces, infecting, at last count, 81,589 people in China and resulting in 3,318 deaths. Soon after, the Indian civil aviation and health departments began screening all international passengers, particularly those flying in from China, at key airports.
The measures were stepped up after the PMO held a review meeting with key departments over preparedness on January 25. Orders were then issued to expand the screening progressively to all airports, all state health ministries were alerted and brought into the loop and the National Institute of Virology labs across the country equipped to test the virus. On February 3, Modi constituted an empowered group of ministers chaired by the Union minister for health Dr Harsh Vardhan, with ministers from the external affairs, home, civil aviation and shipping ministries as it members, to enhance the country’s preparedness. At this point, India had reported only three cases of COVID-19.
It was in the first half of March that things began to get really scary, as a senior official put it. On March 11, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 as a pandemic, after the worldwide number of cases crossed 118,000 in 114 countries and the number of deaths rose to 4,291. The number of cases in India then was 57, and deaths just onefairly low compared to its viral spread in Europe, East Asia, particularly South Korea, and, subsequently, the US. But even as India was relatively safe, specialists warned Modi that there was no room for complacency. The country had proceeded to the second stage where local infection had begun to take root after the first travellers returning to the country were found to be infected. However, it was the Stage 3 of the disease that was the real worry when the virus would spread through community transmission, leading to an exponential rise in the number of cases within days. It could, thereafter, enter the dreaded fourth stage where large clusters of population would be afflicted, turning it into an epidemic.
The prime minister was well aware that Indian health facilities were ill-equipped to meet the onslaught of community transmission, especially if the numbers grew from a few thousands to a hundred thousand in a matter of days. Studies of the way the pandemic struck other countries indicated that while 80 per cent of those infected would experience a milder form of flu that could be treated at home, the remaining 20 per cent would need hospital care. Of these, 8 per cent would require Intensive Care Units (ICUs) for treatment. Currently, India has just about enough ICU facilities to treat around 29,000 patients, but these are spread across the country. For instance, Maharashtra, which has recorded the highest number of cases so far, is equipped with only 2,500 ICU beds. Should the epidemic be confined to a single state, as in China, then the health system in that state would collapse and the death toll escalate. With no vaccine on the horizon for at least the next six months, the only way to stop the COVID’s spread is through social distancing and ensuring that infected persons are quarantined so that they don’t infect others.
Modi and his team then debated the cluster approach, locking down only those places that were infected as China had with its two provinces. By March 19, when Modi announced a Janata Curfew’, 75 districts had reported cases and had to be locked down. The plan initially was to observe frequent Janata Curfews rather than impose a total lockdown. But the number of districts under lockdown soon shot up to 548, or three-fourths of the 720 districts in the country. Most states had brought their districts under some sort of curfew. The piecemeal approach, therefore, then had to be ruled out. It was at this point that Modi decided to waste no more time and take the tough but necessary decision to impose a 21-day countrywide lockdown, beginning March 25. As a senior official explained, It was a difficult decision, but deferring it would have been devastating for the country. The choice was between life and livelihood, and we chose life. Also, if we gave a three-day window, the rush for trains, buses and flights would have seen people flock in enormous numbers and defeat the purpose of the lockdown.
Yet, while officials claim they anticipated 95 per cent of the downside the lockdown could cause, they admit they were not prepared for the large-scale reverse migration to rural areas of those working in the unorganised sector. They blame it on rumours that the lockdown would run on for three months and that workers would not be paid wages by their employers. With over half a million such workers leaving cities for their homes in the hinterland, there is a real danger that the infection could spread to rural India. Nobel laureate Abhijit Banerjee warns that given the weak rural health infrastructure, India could end up facing a massive tragedy. He also points out that these migrant workers propped up much of the rural economy with their earnings in the city and if the situation didn’t improve, the impact could be debilitating.
A day after the lockdown, finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced a slew of measures to provide relief to the poor, especially migrant workers, who were most severely impacted by the lockdown, apart from farmers, totalling Rs 1.7 lakh crore. This included providing an additional 5 kg of wheat or rice and 1 kg of pulses every month for the next three months, doubling the current entitlement for grains. Some 204 million women with Jan Dhan accounts were promised Rs 500 per month over the next three months. And farmers, it was announced, would be given Rs 2,000 as upfront payment in April as part of the Rs 6,000 that had been promised to them annually under the PM-Kisan Yojana. Experts were divided on the impact of these measures, with some saying that rather than disburse them through various schemes, a universal basic income to tide over this period might have been better. Sitharaman had earlier unveiled a host of measures for small and medium businesses, including a moratorium on loan repayments and deferment of both direct and indirect taxes till June 30 to tide over the crisis. The Reserve Bank of India also stepped in by cutting down interest rates and easing the cash reserve ratio requirements for banks to enable greater liquidity in the stressed economy.
Meanwhile, another major crisis started brewing in the economy. Despite orders that essential goods could be transported, state police forces under pressure to enforce the lockdown went about dealing with the situation ham-handedly. Over 1.3 million trucks carrying fruits, vegetables and other essential supplies were left stranded across various highway checkpoints. With all passenger flights cancelled and only 10 cargo flights operating daily, moving goods became difficult. In one instance, the government reportedly had to charter an entire flight just to lift a sample of an imported Hazmat suit that needed to be urgently replicated for mass manufacture by a factory in Tamil Nadu. In another case, a charter was hired to transport over 40,000 handheld thermal thermometers from Hong Kong to West Bengal.
Realising that the situation called for extraordinary crisis management strategies, Modi set up 11 empowered groups consisting of top Union secretaries and experts to plan and swiftly implement actions needed to ensure that the lockdown remained effective, disruption was minimised and adequate steps were taken in advance to face any eventuality. Four of these groups have been tasked specifically to deal with the vital health sector requirements, including rapidly expanding medical emergency facilities and ensuring enough equipment for testing, protection and treatment of patients. One group focuses on facilitating the supply chain and logistics management to move essential goods. A third group is tasked with examining how technology can help monitor the spread of the virus and its victims. And, importantly, one group is working on an exit strategy for lifting the lockdown, whether to do it in phases or in toto, so that the economy can be rebooted.
Constituted on March 29, five days after the lockdown was imposed, these groups have begun transforming the way the crisis is being handled, instilling a new sense of purpose and confidence in tackling the key challenges the lockdown poses. An official of one of the groups says, We have been working day and night, including holding conferences through Zoom. We act like backroom boys, giving out recommendations for the ministries to execute. Many times, we act like Phone-a-Friend. Among the first things the logistics group did, for instance, was to remove the rule according to which only essential goods could be transported, which had caused the pile-up of trucks at check-posts. Group members also act as troubleshooters to remove choke points. For instance, when the mandi in Nashik, the onion centre of the country, remained closed, truckers were told to go directly to farmers and pick up the crop while state officials enabled the produce to be sold to wholesalers. The new system of empowered groups will be severely tested, though, when the harvest of the rabi crop reaches its peak in mid-April. Arrangements need to be made to transport grain to mandis and have it purchased, otherwise it would be disastrous for farmers and the economy.
Yet, even as the Modi government appears to be getting a grip on the situation, it has a long way to go. So far, the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths are still relatively low, 2,015 and 53, respectively, as on April 2, compared to the 1 million cases and over 50,000 deaths worldwide. The low numbers in India could also be because it has tested mainly those who showed symptoms of the disease. The government has now rightly decided to increase the number of tests across a wider spectrum to get a better understanding of the spread. The key is boosting healthcare facilities to meet any challenge. As a senior official says, We are preparing for the worst, even planning to tackle over 2 lakh cases if it happens, including quarantine and ICU facilities. Meanwhile, efforts are being made to mobilise doctors, including those practising Indian medicine, and training them to handle corona cases. All the stops are being pulled out and no expense spared to purchase personal protection equipment (PPE), especially for medical personnel, apart from ventilators from abroad. For instance, orders have been placed for 45,790 ventilators, three times the current availability of 15,000 in the country, even as both the public and the private sector have been asked to manufacture some in India. Government ordnance factories are to manufacture 300,000 PPE pieces while another 8 million are being imported. In all, orders have been placed for a total of 11 million to beef up the current number of just 350,000 in various states. These are good signs, but swift implementation remains key.
While the Modi government correctly put personal safety ahead of all other considerations, it now has to get down to working out an economic revival package to rebuild the economy that has all but ground to a halt. Rating agencies like Crisil have already slashed the country’s GDP growth forecast for fiscal 2021 from 5.2 per cent to 3.5 per cent. While the RBI did come out with measures as did the finance ministry, what the industry wants is for the government to commit large sums of money to stimulate the economy and bail them out of the mess. They point to how US president Donald Trump recently signed a $2 trillion bailout package, the largest-ever US financial stimulus package, that includes direct payments to individuals and companies affected by the pandemic, money to state governments for its unemployment benefits and loans and tax breaks to companies that are going bankrupt because of the shutdown of economic activity. Several European countries too have announced generous packages to help their individual citizens and companies in these tough times. Indian industry is now looking at the Modi government to work on a major economic package that would help businesses get back on their feet and provide a financial ventilator to an economy that is headed to the ICU.
The prime minister is personally monitoring the situation daily. On April 2, he held a second round of consultations with state chief ministers, in which he even asked them to work out how the country could remove the lockdown in phases to prevent a second wave of infection. So far, no official in the government is willing to commit to whether the lockdown would end mid-April as scheduled. But one of them offered this reassurance: While we are preparing for the worst, we do not expect a doomsday scenario. There will be no collapse. Keep your fingers and toes firmly crossed that he is right and keep safe by staying at home.