The operational details of the nationwide lockdown for 21 days from 25.03.2020 are spelt out in the Guidelines annexed to the Order No. 40 -3/2020-DM-I (A) of the Ministry of Home Affairs dated 24.03.2020. The following highlights some of the problems that are likely to ensue and the significant omissions in the Guidelines.
The Guidelines categorize industrial and commercial establishments into those that must be shut and those that can remain open, the latter being those that are dealing with production and supply of essentials.
1. Enforcement cannot only be preventive in nature, or only ensuring that those that are to remain closed are closed. It must also incorporate Administrations taking responsibility to guarantee essential production and availability of essential supplies to citizens. This responsibility is not spelt out in the guidelines, and this absence will create a tendency for a more generalized enforcing of closure which would even cover the exceptions. Missing also from the guidelines is any prohibition of hoarding of essential commodities or price control measures to prevent overcharging.
2. In the case of industrial establishments, exception has only been made for manufacturing units producing essentials. However, which are the manufactured products designated as essential – either because they themselves are directly essential or because they produce inputs for essential products – has not been specified in the order. The Schedule to the Essential Commodities Act, 1955, however, contains a list of those designated as essential commodities. This, however, is a very limited list inappropriate to the specific situation being faced today. While surgical masks and hand sanitizers were added only recently, it doesn’t even include things like pharmaceuticals, medical equipment and many other medical supplies.
3. With regard to both industrial and service enterprises, there are serious issues of categorization of these into those that can function and those that cannot. A large proportion of such enterprises are unregistered and therefore cannot be categorized based on their registration details. Many are not even establishments but own account enterprises. In addition to shops, street hawking and vending are also prevalent. This unorganized sector, is however, an integral part of the production and distribution structure and not something outside it. However, their unorganized character may lead to the enforcement of closure on them too, or undue harassment, even if the activity they engage in falls within the essential category. This problem only emphasizes further what has been said in Point 1 above.
4. Continuation of all essential production and distribution activity involves not merely the transportation of goods but also of people, and not always with the goods. How will the enforcement process distinguish between those who must go to work or travel in its course, and those who must stay at home? How will those who do need to work find transport from home to work? Transportation of even essentials in India takes place through a combination of several modes – formal and informal, motorized and non-motorized – which must be kept going. The sudden closure of transport services has also left many stranded in transit. Serial Nos. 6 and 15 in the Guidelines do not adequately address these issues.
5. Unless the circumstances are such as to allow them to operate viably – even establishments and enterprises which can and in fact should remain functional may be shut down by their proprietors. These problems of viability could come because of the disruptive effects of the general restrictions in force (e.g. if they or their employees find it difficult to travel or face undue harassment from authorities), or they could be of a financial nature (because restrictions can increase cost of operations while reducing revenues).
6. The other side of the coin is the existence of a very large number of people who may have no means to purchase even essentials or pay their rents if they do not work or receive some form of transfer during the period of the lockdown. The guidelines are completely silent on this very serious problem that is going to be confronting millions of Indians – migrant and casual labour, daily-wagers, those dependent on low-income self-employment, the homeless and destitute. There are no provisions which would mandate that employers must pay the wages and salaries of their employees who cannot work because of the shutdown. This is being implemented in the government sector to an extent but could also be applied to the private sector, at least to those parts of it where this is possible, and must cover both regular as well as contractual workers. It is also possible to enlarge the segment in which such payments would be possible – for instance by giving access to temporary cheap credit for this specific purpose to employers. A moratorium on debt servicing can also provide relief to small enterprises and establishments which employ and provide income to so many – and it is only fair that if they are not allowed to generate earnings they should not be expected to pay. Cash transfers from government to Jan Dhan accounts can also be used to compensate working people for lost wages and earnings from self-employment, particularly those in the unorganized sector. Free rations can also be provided through the PDS. In rural areas it is also possible to give work through the MNREGA which is consistent with distancing. In short there are several measures that could have been taken to address the very real danger of the most vulnerable sections of the Indian population being pushed beyond the precipice by the lockdown – it is striking that not one has been announced.
7. The guidelines are shockingly completely silent about the agricultural sector – there is in fact no indication as to what is to happen during the lockdown to agricultural operations: the production, procurement, trade and transport - of crops, fruits and vegetables and livestock products. In the case of crops, the rabi harvest is under way or due. Addressing this gap, however, is critical from both points of view – of incomes of those who are engaged in these activities as well as the flow of food to the general populace.
All the above mean that unless there are additional concrete measures to ameliorate some of the inevitable side effects of the restrictions imposed during the lockdown, not only would the production and distribution of essential products as well as services end up being less than optimal, even this truncated production may not be accessible to large sections of the population. In combination they might mean that in the process of trying to avoid one calamity we end up with another. If there is widespread distress, desperation and panic then even the lockdown and its objectives may get defeated. If such eventualities are to be avoided, the Government cannot limit itself to issuing fiats that people have to comply with and enlarging its role merely for that purpose – it cannot only seek the extraordinary support of the public to implement the lockdown, it must also step forward to in turn provide exceptional support the public in this effort so that the country is not pushed back by 21 years because of what the government failed to do for 21 days. Governments must take on a larger role than in normal times to ensuring the basic needs of the people are met and the same applies also to its role in dealing with the epidemic directly – it cannot only focus on reducing the speed of transmission, it must also ramp up the capacity of the health system to ensure the needed care for those who would suffer despite the lockdown. For achieving all of these, the Central Government must commit financial resources in all these directions and also support state governments in their efforts to mobilize resources. Bringing parts of the private sector under government control of some form, even if temporary, has to be also considered. It must also be remembered that implementing the 21-day lockdown and dealing with its fallout are only part of the challenge. Not only is extension of many of these restrictions probable, after that will come the job of recovering from the crippling damage that would have been done by then to the economy, livelihoods and employment. Allocating a mere Rs. 15,000 crores for strengthening medical infrastructure is simply not enough and hardly reveals a resolve to win the fight that is on the nation’s hands.