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No time to waste after the coronavirus lockdown ends

By N Sathiya Moorthy
April 03, 2020 11:00 IST
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‘While the nation’s prayers are answered and the virus disappears, there is still a need for governments across the country to ensure that there is no ‘passive pandemic’ left undetected.

‘At least in this case, the governments have the time. They should begin employing a B-Team of bureaucrats to draw up an action plan on what needs doing and how to do it, when the migrant labour, and even the local population, begins to hit the streets all over again,' says N Sathiya Moorthy.

IMAGE: Volunteers of the Siddhivinayak Temple Trust distribute food and bottled water to traffic police personnel at Mahim in north central Mumbai, March 26, 2020. Photograph: Kunal Patil/PTI Photo.

Now that the nation has risen to the occasion and cooperated with the authorities in self-imposing the 21-day curfew in these early days, the question arises if continued obedience of the law is sustainable for a longer period, if at all it came to that.

Already, the Army has denied rumours that the current phase of curfew will be followed up with the proclamation of Emergency. That should put a lot of people at ease.


Yet, it would have been better if a civilian authority had issued the clarification on behalf of the government, headed by a strong and tough Narendra Modi as prime minister. In the normal course,  proclamation of Emergency is in the exclusive domain of the Union Cabinet, and the actual act of proclamation is done by the President of India.

In this case, Rashtrapati Bhavan cannot be expected to -- and should not, either -- issue denials to unfounded rumours of the kind. Anyway, the President comes in to the picture only when the Cabinet resolution is formally put up before him for approval, though the elected political leadership would have kept him abreast at every turn.

That should leave the PMO or the Union home ministry to issue the denial, the latter better than the former. By issuing a denial for what essentially is a political decision, the Army might have set an unwelcome precedent in such matters.

However, a denial is very much in order and should set at rest speculation attending on coronavirus control and all such measures that are strictly in the domain of medical care and civilian control over ‘community spread’, the much-feared ‘third stage’.

If the Army has denied rumours of an imminent imposition of coronavirus-linked Emergency in April, the Union home ministry has denied any intention to extend the 21-day curfew beyond mid-April. That is also the time when states like Tamil Nadu and Kerala celebrate their New Year, as well a few other states. Hopefully, those new year celebrations would usher in a better year than the one that is now winding up, in every which way.

But then, the Centre’s decision not to extend the curfew does not automatically mean that the pandemic could be wished away. In administrative terms, all responsibilities to extend or later revive local or localised shut-downs would devolve on the state governments. So could be the larger responsibilities of monitoring existing and new patients, if any.

Considering that Indian states and people are not insulated from one another despite the Centre’s best efforts and Prime Minister Modi’s repeated initiatives, New Delhi will have to work backward to ensure that the national laxity did not return with equal force.

Prior to the PM’s call for a ‘Janata curfew’, which alone shocked the nation into treating the pandemic with the seriousness it deserved, there were accusations that the Government of India could have fought better and early on had it not expended all its energies on the celebratory visit of US President Donald Trump, in an election year in his country.

All of it showed that the PM’s 21-day curfew call went on without much thought and preparations than became possible. It showed that the Centre had not learnt enough from the ‘demonetisation’ declaration and GST rollout. It is now agreed that both were noble and much-needed ideas, but proved counter-productive to a large section of the nation’s population in the absence of a clear-cut roll-out plan and last-mile preparations.

The irony is that those very sections, namely, the unorganised, migrant labour, suffered at the tail-end of the long economic chain or production and distribution. They are the main sufferers this time round too.

According to some industry estimates, their numbers add up to a high 20-plus crore for all of the country. It seems that no one at the higher echelons of the bureaucracy (and political leadership) was available to visualise and imagine the mass movement of those people criss-crossing the country, almost at the same time.

Else, the announcement of 21-day curfew would have been preceded by decisions on their mobility, and the possibility of their employers asking them to go back as their own units had been shut -- and they were losing money even when closed. The inherited fiscal burden on individual industries, big, small and tiny, pre-virus, did not seem to have been considered at all,

Today, any decision not to extend the curfew, be it by the Centre or by the states or both together, needs to be accompanied by belated evaluation as to what it means at the tail-end population and the tail-end administration.

They cannot continue to pass on their policy-blames on the officialdom, by ordering the suspension of officials as has been done in Delhi and neighbouring Uttar Pradesh. By ordering the suspension of Delhi officials, the Union home ministry has acknowledged that the job of monitoring the movement of migrant workers in the national capital, like the management of the police there, was their job -- and not that of Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and company.

Likewise, at the other end of the ‘migrant labour fiasco’ on the Delhi-UP border was Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. He left it to Lord Ram, and said He would take care of it all. True enough, not many cases have been reported from the nation’s most populous state, at least not yet. But protecting the interests of the migrant labour, who in a way had left the care of their families in the hands of the state government, was the chief minister’s job.

In a way, ‘migrant-labour exporting states’ like UP, Bihar, West Bengal and the north-eastern states did not seem to have ever taken any special steps to improve the lot of them all before virus hit, for them to be able to spare time or thought to their care when the pandemic’s fear caught them too unawares.

Sad that the north-eastern states did not consider such measures even after a similar exodus from across the country occurred a couple of years ago, based on a fake social media message, which was later traced to Pakistan and the ISI.

Maybe, the post-coronavirus phase at least should be time that they planned something for the future care of those migrant labour who have been pumping lots of money into the economy of individual states.

When the Centre is talking about helping to revive the post-coronavirus economy, then at least they need to remember that without efforts to revive the prospects of those sectors and industries that employ migrant labour in tens of thousands, the economy of their mother-states could suffer even more than the host-states that employ them.

There is an additional problem, not limited to the migrant labour’s return to their employer-states. While the nation’s prayers are answered and the virus disappears, there is still a need for governments across the country to ensure that there is no ‘passive pandemic’ left undetected.

At least in this case, the governments have the time. They should begin employing a B-Team of bureaucrats to draw up an action plan on what needs doing and how to do it, when the migrant labour, and even the local population, begins to hit the streets all over again.

After all, if only the officials had been told to apply conventional wisdom and institutional experience in dealing with such natural calamities as floods and other natural calamities, they would have adopted the SOP of putting up the affected population in government school buildings and funded local authorities to feed them as long as required.

Replace the local flood victims with the coronavirus-threatened migrant labour, and the solution was staring at the face of the bureaucracy and political leadership alike – and across the country, top to bottom, bottom to top. Yet, nothing was thought of, nothing was done.

It cannot be allowed to happen again. It only requires someone somewhere to be able to wear the thinking cap, which has been left hanging in archaic coat-stands and hat-stands in the civil secretariats in Delhi and state capitals.

N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist and political analyst, is Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation. Email:

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