There has been a commendable level of interaction and cooperation between the States and the Union Government on battling COVID-19
The Modi government has sought to strike a fine balance between the protection of lives and the protection of livelihood, by allowing certain commercial/agricultural activities to resume in the midst of the lockdown which will remain in place until May 3. The move was expected, given that several experts had been emphasizing on a graded resumption of these activities to tackle the growing problem of loss of income, directly impacting the daily wage earners as well as those dependent on farm-related work. The government has done well to open these sectors from April 20 with a rider that continuance on activities in these fields will depend on the stakeholders following basic norms of social distancing and general hygiene.
In its order issued on April 15 and signed by the Union Home Secretary, the Union Ministry of Home Affairs has identified agriculture and allied sectors to be “fully functional”. These include the official markets (mandi’s) for agricultural produce, the fisheries industry, those firms engaged in the scale and repair of farm equipment, animal husbandry farms, and tea, coffee and rubber plantations.
According to the 2011 Census, nearly 69% of the population lives in rural areas, and it is not surprising that rural India, which has the most number of the needy population, has been the most badly impacted.
The previous 21-day lockdown (which ended on April 14 and was extended until May 3), had seriously affected the farm sector, with sales and purchases taking a major hit. Harvesting of fruits and vegetables was affected because there was no labour. In most parts of North India, this is the season for harvesting wheat, but that too was impacted due to a shortage of harvesting labour. The lockdown had led to the migration of farm labour from Punjab and Haryana, for instance, to their home States of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and Rajasthan. With a break in the supply chain, even private enterprises, which largely manage these chains, have been reluctant to return to a business unless concrete incentives were provided.
The COVID crisis has badly hit farmers. In Telangana, for example, farmers were looking forward to good times with a bumper crop of paddy, millet, and maize. But they faced uncertain times with the lockdown. Farmers in other States too have faced a similar predilection. With the lifting of curbs from April 20, their problems would be eased. The resumption of MGNREGA work too will relieve the rural population.
Jobless migration that we have seen in the past few weeks was a direct result of people desperate for livelihood. According to the 2011 Census, nearly 69% of the population lives in rural areas, and it is not surprising that rural India, which has the most number of the needy population, has been the most badly impacted. Experts had said that at least three steps needed tone taken quickly by the government:
- The first was to restore the food supply chain by directly procuring grains from farmers.
- The second was to initiate direct cash transfers to as many beneficiaries as possible. There have been reports that several of these beneficiaries have not received the money, despite various government schemes such as the PM Kisan Yojana.
- The third is to halt the diversion of agricultural credit to other areas. The Reserve Bank of India has suggested means to tackle the misuse and diversion of such funds.
The new relaxations are expected to substantially, if not fully, tackle the crisis. Effective implementation is the key to success now. Meanwhile, the government has done well to continue with many other restrictions that serve to maximize social distancing. Road, rail (including Metro) and air transport remains suspended. Shops and establishments engaged in the trade of non-essential goods will remain close, and so will shopping malls and cinema halls.
The extension of the lockdown came on the heels of several State Chief Ministers backing the measure; some even extended the lockdown before the Prime Minister made the announcement on April 14 in his address to the nation. While there has been a commendable level of interaction and cooperation between the States and the Union Government on battling COVID-19, there have been dark spots as well. There have been reports that some States are either under-reporting cases or are giving concessions to certain groups of people to gather in blatant violation of existing guidelines. There have also been instances of some State regimes passing the blame to the Centre. This is undesirable in such games of crisis.
1. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of PGurus.