To lockdown or not to lockdown, that is the question. There are other questions too. To lift the lockdown totally in one go, to lift it partially, or to prepare a calibrated lifting of the lockdown, starting April 15.
The pressure cooker comparison may not be far off the mark. As the lockdown continues, the slow build of pressure among people cooped up in their homes can be seen. As also the hope and anticipation of freedom. The social fallout if those hopes are dashed, are in no way predictable. The question is how to enable the gradual release of this pressure before it blows up.
Union Cabinet Secretary Rajiv Gauba, on March 30 categorically said there were no plans to extend the lockdown. On April 4, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in a video conference with state chief ministers, asked them to suggest a post-lockdown exit strategy.
On April 7, a group of ministers led by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh met to review the lockdown situation, even as chief ministers of many states demanded that the Centre extend the lockdown. They sought to pass the buck to the Centre. As the Telangana CM dramatically put it, “You can revive the economy, but you cannot revive lives”.
But the Centre, it seems, prefers to lob the buck right back to the states. This puts some hot-zone states like Delhi, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu, where the number of cases are rising by the day, in a difficult position. The overriding need is still to vigorously contain the spread of the virus while preparing for a worst-case scenario. The lockdown, these states feel, is the best way of doing this. But the question they are not asking is: at what cost.
The cost, according to Shekhar Tomar, Assistant Professor of Business and Public Policy, Indian School of Business, Hyderabad, is that “the economic crisis will be worse than the health crisis”, as he put it in an interview to Citizen Matters. Economies do not have an ‘on’ switch to get into stride immediately. Building confidence among the public, workers and businesses will take time. And confidence, more than pumping money into the system, is the most important ingredient for the economy to stabilise. The longer one waits, the more difficult this will be.
In other words, the complete stoppage of all economic activity for 21-plus days cannot continue. Money will have to start circulating. And people will need to slowly start getting back to living normal lives, though what the new ‘normal’ will be, remains to be seen.
Bengaluru will have to take a middle path
All decisions are a trade-off between competing objectives, or between competing processes towards a common objective. The lockdown was a political decision. To lift it, in whatever manner, will also be a political decision. And politicians tend to take the easiest, or the most popular, of possibilities when faced with a trade-off.
But coronavirus presents a unique trade-off – to put it simplistically, between the “greatest good of the greatest number” and “acceptable risk”. Meaning, either continue strict implementation of the total lockdown with all its attended risks of a public backlash, or start easing certain aspects of life in order to get the economy somewhat started, which will, to an extent, violate much-needed precautions like social distancing.
Experts have written much on the options before the Centre and states on the larger macro-economic issues. But states and cities have their own peculiar conditions to take into account. Consider Karnataka and Bengaluru in particular.
A task force on post-lockdown strategy is to be set up on April 14, the last day of the present lockdown. Another expert panel is due to submit a report, on what is not clear, in a couple of days. Politicians tend to leave decisions till the last minute hoping something will change or that the decision will be made for them. Not this time.
As a retired senior citizen who settled in Bengaluru two years back, the lockdown was not a difficult period for me. But I firmly believe that extending the total lockdown will do more harm than good, especially among the poor, the daily wagers and the overall informal city economy. The complete loss of income among large swathes of Bengaluru’s population cannot be allowed to continue if social unrest is to be avoided.
The state and city administration will have to walk a middle path, between ensuring that all health precautions remain in place and getting the city economy moving. So let me attempt listing some specific steps for Bengaluru, that, in my view, fall under the “acceptable risk” category, but worth detailed consideration, given that the devil, as always, lies in the details.
These steps make one important assumption – that people are responsible, understand the special circumstances, will act prudently and will respond better to appeals for voluntary action than to threats of punishment. So here goes:
- Probability is high that irrespective of what the state announces, there will be a big spill-out of people and vehicles onto the streets on April 14-15. It is imperative that this not be met with force from the police. In fact, the overworked and underpaid police needs to be adequately protected against angry crowds. A passive, adequately protected, police presence on the streets should be the policy. Let us trust the people here. One option for immediate traffic management is to barricade all key crossings, flyovers and main roads, and to announce this clearly and repeatedly on the days before April 15 with appeals to not use personal vehicles. No certainties here, but worth trying. Rather than risk the police refusing to obey orders to use force against crowds that are likely to include their family and friends.
- Malls, cineplexes and pubs will need to remain closed, as also Metro services. Other intra and inter state travel restrictions must remain for another week at least. If religious places too can be convinced to remain closed for another week, great. Bus services should remain at the current levels for the immediate future.
- Allow all eateries and restaurants to open. This will bring some people back to work, and increase offtake of farm and food products. This will also provide work to the logistics sector which supplies to these places. In fact, freeing up logistics and movement of goods in itself will create economic activity. The continuing bottlenecks in the movement of farm products, food and other essential supplies and goods surely can be cleared up. One corollary to this – allow 3, 4 and 5 star hotels to reopen their bars. If rules permit, increase the excise duty on liquor – at least the state will get some extra income which it can put to good use. There is no reason to believe these places will suddenly get overcrowded. Trust people to do the right thing.
- Reinforce work-from-home for all offices that have been doing it so far. Encourage more workplaces to accept this, especially government departments that don’t deal with essential services. Continue the current restrictions, and initiate discussions on policies to make work-from-home the rule rather than the exception, especially in the IT sector. And push other sectors like banking into adopting this policy. Take care that employers don’t use this to sack people.
- But work-from-home is not feasible for some services. Allow service centres for home appliances, electronics, automobiles, etc, to reopen. It will slowly bring back the technicians and enable them to earn again. Police will need to relax their pass rules to enable them to travel freely to work.
- Identify and allow labour-intensive industries like textiles and brick kilns to open, and enable them to get their products to markets without hassle. Since the biggest need now is for personal protective equipment, incentivise manufacturing units to make these.
- This would be a good time to insist that all employers give proper ID cards with security features to their employees – both full-time and those on contract – which the police can easily verify. If the administration can generate these IDs, that’s ideal. This could also generate more accurate data on people working in the informal sector. At present, few workers, let alone daily wage labourers, have any sort of work ID.
- While the government’s relief measures are providing some money and food to the poor, there are migrant and other labour stuck in Bengaluru who are unable to avail these schemes for whatever reason. This problem needs to be addressed – not by providing more relief but by generating some employment for them. People need to be given the dignity of earning a living rather than depend on charity. This can be done by restarting infrastructure work, allowing home repairs and home construction work, creating urban MNREGA opportunities via smart city projects, for example. Labourers should be given protective equipment, and contractors employing them should ensure food and proper working conditions. Not impractical, if started in a small way.
- As in the West, allow department stores to sell more categories of products than they are currently allowed to. Some categories of over-the-counter pharmaceuticals, for instance; even tobacco. This only needs a simple order from the relevant department or minister, and no expert panel or committee. This will also make things easier for customers.
- Finally, this is the time to simplify all those cumbersome government rules that stifle businesses, big and small, particularly street vendors. Time and space is now available to designate specific vending zones around the city and provide street vendors some protection from arbitrary municipal action by giving them a permit, as has been done in Chandigarh.
It is obvious there is no going back to things as they were. In fact, chroniclers of life in Bengaluru will now have to repost their chronicles – pre-COVID era and post-COVID era.