Lives v/s Livelihood or Lives v/s Lives? (Cleofato Almeida Coutinho)

By Cleofato A Coutinho
16 April 2020 20:02 IST

The Prime Minister decreed an additional 19 days lockdown in his address to the nation on 14th April. Now the Ministry of Home affairs has issued a notification which permits certain economic activity during the lockdown. Looking at the list of activities allowed it is clear that it is actually a phased withdrawal of the lockdown rather than its continuation. Looking at the condition of our economy and the position of the marginalized sections, the notification is welcome. It shall provide some solace to those living hand to mouth and so badly battered by the unplanned shutdown.

Prime Minister’s homily on 14th instant in claiming to continue the lockdown is understandable.   With non BJP ruled states extending the lockdown till 30th April and BJP ruled states rooting for extension, the Prime Minister was left with hardly any option, but to go by the precautionary principle. Our corona graph has not yet started to flatten despite the world’s most ruthless lockdown. Exiting or phasing out from a shutdown is not an easy task. When the government. central or states, are not confident of exiting and had no other strategy on the halting of the virus transmission, the Prime minister cannot be seen as frittering away the gains of the lockdown. Our infection figures and mortality numbers are low compared to the advanced countries. The ruthless lockdown may have also contributed its bit to the low figures. In any case the middle class was also rooting for an extension.

It was clear there would be an extension till 30th April, which is a Thursday. 1st May being Labour Day, 2nd May being a weekend and 3rd May being a Sunday, the extension till 3rd May   not be of much significance. In any case it could be said that the PM went for a longer extension than the states’ demand. The longer extension pot rays PM taking bigger risks and his leadership skills of ordering a shutdown of a large country like India get focused

It was generally expected that the Prime Minister would address the economic issues and grant relaxations for various sectors after considering the corona hotspots. It was clear that the lockdown has created problems which appears bigger than the virus from the India perspective. The Goa Government had made arrangements to start the departments by 5th. April. Certain business houses were preparing to state activity by 15th April. That was based upon the Industry ministry’s letter dated 11th April to Home Ministry which was widely circulated. But the prime minister actually announced continuation of lockdown, of course with a hint of certain relaxations from lockdown for economic activity, after a review meet on 20th April. The prime minister claimed it was only because of the poor. The PM did not say that there would be an exit from the lockdown.

The review referred by him was to kick start the economic activity. The MHA  notification actually confirms a calibrated withdrawal, What is now permitted even during lockdown in areas without hotspots is 1) Transporation of goods  without the distinction of essential and non essential categories 2) All agricultural and horticultural activities will be fully functional, 3) MNREGA work, of course with social distancing, 4) Industries in rural areas including food processing, 5) Manufacturing and Industrial establishments under SEZ and export romotion, 6) Self-employed people like electricians, those involved in IT repairs, plumbers, motor mechanics and carpenters have been allowed, 7) Courier services and vehicles used by e-commerce operators have also been permitted by the government, 8) Shops (including kirana and single shops selling essential goods) and carts, dealing with food and groceries, hygiene items, fruits and vegetables, dairy and milk booths, poultry, meat and fish, animal feed a fodder etc are allowed to operate without any restriction on timing of opening and closure (social distancing to be followed), 9) Dhabas and Eateries on the highway, 10) Use of private vehicles for emergency and for essential services (Goa government had permitted that earlier.) Looking at the relaxations, it is clear that what the Prime Minister calls a continuance of shutdown is actually a phased withdrawal.

The shutdown was certainly to protect lives, but at that time there was no thinking over the livelihood of those who live hand to mouth. Their existence was not even noticed. There is now some clarity on the issue and how the government wishes to have that fine balance of life and livelihood. Bhanu Pratap Mehta was spot on when he said to order a shutdown requires command but to reopen there is need of confidence. The calibrated exit has to be complimented by other strategies. Mere lockdown cannot be the only road map to deal with the virus. Whether a good balance between health and economy (lives versus livelihood) has been struck would be known from the corona graph and how the economy behaves in the near future...

A country with 240 million in the unorganized sector and two million homeless certainly requires creative governance particularly in times like this. As the economic growth poised to be at zero level for the calender year 2020 and the unemployment at an all-time high, the steps towards the phased withdrawal are to be welcomed. The total shutdown was actually unsustainable. Poverty and Hunger would create a greater crisis than the Virus. The Prime Minister has actually listened to the economists who had put the debate of lives versus livelihood as lives versus lives. The economists may not get the credit due to them.

The resumption of economic activity would go a long way to ameliorate some of the hardships of the poor and may actually kick start the economy.

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Cleofato A Coutinho

Cleofato Almeida Coutinho is a senior lawyer and one of the constitutional expert in Goa. A member of Law Commission of Goa, he also teaches at Kare College of Law in Madgao.

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