I request you all to share with me, by May 15, a broad strategy on how each one of you would want to deal with the lockdown regime in your particular states,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi said during his interaction with chief ministers on Monday.
“I want states to make a blueprint on how to deal with various nuances during and after the gradual easing of the lockdown,” he said. India is all set to move from lockdown 3.0, dictated by the Centre, to lockdown 4.0 that will vary in degrees, durations and districts, identified by states post May 17.
At the marathon fifth virtual meet in the last 50-odd days with PM Modi, chief ministers, guided by their compulsions, couldn’t arrive at a consensus on lockdown extension or movement of trains and flight operations.
But, by default, they created a picture of unity for the need of states to get greater autonomy to decide the future course that includes a graded exit.
At the end of the meet, PM Modi asked chief ministers to submit reports on what next with an assessment of the situation. But Monday’s meet has clearly provided room for the Centre to relinquish lockdown command and control post May 17.
PM Modi, speaking at the end of the meet, said, “India now has a reasonably clear indication as to the geographical spread of the pandemic, including the worstaffected areas. Moreover, over the past few weeks, officials have understood operating procedures in a time such as this, right up to the district level.”
In a meet that allowed all chief ministers to speak unlike the last when a few were chosen, PM Modi congratulated states for their efforts, thus underlining that the battle against Covid-19 may take a more federal character.
He added that the entire world feels India has been able to successfully protect itself from Covid-19 and states played major role in this. “Wherever we have not followed social distancing, our problems have increased,” he, however, said.
He also flagged the next big challenge to the states that want more autonomy. He said, “Our biggest challenge will be to ensure Covid-19 doesn’t spread to villages in spite of relaxations. The states which have been lax in enforcing the lockdown have created more challenges.”
WHAT CMs SAID
Unlike at the earlier meets, only a few CMs backed lockdown extension. Punjab CM Amarinder Singh wanted an extension with a carefully crafted strategy, backed by fiscal and economic empowerment of the states, to save lives and secure livelihood. He wanted the Centre to let the states decide the zoning of districts in a state into red orange and green. He was backed openly by Chhattisgarh CM Bhupesh Baghel.
Maharashtra CM Uddhav Thackeray who sits on top of the maximum cases reported by an Indian state also backed an extension. He said, “Cases are expected to peak in May, they may peak in June or July too. I’ve read Wuhan is witnessing a second wave of cases, even WHO has warned about this. So, I suggest that any action on lockdown must be taken cautiously.” Kerala CM Pinarayi Vijayan echoed the same thought. He said, “States face different challenges and therefore should be given the freedom to make reasonable changes to the guidelines relating to the lockdown.”
Andhra Pradesh CM YS Jagan Mohan Reddy on the other hand wanted lockdown measures eased, with strict adherence of personal hygiene protocols.
On a day that rail ticket bookings started, PM Modi cautioned, “We must ensure precautions are taken by people including social distancing norms by observing ‘Do Gaj Ki Doori’ (six-feet distance).”
POLITICS TO DICTATE NEXT MOVE
The Centre has been facing immense fire for its decisions – starting lockdown when Congress president Sonia Gandhi termed the move hasty and badly drawn. States have blamed it for the economic distress, the hardships faced by labourers and migrants and the plight of the poor. When it was not running trains and flights, it faced criticism and when it announced resumption there was more fire.
PM Modi at the meet indicated the catch 22 situation the Centre found itself in. He said, “During lockdown, people should have stayed where they were. But in distress people want to return home. And for that, strategy had to be changed.”
It’s the Centre’s dominant role that has created friction with West Bengal. At Monday’s meet, West Bengal Mamata Banerjee struck the first open discordant note in a PM-CMs meet. She charged the Centre with indulging in politics in a state which shares borders with three countries. She reminded the Centre to respect the federal structure and complained that the multiple advisories and missives were causing confusion.
The Centre will view this rising clamour over central dominance undermining state autonomy as a positive development. If it allows states more powers with facilitation and coordination from the Centre, states may have to start playing a more accountable and active role.
This will be the Centre’s second signal of slow distancing. Last time, unlike the first two avatars, the PM didn’t go for an address to the nation. Instead, a home ministry communiqué announced a two-week extension with extensive guidelines.
Now through its CMs of states like Gujarat, the BJP-led Central government is pushing for opening up the states and economy. Thus putting the onus of an extension of varying degrees on states.
The same goes for other measures like opening of trains. Telangana Chief Minister K. Chandrashekar Rao in the meet urged PM Modi not to resume passenger train services, which were stopped as part of preventive measures to contain the spread of coronavirus in the country. On the other hand, Thackeray asked PM Modi to allow local train services in Mumbai for essential services.
On the other hand, Tamil Nadu CM Palaniswami urged PM Modi not to allow regular air and rail services till May 31.
PM Modi said, “We will need an all-encompassing approach to deal with various challenges that will arise before us. With the onset of monsoon, there will be proliferation of many non-Covid diseases, for which we must prepare and strengthen our medical and health systems.”
He asked policy makers to also keep in mind how to embrace new models of teaching and learning in the education sector.
Referring to tourism, the Prime Minister said he saw potential for domestic tourism but we need to think of the contours of the same. He said, “I am of the firm view that the measures needed in the first phase of lockdown were not needed during the 2nd phase and similarly the measures needed in the 3rd Phase are not needed in the fourth.”
Referring to the resumption of train services, the Prime Minister said, “This is needed to rev up the economic activity, but all routes will not be resumed.” The Prime Minister said he continues to feel optimistic, when not even a single state sounded despondent and that this collective determination will make India win in its fight against Covid-19.
The PM said that the post-Covid era also brings opportunities that India must leverage.