There’s a murmur in the government’s corridor over an extension of the 21-day lockdown to tackle the Coronavirus outbreak in India. The lockdown, which was announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the evening of March 24th 2020, will be over by April 14th 2020, unless extended. Modi didn’t clarify whether he is considering the option. While addressing the floor leaders of different political parties on Thursday, April 9th 2020, Modi indicated subtly that there may be an extension of the 21-day lockdown.
The prime minister said that experts have advised keeping on the lockdown to break the curve of Coronavirus outbreak. Earlier, while speaking to the chief ministers of different states through video conference, Modi suggested a staggered exit from the lockdown to prevent large gatherings.
It’s expected that a final decision will be taken on April 11th, when Modi will again meet the chief ministers in a video conference. The uncertainty over the future of the lockdown, during which India experienced a huge spike in new cases — from 519 cases and 10 deaths on March 24th to 6,237 cases and 186 deaths on April 9th — is fuelling a lot of speculation. Millions of lives are depending on a single decision on the extension of the 21-day lockdown, as on one hand, its continuation will keep on inflicting severe injuries to the already-debilitated Indian economy, while on the other, a reckless exit will shoot up casualties, as India lacks proper public healthcare system and resources, including human resources, to meet the challenge.
While one camp has strong reasons to believe that the extension of the 21-day lockdown is going to happen in view of the massive increase in the number of cases, and because a lot of experts have been demanding it, which even the prime minister told the floor leaders, the other believes that due to the economic compulsions, Modi and the state governments will lift the lockdown partially and allow a few more sectors and industries to function, especially movement of the farm labour will be allowed as Rabi harvesting isn’t over yet.
As a massive global food crisis is anticipated due to the Coronavirus outbreak, India treads a treacherous course. Throughout India, the Rabi crop harvesting is seriously impacted due to lack of farm labour caused by the 21-day lockdown. The unscrupulous usurers, future traders and feudal landlords have already started a large-scale hoarding drive to stockpile food items to create a shortage in the market. Millions of farm labourers battle starvation and destitution due to loss of employment due to the lockdown.
In such a scenario, it’s impossible to seek an extension of the 21-day lockdown without adequate relaxation for agriculture. While allowing the farm labourers to harvest the fields of big feudal landlords and rich farmers, the government must ensure that they get fair wages, adequate food, transportation and shelter from the landlords who will hire them. Apart from this, it’s the government’s responsibility to ensure that there is no violation of physical distancing norms and that no stockpiling of food grains by the futures traders, usurers or feudal elements can take place. The state governments can ensure this by directly buying all crops from the farmers and it will require redirection of additional funds into their accounts from the Modi regime.
Moreover, the government must support the medium, small and marginal farmers, who can’t afford hired hands. They also don’t have the ability to sell their crops at a better price unlike big feudal landlords and rich farmers who are in a nefarious nexus with the usurers and wholesalers. In case the medium, small and marginal farmers don’t get fair prices for their crops there will be a severe rural crisis. Can the Modi regime and the state governments provide an assured buying option and a minimum support price for vegetables, pulses, and other crops apart from paddy and wheat?
An extension of the 21-day lockdown should be done judiciously and with adequate riders for the essential sectors, including food, consumer goods, essential commodities and services. The Modi regime must immediately relax the rural lockdown to ease harvesting and provide adequate medical support to the farmers and farm labourers. If the Rabi harvesting is done well and if the Kharif crop is sown at the beginning of monsoon without hassles, then the peril of acute food shortage can be prevented for a year. The government must decide swiftly and judiciously as economic or political myopia will be disastrous now.
Based in Maharashtra, Anand Patil is a staunch opponent of opportunist politics and supports democratic voices. He is vocal about Dalit, tribal and Muslim rights and has been a rights activist all his life.