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The Big Story: Fetch the bolt-cutters
Unlock 1. That is what India’s government is calling the next phase of restrictions after having been in four different phases of lockdown since March 24.
The new phase allows religious places, shopping malls and restaurants to open from June 8, and follows earlier relaxations that allowed offices to operate at full strength. Moreover, there are now no restrictions on the movement of people or goods either within states or between them.
A few things, however, remain shut: metro train services, gyms, swimming pools, cinemas, bars and entertainment parks. India isn’t restarting international flights yet, and a decision on reopening schools and educational institutions has been put off for the moment.
Also, a night curfew – now from 9 pm to 5 am – remains in place.
States can decide whether they want stricter rules and many have indeed announced guidelines that differ from the national ones. Plus, harsh restrictions are still in force in containment zones.
But by and large, “Unlock 1” means a return to normal movements for many – and much more mixing of individuals, even as India’s Covid-19 cases continue to grow rapidly.
India took 98 days to get its first 50,000 cases. It took 12 days to get its next 50,000. And just eight days later, it added another 50,000. The large-scale return of migrant workers from their host states to their home states has driven up the Covid-19 numbers in those regions.
As we wrote last week, India’s lockdown is ending not because it has successfully weathered a peak in new infections but because, more than two months later, the economy simply cannot afford to be shut.
India’s economy was already declining precipitously before Covid-19 hit.
A report from the State Bank of India said that the GDP loss from the first quarter of financial year 2020-21, meaning the months of April-June, would exceed 40%. As a result, the bank estimated an overall growth number for 2020-’21 to be at a crippling -6.8%.
“Our calculations show that even with a V-shaped recovery in fiscal 2022 and near 7% annual growth for the next two years, India’s GDP will not catch up with its pre-Covid-19 trend value even by fiscal 2024,” wrote CRISIL’s Dharmakirti Joshi. “Catching up would require an unprecedented 11% growth in GDP per year for the next three fiscals. Given the magnitude of the crisis, no amount of monetary and fiscal effort can offset it. They can only contain the damage to some extent.”
One of the concepts we’ve returned to on this newsletter is that, in some respects, it is useful to think of India as being akin to the European Union: each state, many of which are far more populous than European countries, is dealing with a very different Covid-19 trajectory and government response.
We don’t have the space to go over all the states, or indeed even delve deeply into some of them. But this week, we thought it might be useful to give you a small window into what is happening, both with the virus and politically in some of them:
North: Uttar Pradesh
7,445 confirmed cases
Considering its population, comparable to Brazil’s, finding Uttar Pradesh in the top 10 of Indian states affected by Covid-19 is not be surprising. Yet, its numbers are still much lower than Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and even Gujarat. Its recovery rate is also quite high, a good sign for a state that found itself at the very bottom of the NITI Aayog’s Healthcare Index.
The caveat, however, is that in a country with an extremely low national testing rate, Uttar Pradesh finds itself in the very bottom tier when it comes to tests per million population.
Uttar Pradesh is important also because of the other major crisis that emerged because of the lockdown: it has so far seen 21 lakh (2.1 million) migrants return home on special Shramik trains, in addition to lakhs more on foot or by road.
This represents a major challenge, considering its healthcare facilities and limited industry. But Chief Minister Adityanath – a riot-accused religious leader who is one of the rising stars of the Bharatiya Janata Party – has sought to sell it as an advantage.
He suspended nearly all labour laws for three years (which we wrote about a few weeks ago), and attempted to portray himself as the godfather looking out for the needs of the migrants, by announcing a commission to look into their needs, a skill-mapping exercise that would match them with employment opportunities in the state and even claimed that other states would need permission before they can hire workers from Uttar Pradesh, in order to ensure safeguards.
Some of this has already been walked back. The Centre has expressed dissatisfaction with the plan to suspend labour laws. Adityanath has had to relent on the prior-permission plan, which was always going to be legally dubious while also encouraging other parties to play parochial politics.
Although the numbers of those whose skills have been mapped are relatively small, the Uttar Pradesh government has signed agreements with four industry bodies to employ up to 11 lakh (1.1 million) workers, with dreams of mimicking the developmental models of Bangladesh and Vietnam and drawing manufacturing away from China.
However this plays out, the BJP has ensure that Adityanath’s decisions have received plenty of publicity, at a time when the Centre has struggled to address the migrant crisis. Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar – who faces an election later this year – has made similar decisions to give cash handouts to migrants and conduct skill mapping and yet, in part because of his ambivalence about taking back migrants early on and the BJP’s complex relationship with him, has not received the same fanfare that Adityanath has.
2,499 confirmed cases
Most people have by now heard of Kerala’s tremendous success at dealing with Covid-19 – and an expected second wave. Tamil Nadu, meanwhile, has the second-highest case-count in the country, albeit with a very low mortality rate.
Compared to these states, Telangana’s Covid-19 experience seems less remarkable.
Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao of the Telangana Rashtra Samithi on Friday took part in two religious ceremonies hoping to “ward off evils plaguing the state”. He told residentsnot to panic about Covid-19, claiming that the spread of the virus has not been as wide as feared. He also inaugurated a pumphouse to move water into a reservoir and teased an announcement of a major package for farmers that is expected on June 2.
All of this would suggest that the state isn’t terribly worried about the pandemic and has moved on to other concerns, such as what happens when the chief minister’s daughter starts to play a bigger role in state politics.
But there has been a small drumbeat of other stories about Telangana.
- “Telangana is the only state that does not reveal its testing numbers.”
- High Court pulls up Telangana government over COVID-19 testing.
- “On May 27, the state recorded 107 new cases, a spike in recent times. The Health Department promptly changed the bulletin’s usual format, perhaps in a bid to make the new cases and deaths seem insignificant.”
- “Over the past week, the number of green [corona-free] zones in Telangana has come down from 25 to 15.”
- “Despite having been allowed by the Indian Council of Medical Research, which is overseeing India’s battle against coronavirus, to conduct tests, private labs have been barred by the [Telangana] state government from doing so.”
- Cabinet Secretary Rajiv Gauba tells Telangana officials “that the fewer number of tests that they are doing as compared to their population, sooner or later Covid-19 cases will blow up”.
Telangana might be containing its Covid-19 outbreak well. Yet its unwillingness to share data and its low testing rate mean this cannot be said with much confidence.
More worryingly, as inter-state travel and regular movements return, the government will rely more on a testing-tracing-isolation strategy, that only works if the testing numbers are sufficiently high.
1,185 confirmed cases
My colleague Arunabh Saikia writes in from Guwahati:
“On Sunday, Assam’s health minister Himanta Biswa Sarma announced that the state had conducted over 1 lakh (1,00,000) tests. ‘I can say confidently that the total number will go up to Rs 2 lakh by June 15,’ the minister said, quick to add that states considered ‘role models’ in public health had done much fewer tests (last week when Assam had overtaken Kerala in the number of tests, Sarma had taken to Twitter to point it out).
‘You will be very pleased to know,’ he told reporters at a press briefing, “that Assam now has the capacity to do 10,000 tests a day. ‘The way we have ramped up tests that is a shining example of public service,’ he continued. ‘I don’t think any other state has been able to do such kind of public service.’
He went on to use the word ‘public service’ a few more times over the next few minutes.
During the pandemic, Sarma has routinely addressed the press – much more frequently than chief minister Sarbabanda Sonowal – and has made sure to publicise the work he has done to deal with the crisis. In the process, he has largely managed to mend the beating that his image had taken during the anti-Citizenship Act Amendment protests that roiled the state last winter. The Assamese perceive the Act as an existential threat.
Sarma began the year on the back foot with large section of the people in the state and the local press terming him as an enemy of the Assamese people for his vocal support of the Act. But barely five months later, the charismatic leader is now being hailed as the man who will save the community and the state from a more immediate threat – the novel coronavirus.”
As we go forward, we’ll take a look at other states – including ones in the East and West, as well. If there are tid-bits from the states that the national media is missing, please send them in to email@example.com
This is normally where the links would go in the newsletter, but in case you missed it, we’ve moved those to an e-mail on Fridays. This week we brought you links on what’s happening between India and China and labour-law rollbacks. If you don’t already subscribe, you can get the Monday and Friday emails by signing up here.
Before you go, there’s one more section:
Can’t make this up
We’ve had avian spies before, including one that escaped.
This time India released the suspected spy pigeon after an investigation led to a clean chit.
“‘The pigeon was set free yesterday [May 28] after nothing suspicious was found,’ said Shailendra Mishra, a senior police official in Indian-administered Kashmir. It was unclear where the bird was released and whether it flew back to its owner.
The Pakistani owner of the pigeon had urged India to return his bird, which Indian villagers turned over to police after discovering it.
‘It’s just an innocent bird,’ Habibullah, the owner of the bird, who goes by just one name, told Reuters on Friday.”
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