Prime Minister Narendra Modi today stressed the need to protect both lives and the economy at the end of a video meeting with the chief ministers of 13 states to decide on extending the nationwide lockdown.
The comment marked an evolution in his government’s strategy to combat the spread of the highly infectious novel coronavirus – from shutting down all economic activity to prevent transmission to acknowledging that a phased re-opening of the economy may be necessary.
“In my first address I had said, ‘Jaan hai to jahaan hai (If there is life, the world will exist)’. We must now look at Jaan bhi, jahaan bhi (life and the world),” the Prime Minister said, referring to his address to the nation on March 24 – during which he announced the 21-day lockdown.
Today’s meeting, which lasted four hours, was meant to help PM Modi decide whether or not to extend the lockdown, which is scheduled to end Tuesday. Sources have told NDTV the government is likely to extend the lockdown, albeit with some exemptions and changes.
In line with that change in strategy, the Prime Minister has suggested specific measures for agriculture and allied sectors, including modification of laws to facilitate sale of farm produce; this will help vegetables reach end consumers quicker and ensure people stay indoors.
The centre will also issue directions to restart the construction industry in a graded manner, sources said. This is likely to be a key move since the sector employs tens of thousands of migrant workers and daily wagers, whose plight during the current lockdown has made national headlines.
The 21-day nationwide lockdown ordered by PM Modi last month, which has seen all commercial establishments and shops shut, except those selling groceries, vegetables and medicines, has hit the economy hard.
The already struggling economy – GDP growth for the current fiscal is expected to slow to 4.8 per cent, a United Nations report has said – recorded a 43-month high unemployment rate of 8.7 per cent in March, even before the lockdown was ordered, according to estimates by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, a Mumbai-based private think-tank.
A report by news agency Reuters this week said hundreds of thousands of cash-starved small businesses had either deferred or cut wages this month.
Concerns such as this, coupled with the mass exodus of migrant workers and daily labourers left jobless and homeless by the lockdown, invited severe criticism from opposition leaders.
The global economy has been as badly hit by the coronavirus pandemic. This week International Monetary Fund (IMF) chief Kristalina Georgieva warned “global growth will turn sharply negative in 2020“.
Ms Georgieva urged governments to do more to provide “lifelines” for businesses and households to “avoid a scarring of the economy that would make the recovery so much more difficult.”
India has reported nearly 7,500 COVID-19 cases since the global outbreak began in China’s Wuhan district in December last year. 239 deaths have been linked to the virus. Worldwide over 17 lakh people have been infected and more than one lakh have been killed.