PM Modi to make it official today: Lockdown will stay with caveats

Moving migrant labour back to work involves partial revival of transport services, so special buses and trains are expected to start from April 15. Photo: Sanjay K Sharma
In a series of top-level meetings through Monday, the Centre finetuned the details related to a likely lockdown extension, the industries where some curbs would be lifted and getting migrants back into the workforce. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s address to the nation at 10 am on Tuesday would reflect many of these decisions, according to officials.

Ahead of the PM’s announcement of a likely two-week lockdown extension with some relaxations, all ministers and senior bureaucrats resumed working from office on Monday, giving out a signal that the government was returning to normalcy. Till late in the evening, officials worked on the logistics of easing the lockdown across some industries and in zones where the impact was limited, a source said.

The recent letter sent by Department for Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade (DPIIT) secretary Guruprasad Mohapatra to Home Affairs Secretary Ajay Kumar Bhalla, flagging a list of sectors that need to be opened up, is learnt to be a reference point for the government while announcing the next phase of lockdown.

Echoing a similar sentiment, NITI Aayog CEO Amitabh Kant at a webinar said it was necessary to open up some key manufacturing sectors and revive industrial activities while maintaining social distance. When asked about the likely easing of curbs, Kant said, ‘’wait for tomorrow’’.

FM Nirmala Sitharaman being screened as she resumes working from her North Block office on Monday. Ministers and senior government officers partly started going to their offices from Monday since the lockdown was announced. Photo: Dalip Kumar

Sources maintained that the government would go for a graded response, depending on sectors and locations.

While several agriculture-linked guidelines were being finalised to enable harvesting of rabi crop, industries such as automobile, electronics, and textile could be allowed to function at a 20-25 per cent employee capacity.

To ensure smooth movement of goods, the Centre on Monday told state governments and law enforcing officials to allow movement of trucks with two staff (the driver and cleaner) on board unhindered, whether the trucks were empty or full, and ferrying essential or non-essential items.

But, even if lockdown restrictions are eased, labour remains the biggest challenge for both agriculture and industry. In that context, reassuring migrant labour to return to work is likely to be an important element of the PM’s address, according to another source. Moving migrant labour back to work involves partial revival of railway and bus services. Special buses and trains are expected to be run starting April 15 and these will be strictly monitored to prevent overcrowding.

The government is also expected to offer palliatives to labour amid feedback that workers are reluctant to return in the midst of health insecurities.

The absence of labour is being felt in agriculture, construction, road-building and infra activities at a time when the government is under pressure to restart some economic activity. “We will abide by the directions of the Ministry of Home Affairs,” said Sanjiv Ranjan, Secretary, Ministry of Roads Transport and Highways.

The lockdown is expected to continue till April 30. However, as May 1 is a national holiday, followed by an extended weekend, the effective end of the lockdown could be May 4. Ministry of Home Affairs sources said the government was especially worried about the beginning of Ramzan on April 24. This is one of the factors in extending the lockdown as India cannot afford to have mass iftar gatherings. Minority Affairs Minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi has already issued an appeal asking people to avoid large iftar groupings.

“The railways are the silent heroes of the exit from the lockdown. All these days, they have been transporting vegetables, fruit and essential commodities like milk from one part of India to another. They need very little time to regroup and re-start transporting people,” said an officer from the railway service.

The government is thinking both about distribution as well as production. Important decisions about sanitized mandi operations are also likely to be announced by the Ministry of Home Affairs as a template for state governments to follow. The Ministry of Health reported the total number rising to 9,352 in the country. As many as 979 persons have been cured/discharged after recovery while 324 deaths have been reported.

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