The nearly two-month long national lockdown Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced on March 24 to contain the spread of the pandemic, Covid-19, will come to an end on May 18 and it’s time the Union government prepared an exit plan and got everybody, including state governments, on board. None questioned the wisdom of shutting the nation down when Mr Modi took the unprecedented decision, as the objective was clear. Most Indians suffered in silence, and the worst affected were the people at the bottom of the pyramid: migrant workers, daily wage earners, taxi-auto drivers and the rural poor. The economy took a severe beating, as reflected in the records of tax revenues for April, which saw up to 85 per cent drop in some states. The medium- and small-scale sector, which contributes approximately one third to the country’s growth and half of its exports, and is an important player in generating jobs, is in doldrums. State governments are running pillar to post to keep themselves afloat as they have the most difficult of tasks including fighting against the virus on the ground.
It is in this background that the Congress, the principal Opposition party, has posed a question before the Union government on the exit plan. The Congress chief ministers who shared their thoughts with Congress president Sonia Gandhi and former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Wednesday were concerned most about the fragile financial position of the states, something which other chief ministers had taken up with the Prime Minister when he met them through videoconferencing. The states’ woes are compounded by a series of measures the Union government took during the lockdown period, which resulted in the silent appropriation of their rights by the Centre. They include the suspension of the Members of Parliament Local Area Development scheme, which many MPs utilised to make available important tools for Covid containment and making the chief minister’s distress relief funds ineligible to receive funds from the corporate social responsibility scheme. Lack of transparency of the operation of the PM-Cares fund did not help the situation either. It may not be fair to ask the government to come out with solid data on the benefits accrued to the nation due to the lockdown strategy, for the contours of the spread was largely unknown when the nation walked into a debilitating standstill. The obvious aim was to flatten the curve but we are far from achieving it. The number of cases has, in fact, multiplied a hundred times in the meantime and new hotspots keep coming up almost every day. The whole affair, however, cannot end up in a lose-lose situation where we fail to contain the virus and compromise on the federal structure of our nation; it should be the other way instead. The exit plan, in which the states have a major say, should incorporate successful models of virus containment available within the country along with a solid, viable and enabling financial package that ensures food for all hungry, protection and creation of jobs and survival of the economy. There is no running away from it.