As India opens up after a 68-day lockdown, imposed to curb the spread of the coronavirus disease, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said on Sunday the battle against the pandemic is a long one, warned against complacency, and reiterated the need for citizens to adhere to social distancing norms, wear masks and wash their hands regularly.
In his monthly radio address, Mann Ki Baat, Modi also said although every section of the society has been affected by the viral pandemic, the pain felt by the poor cannot be measured in words. The PM’s remarks come in the wake of millions of migrant workers making their way back home during the lockdown, and sustained reports of their economic deprivation, hunger and even deaths.
The PM also emphasised the need for economic self-reliance, sensitivity to the environment, expressed solidarity with those affected by Cyclone Amphan in West Bengal and Odisha, and placed importance on the power of yoga in building immunity and for good health.
The address was broadcast a day after the Modi government unveiled guidelines for what it termed as Unlock 1.0 — in contrast to consecutive phases of the lockdown which was first been declared on March 25. The government announced that in the first phase of unlocking India, places of worship, shopping malls, and hotels and restaurants can open from June 8; in the next phase, state governments will consult various stakeholders on the opening of educational institutions; and in the third phase, the government will assess and decide on the opening up of international air travel, metro services, cinema halls and other activities. The new guidelines also remove restrictions on inter- and intra-state travel.
In his radio address, coming just a day after he completed the first year of his second term in power, PM Modi said India has been able to contain the spread of infection and keep the death toll relatively low, compared to other countries, but cautioned against complacence. “Covid-19 is very much there and we cannot be complacent. The road ahead is a long one. We are fighting a pandemic about which little was previously known,” the PM said.
Experts agreed with the PM’s note of caution and believe that the easing of restrictions — while necessary to mitigate the economic crisis — can lead to an increase in cases and the spread of the disease.
“The Prime Minister is absolutely right. The coronavirus is going to stay with us for a long time. Although we are behind countries such as Brazil and USA as far as casualty is concerned, we have to conduct more tests, segregate infected people and make the masses more conscious,” said Koushik Chaki, secretary, West Bengal Doctors Forum, a prominent body of doctors.
T Jacob John, former virology head, CMC, Vellore, said: “Now is the time to up your guard against the disease, and strictly follow preventive measures such as wearing of mask while stepping out, social distancing, hand hygiene etc. With lockdown being lifted the risk of disease transmission also increases as there will be greater public movement.”
India ended Sunday with 190,533 cases and 5,328 deaths. The fatality rate in India remains much lower than the global fatality rate, and experts suggest that the lockdown, extended thrice, has pushed back the peak of infections, giving the country time to strengthen its health care infrastructure.
Modi expressed his appreciation for the efforts made by both individuals and organisations in helping those in need during the pandemic and its aftermath. No section has been spared the impact of the pandemic, he said.
“However, the worst affected are the poor and the labourers. Their pain, their agony, and their ordeal can’t be expressed in words,” he said.
Millions of migrant workers in the cities, fearing the loss of their livelihoods, have headed home in states such as Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Odisha and West Bengal, braving hunger, thirst and heat, in an exodus triggered by the enforcement of the lockdown. Indian Railways is running special trains to transport them to their home states.
The PM said the railways too has become a front line worker in the fight against the coronavirus disease.
“The Centre, states, local bodies are all working day and night. The way our Railway forces are making efforts round-the-clock, they are in a way front line corona warriors transporting safely millions of migrant labourers to their homes; arranging for their food, managing quarantine centres in every district and arrangements for testing and treatment for everyone. All these efforts are going on continuously and at a large scale,” he said.
But Congress leader Kapil Sibal criticised the Centre, saying the government has not able to handle the migrant crisis. He said “the government’s social distancing with people has increased so much that it does not know what is happening on the ground and how to address the problems faced by people, especially the poor”.
“…the government has no data as to where they (migrant workers) are, what work they do, where they work, so if they don’t have the data, how will they reach the people, those shramiks, those migrants labourers, to give them ‘rahat’ (relief)?” Sibal asked.
In his address, the PM also said the situation should serve as a lesson for India to make provisions for the future. He cited the situation of workers in the eastern states as a case in point, and said the problems suffered by the poor during the crisis had been exacerbated by the lack of development in the region.
The PM reiterated his message of the need for building an Aatmanirbhar Bharat (Self-Reliant India) and said many problems being confronted now would not have arisen if the villages and towns of the country were self-reliant.
“At some places work in skill mapping of the labourers is taking place, at some places startups are being encouraged, a migration commission has been commissioned somewhere and the Centre will also help open up opportunities for employment, self-employment and small-scale industries in villages. These decisions are aimed at resolving the crisis and building a self-reliant India,” he said.
Experts believe that while this does present an opportunity for northern and eastern Indian states, which have received the maximum number of migrants, ensuring jobs for them will be very challenging.
Ajay Kumar, an associate professor of development education at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), said: “It is a structural issue. This is a problem of regional imbalances. Self-reliance doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and self-reliance cannot be created only by political will. A comprehensive approach is required to resolve this issue — which should be a combination of social, educational, political and economic development of the region.”
The PM also urged people to tap the benefits offered by yoga; several international leaders have shown interest in knowing more about ayurveda and yoga in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic, he said.
“We have to explore yoga for community, immunity and unity,” the PM said.
“During this corona crisis, I had a chance to speak to many world leaders. I want to share one secret today, they expressed great interest in yoga and ayurveda. Some leaders enquired how these can help in these times of corona,” he said.
Noting that International Yoga Day (June 21) is around the corner, he said during the lockdown, people from Hollywood to Haridwar have begun paying attention to yoga.
With World Environment Day coming up on June 5, the PM also said it was imperative to pay attention to biodiversity and pay attention to the conservation of water.
“In some parts of eastern India, we witnessed destruction caused by cyclone (Amphan) …I was in Odisha and West Bengal last week to take stock of the situation. The way people of West Bengal and Odisha showed courage in dealing with the situation is commendable. In this hour of crisis, the country is standing by the side of people of these two states” he said.
The PM pointed out that the lockdown has given Indians an opportunity to understand the rich biodiversity around them. “Clean environment is directly linked to our life and the future of our children and therefore we have to be concerned about it individually, I request you to plan some trees on this environment day,” he said.