Which factories should reopen after India’s coronavirus lockdown? 

#GS3 #Industries 

As the 21-day lockdown to combat the COVID-19 pandemic prepares to enter its last week, two things are clear. 

  • First, lifting of production and movement curbs will be gradual even after April 14. Any exit strategy, in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s words, has to “ensure staggered re-emergence of the population”.
  • Second, while the government’s focus so far has been on sorting out distributional issues, especially with regard to the movement of essential goods, it would now have to also look at the production end of the supply chain. Given that stocks with company depots, distributors and retailers are likely to eventually run out, resumption of manufacturing activity becomes vital.

The question arises: What kind of manufacturing can be allowed that will minimise the risk of uncontrolled spread of infection? 

Two Lakh Factories  

One useful source of information could be the National Sample Survey Office’s Annual Survey of Industries (ASI), which covers all organised manufacturing establishments with power connection that employ at least 10 workers, and those engaging 20 and more without the aid of power.  

  • Since these are registered units under the Factories Act, 1948 – unlike leather belt and garment makers in Mumbai’s Dharavi or Delhi’s Gandhi Nagar – they can technically be monitored and, hence, subjected to social distancing rules.
  • According to the last published ASI numbers for 2017-18, there were 1,95,584 operational factories across India.
  • Together, they engaged 1.56 crore persons, and produced a total output value of Rs 80.72 lakh crore.

Trends: output, outbreak 

The state with the largest share in factory output, Gujarat, is ranked No. 11 in the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases.  

  • Delhi, which has reported the third highest cases, isn’t even among the country’s top 20 manufacturing states.
  • Telangana and Kerala rank No. 4 and No. 5 in the number of corona cases, but No. 13 and No. 15 respectively in registered manufacturing output (see charts below).





  • A district-wise analysis yields more revealing trends. Going by the Ministry of Health & Family Welfare’s latest data, only 146 out of India’s 700-plus districts had five or more positive cases of COVID-19. These 146 districts accounted for 3,266, or 80.3%, of the total 4,067 cases for which district-level information is available at present.
  • Many industrial centres —
  • Tiruppur and Sriperumbudur-Oragadam in Tamil Nadu;
  • Kutch, Jamnagar, Bharuch and Mehsana in Gujarat;
  • Raigad and Aurangabad in Maharashtra;
  • Bhilai, Raigarh and Korba in Chhattisgarh;
  • Rudrapur in Uttarakhand;
  • Baddi in Himachal Pradesh; or
  • the centrally-administered Silvassa and Daman – have recorded very few cases.

‘Essential’, or not 

The ASI figures also show that 86.15% of the registered manufacturing sector’s output of Rs 80.72 lakh crore and 72.41% of its 1.56 crore employees in 2017-18 came from the corporate sector — both non-government and government companies — and only the balance were from individual proprietorship and partnership firms. 

  • The former set of units would, again, be more amenable to regulation and enforcement of social distancing.
  • It would be even more so for units in relatively secluded special economic zones such as Kandla, Mundra and Sri City.
  • If social distancing can be rigorously implemented in organised manufacturing, there would be no need to insist that such activity should be restricted only to the production of “essential goods”.
  • A narrow definition of such goods may include food and pharma products, but not textiles and wearing apparel.
  • This, despite the latter category employing 28.68 lakh persons as per the 2017-18 ASI data, more than the 17.72 lakh employed in food products and 7.40 lakh in pharma units.
  • Other major employers, who may also not fully qualify as supplying so-called essential goods, include basic metals (10.33 lakh persons), other non-metallic mineral products (10.91 lakh), motor vehicles and trailers (10.18 lakh), machinery (8.49 lakh), chemicals (8.28 lakh), plastic and rubber products (7.13 lakh), fabricated metal products (6.92 lakh) and electric equipment (5.98 lakh).

The challenge ahead 

Currently, almost every industry — barring coal mines, oil refineries, fertilisers, pharma, and those requiring continuous process operations such as steel blast furnaces or aluminium smelters — is shut.  

  • Resumption isn’t going to be easy even if the lockdown restrictions are lifted.
  • The biggest constraint would be labour and trucks. Manufacturers need labourers not only for production, but also for loading, dispatching and unloading operations.
  • Goods can be moved through railways, but the journey from rake points to local area is possible only through trucks.
  • A signalling of intention now to allow relatively big manufacturing units to reopen after April 14, with strict enforcement of social distancing conditions, would give some lead time for re-mobilisation of labour and logistical resources. Factories may then be able to start producing — even if in a small way.

New York Zoo tiger tests positive for coronavirus: Are cats at particular risk? 

A Malayan tiger at New York’s Bronx Zoo has tested positive for SARS-CoV2. Four-year-old Nadia is believed to have caught the virus from a zoo employee, who had not shown symptoms. 

So, humans can infect animals? 

  • The virus came from an animal source and mutated; humans have since been infecting humans.
  • It is theoretically possible for the virus to mutate again to survive in certain species after being transmitted by humans. 
  • The Bronx Zoo case suggests an employee spread the virus to the tiger, the US Department of Agriculture said in a statement. 
  • Several lions and tigers at the zoo, in fact, have shown symptoms of respiratory illness. 
  • The others were not tested to limit the potential risks of general anaesthesia.

What about domestic animals? 

  • There have been a handful of cases of pets being infected; the indications are they caught it from humans.
  • There have been reports about two dogs in Hong Kong — a Pomeranian and a German shepherd — testing positive. 
  • While their respective humans had COVID-19, the dogs themselves were not showing symptomsIn what has more context in the Bronx Zoo tiger testing positive, there has been a domestic cat, too, catching the virus, in Belgium. 
  • Unlike the dogs, the cat showed symptoms. After testing positive, it later recovered.

So, are cats at higher risk than dogs, and can they, in turn, infect humans? 

  • Chinese researchers recently published a pre-print paper (not yet peer-reviewed) on this subject. 
  • They inoculated cats with the novel coronavirus, placed them alongside uninfected cats, and found that cats can transmit the virus to one other. 
  • The good news: the virus replicates poorly in dogs. There has been no evidence about cats infecting humans either.
  • There may be a possible explanation why felines are more susceptible. 
  • SARS-CoV2 infects respiratory cells after entering through a protein, which lies on the surface of the cells. Called ACE2, the protein in felines resembles ACE2 in humans.
  • As it is, cats are susceptible to feline coronavirus, which is common but generally asymptomatic, although it can cause mild diarrhoea.

Should you worry about your pets? 

  • After the tiger tested positive, the US Department of Agriculture advised that people with COVID-19 restrict contact with animals, just as they would with other people. 
  • It did not recommend routine tests for pets.
  • The Bronx Zoo case led to India’s Central Zoo Authority alerting all zoos to monitor animals 24×7 for signs of abnormal behaviour. 
  • It mentioned cats, ferrets and primates.
  • Primates are of particular concern. In a recent commentary published in Nature, a group of 25 scientists called for urgent discussions on the need to severely limit human interaction with great apes in the wild, and in zoos, until the risk of COVID-19 subsides.

Mind the gap 

#GS2 #Governance 

India must focus on what needs to be done, not on whom to blame for the virus spread 

  • For millennia, people travelled for reasons of religion and trade, and in recent decades increasingly for pleasure too. The germs that these travellers carried globalised many contagions. 
  • In the history of humankind, no pestilence has spread as fast and as far as the novel coronavirus, for the singular reason that China, its source, is at the centre of world trade and economy. 
  • China is the biggest trading partner for at least 120 countries and regions, much of Europe and the U.S. included. 
  • Until recently, it was India’s too. At least 430,000 people travelled from China to the U.S. after the outbreak of the disease. The whirlwind of global travel, goaded by an intense human hunger for new economic opportunities and pleasure, has taken the virus to at least 180 countries on last count.
  • After a March congregation of Tablighi Jamaat faithful in Delhi turned out to be the epicentre of the biggest cluster of COVID-19 infections in India, Muslims in general are facing renewed hostility in some parts of the country. 
  • The Centre’s briefers have been volunteering daily updates on the number of cases linked to the Tablighi event, as if it were relevant to the pandemic response. Indeed, there must be a discussion on what went wrong, and how and why the disease spread in India. 
  • There are questions about the arrival of so many religious activists from international hotspots of the disease. In some instances, the Tablighi leaders have been defiantly non-cooperative in contact tracing even after their unconscionable folly triggered such an avalanche of cases. 
  • While legal and police action against those who are not cooperating with the official measures is essential, care must be taken against adding fuel to the fire of communalism. 
  • The common threat of the virus should have doused the smouldering members of religious tensions. In any case, the battle against the virus must not deepen existing social fissures.

Cash less Indians, the new normal, and survival 

#GS3 #Economy 

Remonetisation could save millions of the poorest Indians possibly running out of money at lockdown end and after 

  • National lockdown imposed by the government ends, it is very likely that the bottom 47 percentile of India’s population will run out of cash. 
  • Estimates are based on the World Bank’s poverty line of $3.2 a day for a lower middle-income country such as India, assuming people are spending just to survive. 
  • It is also likely that the population between the 47th percentile and up to 87th percentile will have only half the cash they had before the lockdown began.
  • What this means, in real terms, is that the poorest 500 million Indians would be out of cash reserves completely by April 15 and another 500 million will be left with just half their reserves. 
  • These findings are part of my ongoing research on mapping inequality in India using demonetisation data.

How bad is it? 

  • The top 1% in India held 62% of all the currency in circulation, whereas the top 0.1% held 33%, a third of ₹17-lakh crore in circulation at the time of demonetisation. 
  • Many Indians have managed to deal with political and social inequality with their ability to negotiate their freedom using money. 
  • For poor Indians, having cash to pay back money lenders or landlords has meant having the choice between freedom and slavery. Money gives them choice; the freedom not to have their labour exploited.
  • Inequality of cash, a basic economic instrument, gives us a picture of how unequal our society is. 
  • The Gini coefficient, a common measure of inequality, of cash holding in India is as high as 0.71, where 0 indicates perfect equality and 1 indicates perfect inequality.
  • Other measurements of inequality such as the Atkinson Index [A(1)=0.624] and the Generalised Entropy Index [GE(1)=3.108] also show a very high inequality of cash holding. This means that in India, cash is heavily concentrated at the top.
  • Even inter-district and intra-district cash inequality is very high. The top 10% districts held 764 times more currency than the bottom 10% districts. It is unsurprising then that the districts at the top are situated in Tier I and II cities.
  • Currently, a humanitarian crisis is unfolding in India, where the poorest Indians have been returning to their homes by foot, in packed vehicles, hungry and cashless. 
  • However, due to the great inequality of cash, it will not be long before workers are forced to migrate back to cash-rich centres again, despite lockdowns and fears of a deadly virus.

Remonetise India 

  • When India begins to pick its pieces together, it will be looking at a grim situation where roughly a whopping one billion people of a population of 1.3 billion will be starting with zero or near zero cash. 
  • When the corporate sector restart their operations, nearly 50% of consumers will have no money to spend. The Indian economy is very likely to experience multidimensional pressures. 
  • The increased entitlements of ration and the supply of free gas cylinders will help to bolster food security. 
  • However, if we consider the cash components such as the increase of ₹20 in Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act wages or the transfer of ₹1,500 over three months via Jan Dhan accounts, it will barely compensate for the forced loss of jobs.

Why remonetise? 

  • Inequality reproduces more inequality. If a majority of Indians lose their cash reserves, they will fall into income traps where real wages will diminish and lost wages can only be recovered by longer working hours.
  • Now is the right time for the government to remonetise and make cash available through banks, automated teller machines and treasuries.
  • The government has to overlook its focus on cashless payments because the need of the hour is to allay people’s anxieties. 
  • It should remember that in India, we still rely heavily on physical transactions and not cashless payments.

Democracy should not permit a trade-off 

#GS2 #Acts #Governance 

Measures taken during emergencies cannot come at the cost of institutional checks and balances 

  • Independent India inherited a legal system which was designed to control the colonised. Caught in the relentless grip of COVID-19, several State governments have invoked the Epidemic Diseases Act, first drafted to deal with bubonic plague that swept Maharashtra in 1897. 
  • The Act prohibited public gatherings, and regulated travel, routine screening, segregation, and quarantine. The government was given enormous powers to control public opinion. 
  • Bal Gangadhar Tilak, described as the ‘father of Indian unrest’ by Valentine Chirol of The Times (London) was imprisoned for 18 months. His newspaper, Kesari, had criticised measures adopted by the government to tackle the epidemic. The law was stark. 
  • It did not establish the right of affected populations to medical treatment, or to care and consideration in times of great stress, anxiety and panic. 
  • The government could have paid attention to migrant labour when it declared a lockdown on economic activities, roads, public spaces, transport, neighbourhoods and zones in which the unorganised working class ekes out bare subsistence. 
  • Thousands of workers and their families were forced to exit the city, and begin an onerous trek to their villages. The neglect of workers upon whose shoulders the Indian economy rests, exposed the class bias of regulations.

Dispensing with rights 

  • The government claimed that panic over the migration of thousands of bare-footed people was based on fake news, and that the scale of migration was over-estimated. 
  • Therefore, the Court should support rules that no news will be published or telecast without checking with the Central government. The plea was rejected, and the Court suggested that responsible journalism should rely on daily official bulletins. 
  • The government is not concerned with the reason why people were forced to walk out of the city in the first place. The issue at hand is not the lockdown or other measures taken by the government. 
  • We recognise with great unease that governments easily dispense with basic human rights in the name of managing pandemics. The decision to close down an entire country without simultaneously recognising the specificities of Indian society has resulted in brutality and violence.

‘Overreach’ of power 

  • If democratic India continues to invoke draconian colonial laws that were drafted in another time and for another purpose, why should we expect anything different in the future? 
  • Emergency powers, the experts insisted, should not be used to quash dissent. More significantly, these measures have to be proportionate, necessary and non-discriminatory.

No counter-balancing steps 

  • States are the product of history, composed of layers of meaning some of which have been fashioned for another time. 
  • The nature of the state is historically specific. Yet modern states share a common determination; a ruthless ambition to control the minds and bodies of citizens.
  • The dismantling of constitutions and institutions will have a major impact on societies. 

Farmers are at their wits’ end 

#GS3 #Economy #Agriculture 

As global trade falls and supply disruptions persist, a prolonged lockdown will adversely affect food security 

  • On the one hand, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has warned of a “food crisis” if countries do not protect vulnerable people from hunger and malnourishment. 
  • On the other, farmers face a stalemate as they are unable to work on their land, earn remunerative prices and gain access to markets. 

Food stocks and prices 

  • According to the FAO, as on April 2, 2020, the total stock of cereals in the world was about 861 million tonnes. This translates to a stocks-to-use ratio (SUR) — i.e., proportion of consumption available as stocks — of 30.7%. The FAO considers this “comfortable”. 
  • The SURs for wheat, rice and coarse grains were 35.3%, 35.1% and 26.9%, respectively. But world stocks are different from national stocks. About 52% of the global wheat stocks is held by China, and about 20% of the global rice stocks is held by India. 
  • If the major holders of global stocks decide to turn precautionary and stop exporting, and if the lockdown is prolonged, countries dependent on rice imports will suffer. 
  • According to the FAO, the world food price index fell by 4.3% and world cereal price index fell by 1.9% between February and March 2020 due to the weakening demand for food and the sharp fall in maize prices owing to poor demand for biofuels. 
  • However, retail prices of rice and wheat have been rising in the Western economies in March 2020. The major reasons identified are panic buying by households, export restrictions by countries and continuing supply chain disruptions. 

The crisis in farming 

  • Harvesting and marketing of crops are in crisis across India, because of
  • (a) disruptions in the procurement of foodgrains by government agencies; 
  • (b) disruptions in the collection of harvests from the farms by traders; 
  • (c) shortage of workers to harvest the rabi crops; 
  • (d) shortage of truck drivers; 
  • (e) blockades in the transport of commodities; 
  • (f) limited operations of APMC mandis; and 
  • (g) shutdowns in the retail markets.
  • Second, these supply bottlenecks have led to a fall in farm gate prices. 
  • Third, the large-scale return of migrant workers to their homes has disrupted harvest operations, and farmers are being forced to leave the crop in the fields. While mechanical harvesters can be used, there is a shortage of drivers/operators. 
  • Fourth, supply chains remain disrupted across India. Agricultural goods have been notified as essential goods. But about 5,00,000 trucks are reportedly stranded in the highways and State borders.
  • Food prices are not yet rising in India. What has kept Indian food prices low is the severe decline in food consumption, especially among the poor, after the lockdown. 
  • That is, hunger may keep the food inflation in March 2020 low. Concurrently, farmers face acute labour shortages, falling farmgate prices and lack of access to input/output markets. It is unclear who is benefiting, but farmers, workers and the poor are at their wits’ end.

Preparing for SAARC 2.0 

#GS2 #InternationalRelations #PandemicAid 

India has shown diplomatic resilience and leadership by forging unity in the neighbourhood in the war against COVID-19 

A tweet by Prime Minister Narendra Modi resulted in the first-ever virtual summit of SAARC leaders on March 15. Their deliberations reflected a recognition of the serious menace posed by COVID-19 and the need for robust regional cooperation to overcome it. What has happened to this innovative exercise in health diplomacy since then? 

Solid follow-up 

  • Considering that SAARC has been dormant for several years due to regional tensions, it is worth stressing that the fight against COVID-19 has been taken up in right earnest through a series of tangible measures. 
  • First, all the eight member-states were represented at the video conference — all at the level of head of state or government, except Pakistan. 
  • Second, India’s proposal to launch a COVID-19 Emergency Fund was given positive reception. Within days, all the countries, except Pakistan, contributed to it voluntarily, bringing the total contributions to $18.8 million. Although it is a modest amount, the spirit of readily expressed solidarity behind it matters. 
  • Third, the fund has already been operationalised. It is controlled neither by India nor by the Secretariat. It is learnt that each contributing member-state is responsible for approval and disbursement of funds in response to requests received from others. 
  • Fourth, in the domain of implementation, India is in the lead, with its initial contribution of $10 million. It has received requests for medical equipment, medicines and other supplies from Bhutan, Nepal, Afghanistan, Maldives, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. 
  • Fifth, the agenda included issues ranging from specific protocols dealing with screening at entry points and contact tracing to online training capsules for emergency response teams.

A new SAARC? 

To conclude that SAARC is now returning to an active phase on a broad front may, however, be premature. Clearly, India has little difficulty in cooperating with like-minded neighbours, as it showed by forging unity in the war against COVID-19. This is diplomatic resilience and leadership at its best. 

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