Expectedly, a complete exit from the current three week-long lockdown was never on the cards. It can be ruled out straightaway. But an area-wise and geography-wise relaxation, depending on the spread of the coronavirus infection, could still be possible on April 15 when the current lockdown is scheduled to end. The decision necessarily has to be made by the experts. Extinguishing the threat of the evil pathogen must weigh ahead of the need to restore normalcy.
This much became clear again on Wednesday when the Prime minister held a video conference with the leaders of various parliamentary groups. Modi referred to the demand by a number of chief ministers to extend the lockdown. He too weighed in with his assessment that the nation-wide ‘social emergency’ now under implementation ought to continue till the medical experts felt fully reassured that victory over the coronavirus pandemic had finally been achieved.
It was a fair assessment. He thanked the leaders for their suggestions to counter the crisis. And sought everyone’s cooperation in the fight against the pandemic. The PM did a lot of listening, too, as he had done the other day when he talked to the leaders of various political parties and former prime ministers and former presidents. Such consensus-building for a united national effort to defeat a pandemic ravaging the world augurs well for our democratic polity.
Bipartisanship is absolutely necessary in such a life-and-death situation, requiring the marshalling of our thin and highly stretched medical resources to overcome the challenge of the slippery microbe which attacks anyone unfortunate to have come in contact with an already affected person even at the 10th or one hundredth remove. Experts insist that one infected person can lay low more than 400 hapless people.
Some states have far more cases than others. Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, particularly their main urban centers, are in the grip of the virus. Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray and Shivraj Chouhan are doing a good job but may have to necessarily extend the lockdown. It was hoped that parts of Mumbai, the financial hub of the country, can be opened in a staggered manner but as things are now it is highly unlikely.
In Madhya Pradesh, Indore, the state’s commercial capital, has emerged the most challenging place. Its Tablighi connection seems to be a major culprit. Meanwhile, the pandemic has caused a huge funds crunch for both the States and the Centre. On Tuesday, it was reported that as many as 19 States had raised over Rs 30,000 crores from the bond markets, paying up to two per cent higher than the interest on government securities.
Given that foreign portfolio investors had turned their backs on the Indian paper in recent weeks, domestic investors subscribed to the bonds issued by the States to mop up funds for meeting the pandemic crisis. Kerala, for instance, is said to have paid nearly nine per cent on a 15- year bond. The centre, too, is expected to tap the bond market and might be called upon to pay a high coupon rate since, with the FPIs gone, there is little demand for government securities.
The foregoing assumes significance in view of the fact that a longer lockdown would make a second financial package absolutely unavoidable to help the poor and the jobless to tide over the crisis. In this context, the demand for a second budget as and when the parliament meets next might not be unreasonable.
For, all the projections of revenue and expenditure in the February 1 annual budget have already become in consequent. Businesses will need a generous helping hand from the government to get back on track.
A lot of small businesses are unlikely to revive after the crisis. Lack of demand will worsen the finances of travel, aviation, transport, real estate and a host of other key sectors.
We cannot seem to get our head around the grave financial crisis that we have on our hands. To meet the challenge, instead of standing on false prestige the government needs must induct a couple of experts in key ministerial slots.
We still think a renowned professional economist as finance minister will evoke confidence and be able to steer the country ably through the very serious crisis that the pandemic has brought on the nation. Inducting a domain expert in Finance is not a vote against Nirmala Sitharaman.