After May 17, India is all set to move from Lockdown 3.0, dictated by the Centre, to Lockdown 4.0, varying in degrees, durations and districts identified by the states.
At the marathon fifth virtual meet with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the last 51 days, chief ministers of different states, guided by their own compulsions, couldn't arrive at a consensus on extension of lockdown, or movement of trains and flight operations. But by default, they portrayed a sense of unity towards states getting greater autonomy in deciding the future course of action, which includes a graded exit.
At the end of the meeting, PM Modi asked chief ministers to submit reports on what should follow next, with an assessment of the COVID-19 situation. Today's meet, however, has clearly provided room for the Centre to relinquish command and control over India post May 17.
Speaking at the end of the meet, Prime Minister Modi said, "India now has a reasonably clear indication as to the geographical spread of the pandemic in India, including the worst affected areas. Moreover, over the past few weeks, officials have understood operating procedures in a time such as this, right up to the district level."
In a meet that allowed all chief ministers to speak, unlike the last when few were chosen, the Prime Minister congratulated the states for their efforts in containing the ongoing crisis, thus underlining that the battle against COVID-19 may take a more federal character. PM Modi stated that the entire world feels India has been able to successfully protect itself from COVID-19, and states played a major role in this regard.
He also flagged the next big challenge for states that want more autonomy. "Our biggest challenge will be to ensure COVID-19 doesn't spread to villages. The states that have been lax in enforcing lockdown guidelines have faced more challenges," PM Modi said.
UNITY IN DIVERSITY
Unlike earlier PM-CM meets, only a few chief ministers backed extension of lockdown. Punjab CM Amarinder Singh wanted a lockdown extension with a carefully crafted exit strategy, backed by fiscal and economic empowerment of the states, to save lives and secure livelihoods. He wanted the Centre to let the states decide how districts are categorised into Red, Orange and Green zones. Chhattisgarh CM Bhupesh Baghel openly backed his counterpart from Punjab.
Maharashtra CM Uddhav Thackeray, who is sitting on the highest number of COVIID-19 cases reported by an Indian state, also backed an extension. "Cases are expected to peak in May, it may peak in June or July also. I've read Wuhan is witnessing a second wave of cases; even WHO has warned about this. So, I suggest that any action on lockdown must be taken cautiously," Thackeray said. He asked the Centre to announce specific, concrete directions on lockdown, which the states can implement.
Kerala CM Pinarayi Vijayan echoed the same thought. "States face different challenges and therefore should be given the freedom to make reasonable changes to the guidelines relating to the lockdown," he said.
On the contrary, Andhra Pradesh CM Jaganmohan Reddy on the other hand wanted relaxation in lockdown measures, coupled with strict adherence to personal hygiene protocols.
On a day that Indian Railways began booking tickets, PM Modi cautioned: "We must ensure precautions are taken by people, including social distancing norms, by observing 'Do Gaj Doori' (six-feet distance)."
POLITICS TO DICTATE NEXT MOVE
Centre has been facing immense fire for its decisions - starting Lockdown 2.0 when Congress interim president termed the move hasty and badly drawn. States have blamed it for their economic distress, hardships faced by the labourers and migrants, and plight of the poor. Centre suffered criticism when it halted trains and flights, and faced even more flak when it allowed them to resume.
At his meeting with the CMs today, PM Modi highlighted this Catch-22 situation bothering the Centre. He said, "During lockdown people should have stayed where they were. But in distress people want to return home. And for that strategy had to be changed."
It's the Centre's dominant role that has resulted in friction with the West Bengal government. Today At today's meet, West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee struck the first openly discordant note in a PM-CM meet. She blamed the Centre of indulging in politics in a state which shares borders with 3 countries. She reminded the Centre to respect the federal structure, and complained that numerous advisories and missives from Government of India were creating confusion.
Centre will view this rising clamour over its dominant stance undermining states' autonomy as a positive development. If it allows state governments more powers regarding facilitation and coordination, they may have to start playing a more accountable and active role in managing the coronavirus crisis.
This will be Centre's second signal of slowly distancing itself, the first being how Lockdown 3.0 was announced. Unlike the first two lockdowns, which were announced by the PM in addresses to the nation, the third leg of lockdown and related guidelines were declared by a Union Home Ministry communique instead.
Now through CMs of BJP-ruled states like Gujarat, the Centre is pushing for opening up the states and economy. This ultimately puts the onus of extending the lockdown on states.
The same goes for other measures like resuming passenger trains. Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrashekar Rao in the meet urged Prime Minister Narendra Modi not to resume passenger train services, which were stopped as part of preventive measures against coronavirus. On the other hand Maharashtra CM Uddhav Thackeray asked PM Modi to allow operation of local train services in Mumbai for workers involved in essential services. On the other hand Tamil Nadu CM Edappadi K Palaniswami urged the Prime Minister not to allow train and air services in his state till May 31 in view of rising COVID-19 cases in Chennai.