The measures announced by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) on April 15 for a partial lifting of the lockdown show the government’s willingness to listen to the demands of the state governments.

In fact, many state governments had written to the Prime Minister for exempting the agricultural sector from the lockdown, especially when many farmers have been facing acute manpower shortage amid the Rabi harvest season because of the migration of workers to their villages.

The state governments are keen to ensure that farmers get their due because after many years the country is witnessing a bumper harvest. As per the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare’s second advance estimates on food grain production, it is likely to touch a record output of 149.6 million tons, nearly 6.4 million tons more than the targeted amount. State governments too are unwilling to let go of this opportunity, because despite a record output in 2016, the centre’s demonetisation drive had hurt the farmers’ earnings. In fact, in the past six years, the country has had to face three years of drought-like conditions hurting both farmers’ income and agricultural output.

Since agriculture is a state subject and state governments had already announced various measures for the farmers, the notification from the Ministry of Home Affairs was only a formal seal of approval. Take Punjab chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh. His government has not only opened a number of new purchase centres, or mandis, but also ensured that there was no overcrowding in line with the social distancing norms, issuing passes to farmers detailing the designated place, date, and time.

For those delayed in bringing their produce to the market because of the social distancing norm, the Punjab government has requested the centre for incentives—a bonus of Rs 100 per quintal over and above the minimum support price for those farmers bringing wheat after May 1, and Rs 200 per quintal for those bringing wheat after May 31, as compensation.

Since, harvesting in Punjab is mostly mechanised—carried out by harvester combine—the real challenge in social distancing will come during packaging, loading, unloading and transportation of wheat, which will have to be done in a staggered manner. According to experts this is being taken care of by the police and district administration.

On the industry front, the MHA’s announcements are in line with recommendations made on April 11, 2020, by Guruprasad Mohapatra, secretary, Department of Industry and Internal Trade ( DPIIT), in a letter to Ajay Bhalla, secretary, Ministry of Home Affairs, asking him to allow certain activities and industries to start functioning in the country with reasonable safeguards. These activities are essential to improve our economic activity and put cash in the hands of people. These recommendations are a result of detailed interactions of the minister of Commerce with various states and industry bodies, and the feedback received by the Department of Commerce and DPIIT from various sources, the letter said. “These suggestions have been examined by us and have been recommended for consideration of MHA as new activities to be allowed in addition to those already announced under various notifications of the MHA,” says the letter. These include industries which have single entry points for workers, sufficient space for ensuring social distancing, use of separate transport for ferrying workers or make stay arrangements on factory premises.

Such measures, says Jayant Acharya, director (commercial marketing, corporate strategy), JSW Steel, will help restart some economic activity and will also bring in much needed-liquidity, which will be helpful for the MSME sector. “We at JSW Steel are also evaluating restarting our facilities now in a phased manner within the protocols and guidelines defined,” adds Acharya.

The guidelines also mention all units in Special Economic Zones (SEZs) and Export Oriented Units (EoUs), adding that development commissioners will be given responsibility for ensuring sanitation and distancing norms/safeguards. They also call for opening industries of the nature of continuous production like steel, power, and mining. It is easy to understand why MHA has allowed SEZs and EoUs to restart,” says Sunil Sinha, principal economist at credit rating agency, India ratings and Research, because it meets many of the conditions enumerated in Mohapatra’s letter.” Most SEZs are well maintained clean entities, which employ formal labourers and are easy to monitor, where social distancing and other such measures are easy to implement and monitor,” he adds.

For the hard-hit rural sector, brick kilns have been allowed to operate and so is the continuation of works in the construction projects in urban areas where workers are available on site and workers won’t have to be brought from the outside. The first phase of the lifting of the lockdown has begun and things will only get clearer in days to come.

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