As India saw cases of the virulent Covid-19 pandemic caused by the Coronavirus go past the 10,000 mark, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that the lockdown would be extended across the country till May 3, indicating that India was at a critical stage in its battle against the virus. However, the prime minister said the government would carefully review how each district and area across the country was progressing in its implementation of the lockdown and in curbing the spread of the virus till April 20, and some relaxations were likely in the better-performing areas after that date.

In his 25-minute address to the nation at 10 A.M. on Tuesday, his fourth since the Covid-19 pandemic hit India, Modi said the guidelines for the graded and conditional relaxation in better-performing areas would be issued on Wednesday, and were primarily aimed at addressing the problems of the poor and the underprivileged. Ever since the lockdown came into effect, migrant workers, the poor, and the underprivileged have been reeling under its impact as experts began worrying about the economic devastation a prolonged lockdown could cause for the poor. Modi’s address, while acknowledging that the government was aware of these concerns, also seemed to suggest that the government was not in the least ready to let its guard down in its battle against the virus at this stage.

Modi said all districts, localities, and states would be closely watched and monitored till April 20 to examine how each of them was faring in implementing the lockdown, and only if the government was convinced of successes by some of them would they be given some conditional relaxations. States and areas which did not let hotspots increase would qualify for these relaxations. “But if there are any violations to the lockdown, and hotspots are seen increasing, these relaxations will be withdrawn,” the prime minister warned.

The prime minister acknowledged the problems faced by the daily wage earners and also referred to the fact that farmers would now be getting into the rabi crop harvest season. Modi’s address comes after his meetings with the state chief ministers who he has consulted on the steps to be taken to make a calibrated exit from the lockdown. Several states like Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Odisha, West Bengal, and Delhi had extended the lockdown even before Modi’s address.

The prime minister also outlined the timely action taken by India to ensure the pandemic did not spiral out of control. “When we did not have a single case of the virus in India, even at the time we began screening of passengers from Covid-19-affected countries at airports. Even before our Covid-19 numbers reached 100, we put in place 14-day quarantine measures for passengers arriving from overseas. Malls, theatres, gyms were closed. When there were only 550 Covid-19 cases in the country, we imposed a 21-day total lockdown which was a huge step. India did not wait for the problem to increase, but the moment the problem was visible, we took immediate and quick steps to address the issue,” Modi said. “We have made big gains thanks to the lockdown and social distancing. We did pay a heavy price in terms of the loss to the economy, but there can be no comparison when this is weighed against the lives of our people.”

Expressing his gratitude to the people for observing the lockdown and undertaking several hardships during this period, the prime minister also said early action in implementing the lockdown had helped in keeping the pandemic broadly under control in India. While he said comparisons with other countries during this time was avoidable, he said countries, which were on a par with India in terms of Covid-19 cases at the initial stages had seen their numbers shooting up while in India it had still not reached those large numbers thanks to the timely implementation of the lockdown. “You have been fulfilling your responsibilities during the lockdown like disciplined soldiers,” Modi told the nation in his address. “This is exactly the power of ‘We the People’ which our Constitution talks about.” Modi’s address also coincided with the celebration of the new year in several states of the country. “Several states are celebrating the new year amidst the lockdown. The manner in which people are celebrating this with simplicity deserves high praise,” he said, adding that India was already well prepared in terms of number of beds vis-à-vis the number of cases.

The prime minister’s address on Tuesday, and the promise of conditional relaxations to the lockdown, clearly puts much of the onus of the implementation of the measures on the state governments. At a time when a number of states are battling a shortage of funds and a shortage of personal protective equipment for medical staff, the state governments will be under enormous pressure to ensure the virus is contained effectively, new hotspots not allowed to come up, and the lockdown is eased in some of the areas.

Much will depend on how the state administrations fare until April 20, and what the exact nature of the guidelines are. However, the underlying thrust of the prime minister’s address on Tuesday clearly is that there is absolutely no question of lowering the guard in India’s fight against the virus, even while trying to ensure parts of the economy begin a gradual and careful resumption of activity.

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