NEW DELHI - Nearly four weeks after imposing a stringent nationwide lockdown, India took tentative steps to restart its economy, easing restrictions on farm-based businesses and some industries in areas relatively unaffected by the coronavirus pandemic.
The partial opening up came after the country recorded its biggest single day spike in infections Sunday with about 1,600 new cases taking the country’s total tally past 17,500. So far 543 people have died due to coronavirus.
Many of the sectors allowed to resume operations Monday aim at rebooting the rural economy and alleviating the massive economic distress faced by millions of daily-wage workers who fled from cities to their villages after the country came to a grinding halt.
However, the country’s biggest cities, New Delhi and Mumbai, where coronavirus infections are rampant, will remain shuttered until at least May 3 – the lockdown that was to end in mid-April has been extended.
Like countries across the world, India is walking the tightrope between the need to get the economy moving again and fears that this may cause the coronavirus pandemic to tighten its grip in a populous country ill prepared to cope with it.
The government has asked factories that are reopening to ensure that social distancing and hygiene norms are maintained.
In the western Gujarat state, officials said 4,000 factories resumed operations in sectors such as engineering, textiles and automobiles.
Neighboring Maharashtra, the country’s most industrialized state, which has been hardest hit by coronavirus infections, also said it will allow industries in areas with lower levels of infection to restart.
“We need to start the economic wheels again. We are giving selective permissions from tomorrow,” Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray announced Sunday.
But several industries indicated that it may be tough for many businesses to follow strict new protocols that would require them to give accommodations or provide transportation to workers.
Workers, who have been confined to their tiny homes for weeks, will be allowed to travel to workplaces although public transport remains off the roads.
The government has also allowed plumbers, electricians and carpenters to pick up their tools and given the green light to restart port, rail and air cargo operations.
But what could bring the biggest relief to tens of thousands of poor people who have been without work for nearly a month is the government’s announcement that it will resume work on construction of highways and other public projects in the countryside.
India runs a massive rural job guarantee program, which provides people in the countryside work for up to 100 days in a year.
The Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, a prominent industry body has estimated that close to 40 million jobs are at risk in the April to September period.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi last week acknowledged that the lockdown had caused huge hardship and said one of his top priorities was to reduce the difficulties faced by those who earn a daily wage.
The International Monetary Fund has estimated that India’s economy, which was already sputtering when the pandemic hit, is expected to plummet to 1.9 percent this year. But even achieving this will depend on how successfully the country can rev up the economic engine in the coming weeks.