COVID-19 and India’s exit strategy
Maj Gen Rajiv Narayanan
The people affected by the COVID 19 pandemic is reaching the 4.3million mark
worldwide. In India, the detected cases have crossed the 70,000 mark, within two days
of crossing the 60,000 mark, which is a major jump from the earlier days. All this during
the third extension of the lockdown Even as India struggles to revive its economy there
are no cogent strategies that appear to have been diligently thought through and ready
for being unfolded. While the economy is struggling, the backbone of the industrial,
manufacturing, and agricultural sectors – the migrant labourers appear to have been
short changed and are now being sent home, just as these sectors are to be opened!! A
central ‘one-size-fits-all’ guidelines, given by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), without
a granular look at the spread of this infectious disease may not be the right solution.
An analysis of the spread, indicates the following,
✔ While India has crossed the 70,000-mark (as on 12 May 2020, figures at 1200h),
four states – Maharashtra, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu and Delhi (in that order) account
for over 67 percent of the cases;
✔ Even within these states the major cities, Mumbai, Pune (to some extent),
Ahmedabad, Gandhinagar, Surat, Chennai, and the North, NE & East districts of
Delhi, account for over 50 percent of respective cases;
✔ This implies that in the rest of the states either the curve has flattened and
turned down, or is flattening;
✔ Even in the rural / semi-rural districts that are red, the cases appear to be
clustered more in some taluks, panchayats and villages;
✔ In the urban centres, the spread is more in some wards and localities than the
✔ Why is this granular picture not being depicted by the government and the media
channels? Is this being utilised for preparing the exit strategy?
✔ A clearer picture will emerge as the indigenous testing kits are extended to all
the rural, semi-rural, mofussil townships and semi-urban centres to ensure the
four Ts are implemented – testing, tracing, tracking and treatment;
Unless a clear understanding of the spread is grasped, it would be exceedingly
difficult to prepare and actualise an effective exit strategy. A look at some of the key
sectors could give clarity on the issues that would also need to be considered.
The backbone of the manufacturing sector are the MSMEs (Micro, Small and
Medium Enterprises). They account for around 63 million units in India (mainly in rural
and semi-urban areas), contribute around 29% to India’s GDP and 49% to its exports.
This sector provides employment to over 120 million people and produces nearly 10000
products, ranging from traditional to high tech precision items. Most, if not all, depend
on migrant labour, which is now going to be an issue since the states have not held their
hands and have literally forced these migrant labourers to go back to their homes. While
the states may claim that they will use domicile labour, but can this shortfall be made
up? Has any state done a field survey and research study on this aspect? From the
available data, it seems not.
The MSMEs provide the backbone to this sector and the Indian economy. All large
industrial houses depend on these for ancillary cover. No Maruti or LG India or any
other such company can start effective production without the support of these MSMEs.
Yet the very oxygen of these companies – the migrant labourers, have been choked
Further, these companies, along with the large industries, would need support by
way of availability of trained labour, capital, resources, and raw material. The
government would need to do some hand holding in the initial stages – not just the
Central Government, but the State Governments also, who have a major stake in the
revival of the economy.
While it is heartening to note that India has had a bumper rabi crop, for which the
central and state governments helped the farmers by arranging mechanical means for
harvesting and ensuring the collection, storage and distribution of the harvested crop.
Migrant labourers were also available, especially for collection and loading. What next,
is the question when it is time to sow the Kharif crop? The question that arises is that
will this lack of labour impact this Kharif crop? Or would the governments make some
This is one sector that has taken a very major hit. There are voices that promote
virtual / digital learning, but the bulk of India’s rural, semi-rural, mofussil townships and
government schools in urban centres are not digitally connected and nor are its
students. Students in the 10 – 12 th classes and the colleges are affected since the
exams are yet to be completed. With the competitive entrance exams to technical
institutions delayed, the class of 2020 appears to have lost a year. This will also havepsychological impact on some students that would need attention by the child-
psychologists, teachers, parents, and student-counsellors.
The police are implementing the strict lock down norms, especially in the urban
centres and the red and orange districts. Due to this, the usual physical crime rates are
down. But a 24/7 deployment for over six weeks, is highly detrimental to health (both
physical and mental) and stamina of this law-and-order force, which may have to deal
with a spurt in the crime rates post the lock down. Such continuous deployment would
also lead to higher stress levels, raising the risks of harsh measures by the police. By
not utilising the police intelligently, utilising the granular data of the spread of COVID,
the police are now also deployed in areas that should ideally not need such a close and
tight monitoring. The Centre may need to look deployment of CAPFs to overcome this
This sector is the worst hit by lockdown. While the larger construction companies
may still be able to look after their staff and workers, both local and migrant, the medium
and smaller companies (small and micro) would not possess the necessary economic
heft for it.
Life will not revert to normal, as it was prior to the pandemic, anytime soon.
Physical distancing and the medical guidelines would be part of the new normal for
some time to come, till the COVID vaccines are fielded and people develop immunity. Hence, some of the factors that ought to be considered for the exit strategy are listed below:
- The nomination of districts and cities as red, yellow, or green zones needs to be
- reviewed. It should be kept at taluks / panchayats, or village, in rural & semi-rural
- areas and at localities / wards / societies in urban and semi- urban areas
- (mofussil townships).
- The containment zones, based on the above should cover 100 – 500m or more
- of additional area based on density of population and medical advice;
- While executing the above there is a need to keep in mind the layout of the
- roads, railway lines, and tracks, etc to coordinate the movements to and fro from
- other areas. If required, some unaffected area may perforce be red or orange
- due to lack of exit from it without traversing a red or orange zone;
- Opening of educational institutions, should be based on keeping the physical
- distancing norms and other medical guidelines in mind;Factories, MSMEs, printing press and construction activities outside these
- containment zones should be permitted to resume, based on the physical
- distancing and medical guidelines. They may need to increase the number of
- shifts to cater to these norms;
- This is the opportunity for India to ensure that the ‘Make in India’ strategy can
- attract the MSMEs and MNCs relocating from China. This can be achieved by
- expeditiously reviewing the labour, land and other archaic laws that would inhibit
- Opening of malls, shopping complexes, restaurants, hotels, cinema halls and
- multiplexes also need a careful consideration, keeping physical distancing and
- medical guidelines in view;
- States need to expeditiously conduct a field survey to assess how many of the
- migrant labour can be substituted with local labour;
- Based on the above, they need to ensure that the balance migrant labourers are
- cared for adequately, and are available when the economic activities resume;
- Necessary fiscal and monetary intervention needs to be done by the Central and
- State Governments, to enable the gradual revival of Indian economy;
- The start of some passenger trains is a good signal. However, the increase in
- the number of trains need to be carefully calibrated;
- Similarly, the restarting of domestic flights needs a judicious approach.
While the rapid rise in detected COVID cases in India is a cause for concern, but
the larger picture is that this figure is skewed due to just four states that account for over
67 percent of this rise. Similarly, within these states too, the figures are skewed due to a
few urban centres. Hence there is a need to have a granular statistical data to be able
to formulate an effective exit strategy from this lockdown 3.0 for India. Such a strategy
cannot be based on a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. Rather it would not only differ from
state to state, but also between districts and sub-regions within the state.
The economic revival needs to be restarted in a calibrated manner, with due
thought to the need for labour (especially migrant labour), resources, raw materials, and
capital needed by the MSMEs, industry, et al. It will enable India to grasp this golden
opportunity of actualising the ‘Make in India’ strategy by attracting the MSMEs and
MNCs relocating from mainland China. For this the archaic labour, land and other laws
need an urgent review. The exit strategy, therefore, needs to be well thought through
and articulated in an easily understandable manner.
Maj Gen Rajiv Narayanan, AVSM, VSM (Retd), is the Head of Centre for Strategic Studies and Simulation. His areas of interest include China, South and Central Asia, Indo-Pacific
Region, Future World Order, Regional Multilateralism, and Force Structuring. He has spoken on these topics in many seminars and round table discussions both in India and abroad. He has a vast number of articles, monograph and papers published in Indian Journals and magazines (including web editions) and has curated and edited three books.
This article was first published in the USI of India, Strategic Perspective