India Lockdown: The Liquor Lucre And Other Hazards!

Third extension of the India Lockdown from 4th May,  2020 granted a few relaxations in the sale of non-essentials for the first time covering all zones. With varying levels of restrictions across different Indian states stand-alone shops were allowed to open including liquor shops that were not part of malls or market complexes. The morning of 4th May witnessed unprecedented queuing crowds in front of liquor shops across the country with chaos and violations of social distancing in most places including the national capital Delhi. Now, the hazards of such an exercise were very much expected; then why was it given? Major portions of tax revenues of all the Indian states come from the liquor tax, and the cash-starved states governments bore upon central government to yield this relaxation. In fact, six states immediately increased liquor prices to the extent of 75% to capitalize on this revenue-generating opportunity. Some others pointed out that it was dangerous to keep addicted people deprived for a long time. And, we could see, for the first time in public history, the mammoth following India has to drinking! Most of the customers didn't mind the price either: the lucky ones among them were paying up to 300% more in the limited black market.

There were protests against this action too, from various sections of society. The housewives protested because they feared an escalation in domestic violence while some others opined that the opposite had already increased domestic violence as the deprived male members vented their frustrations on the females. Most, of course, pointed out the hazards this move posed for spiking the spread of COVID-19. Meanwhile, Maharashtra, the worst affected state with more than 15000 cases and over 600 deaths, ordered shutting up liquor stores along with other non-essential shops. 

It is rather peculiar why several other moves were also initiated with the start of Lockdown 3.0 when there was no indication of any possible flattening of the curve of the growth and spread of COVID cases in near future. Besides, for the last 4/5 days India has been registering biggest single-day spikes of new cases and deaths. 

Almost simultaneously with the start of Lockdown 3.0 the homeward journey of the stranded migrant workers began, by buses first and later on by more convenient trains apart from all those who were still walking or cycling home. Although thousands of migrant workers suffered badly from a complete apathy and were desperate to go home such a large-scale transportation is fraught with apparent hazards: this could lead to spread of COVID-19 in rural and semi-urban areas that have largely been free of it so far; this could  pose a big question about the future employment opportunities for these migrant workers returning to their home states and the challenges the destination states would have to face once normal activities and industries begin work with a major part of the workforce gone. In fact, studies reveal a whopping unemployment rate of 27% in the country at the moment. To sadden matters further, a controversy of charging train fares from the distressed migrants also erupted. Opposition party Congress protested by declaring they would bear the ticket costs state-wise. The Government of India stoutly denied the allegations stating that they bore 85% of the subsidized tickets while the concerned states got 15% to share. Sections of the Indian media provided proof of the Indian Railways actually realizing ticket fares from the hapless workers while others claimed that this was only politicking. Whatever it might be, we just don’t know.

Then, India launches arguably the world’s biggest evacuation in peacetime repatriation during 7-13th May, 2020 to bring back home thousands of Indians stranded in different countries like USA, UAE, United Kingdom, Singapore and so on. 64 fights would evacuate around 15000 Indians this period. Naval warships are also joining the evacuation drive with requests received from more than 3, 00,000 Indians. Asymptomatic Indian passengers will be allowed to board the flights and they would be properly tested once they reach the destination cities in India after which they would be kept in 14-day quarantine. Kerala, the most successful Indian state in containing the spread of Coronavirus, has questioned this move by expressing fears that infections might spread faster with untested passengers on board. Such a plan can be questioned justifiably because the spread of the virus in India has overwhelmingly shown international travel connections, through direct spreaders and through contact tracing.    

Desperate times need desperate measures, it is said. However, in that desperation one should never lose the balance of priorities. A judicious balancing act is the real need of the times. And, the future, as usual, looms on with uncertainty yet. 


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