Rethinking India’s continuous reliance on lockdowns to combat COVID

With lockdown measures being resorted to by several state governments across India to tackle the current COVID-19 wave, MONICA DHANRAJ and VINEET BHALLA question the efficacy of lockdowns by looking at the outcomes from last year’s national lockdown. It had a devastating effect on the livelihoods of millions of Indian citizens that also violated their right to livelihood.


AS India struggles with the devastating current wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, several states across the country have opted for either partial or complete lockdowns of varying periods through the month of May. We are told that this is being done to reduce the record-breaking COVID numbers across the country.

It is inarguable that the imposition of a lockdown limits the spread of infection and saves lives.

However, the exact magnitude of those gains is not clear, because no post-facto impact assessment was done by the India after the lockdown last year to demonstrate its exact benefit. Yet, we proceed, with the same tired tactic again.

Only when the gains that potentially accrue from lockdowns are clear, can they be weighed against their costs, in order to determine whether they are a feasible policy tool, and if so, then what must the Indian State do in addition to them to make up for these costs.

The National Lockdown in 2020

We had tried lockdowns last year. The entire country went through a hard lockdown of 21 days in March last year, followed by six more weeks of varying degrees of restrictions. When the national lockdown was announced on March 24, 2020, India had 519 detected COVID-19 patients, with 10 fatalities. By the end of the nine-week lockdown period, our COVID-19 patient count was just shy of the two lakh barrier, our casualties count had surged past 5000, and our infection rate was escalating at the fastest pace in Asia.

In contrast, most countries that had imposed lockdowns last year, removed them only after achieving a reduction in their respective rates of infection.

The lockdown in India was imposed with just four hours’ notice, without any consultations with key ministries or state governments. In its wake came the shameful migrant workers’ crisis: stranded away from home, without food, resources or work due to the lockdown, and little support from the government.

Thousands of migrant workers were forced to violate lockdown restrictions to try to get back from the cities they worked at to their native states. Many of them undertook this hazardous journey on foot, with over 200 of them perishing in traffic accidents on the way.

Also read: As Lockdown turns One, let us Look at Gaps in our Social Welfare Architecture

Several of these migrant labourers were confirmed as COVID positive on return to their home states, leading to a spike in the incidence of COVID cases in these states. Rather than limiting the spread of the virus, the hastily imposed lockdown led to the virus spreading from urban to rural India.

Belatedly, the Union and state governments had arranged for buses and special ‘Shramik’ trains to bring the hapless migrant workers back to their home states. However, the shoddy management of the entire operation by the State led to giant crowds of workers being cooped up at bus terminals and railway stations in all major cities, with no provision for social distancing. They were then shunted away home in tightly packed transit, again with no social distancing. The hastily imposed lockdown actively forced these workers into crowded spaces.

As thousands of migrant workers once again board packed buses and trains to their home states in light of current lockdowns, we are likely to see a repeat of last year’s spectre of them potentially taking the virus to their villages.

The central government lifted the lockdown just as arbitrarily and unprepared as it had imposed it.

If the government had spent that time last year upgrading its public health infrastructure, and engaging with experts on how to be better equipped for future waves of the pandemic so as to not have to resort to crushing lockdowns that bring the entire economy to a halt, we would not be in the present dystopian predicament that we as a nation find ourselves in.

Its decision to ‘unlock’ was driven by economic distress, rather than any public health considerations grounded in science.

The economic costs of lockdowns

The unilateral lockdown of 2020 crushed millions of small and medium scale businesses, and cost several million of our fellow citizens their employment.

According to a report from India’s leading business and economic database and research company, the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), last year’s lockdown led to a total net loss of 18.9 million jobs in the months of April – July 2020. An estimated 9.8 million of these jobs were of the salaried variety: in other words, the majority of jobs lost last year were salaried jobs.

Also read: India on the brink of unprecedented unemployment crisis: CMIE report

Most of these jobs were in the sectors most affected by restrictions on people’s movements, that is, tourism, hospitality, catering, aviation, transport, logistics, supply chains, manufacturing, home service and retail.

The CMIE report warns that the present wave could increase the number of job losses by a whopping 120 million, which amounts to 30% of the total population employed across all sectors. Data from the first two weeks of April 2021 shows that the unemployment rate has risen to over 8%, with a 40% fall in the labour participation rate.

No wonder that another CMIE report from March 2021 cautions about avoiding a fresh lockdown, since average household incomes fell by 27.9 % in April 2020 as a result of the national lockdown.

The Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSME) segment of the Indian economy, already reeling under the twin blows of demonetisation and GST under the present regime, were hardest hit by the lockdown. As per data with the Union Ministry of Corporate Affairs, over 10,000 businesses in India ceased operations between April 2020 and February 2021.

In response, the Union Finance Minister offered an economic relief package that not only actually spent a fraction of its advertised 20 lakh crore rupees value, but also failed to meaningfully compensate businesses and workers for being forced out of work.

Last month, the Retail Traders’ Association warned that the state government must rethink lockdowns or it will have to compensate workers so that they can feed their families.

Days later, the Federation of Retailer Association of India (FRAI), a representative body for around 40 million MSME retailers in India, estimated that current lockdown restrictions across multiple states and metros may cost at least 40 percent of the monthly earnings of micro retailers. It cautioned that in case of a complete and prolonged lockdown across the country, stores retailing non-essential goods and services would be reduced to zero revenue and have to shut down.”

Is any of this data, and are any of these voices being accounted for by the crack team of decision-makers that are imposing these lockdowns?

The right to livelihood is a fundamental right

The right to livelihood has been read into the right to life under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution by the Supreme Court.

Also read: Horizontal Effect:  Hope for Migrant Workers

In 1983, a single judge bench of the apex court, in its judgment in the case of Board of Trustees of the Port of Bombay v. Dilipkumar Nandkarni (1983 SCR (1) 828), held that “the right to life” guaranteed by Article 21 includes “the right to livelihood”.

In 1986, a five-judge Constitutional bench of the Supreme Court delivered a landmark judgment in the case of Olga Tellis v. Bombay Municipal Corporation (AIR 1986 SC 180), cementing the nexus between the rights to live and livelihood. The court, in the judgment, observes:

The sweep of the right to life conferred by Art.21 is wide and far-reaching. It does not mean, merely that life cannot be extinguished or taken away as, for example, by the imposition and execution of death sentence, except according to procedure established by law. That is but one aspect if the right to life. An equally important facet of the right to life is the right to livelihood because no person can live without the means of livelihood. …

If the right to livelihood is not treated as a part and parcel of the constitutional right to life, the easiest way of depriving a person of his right to life would be to deprive him of his means of livelihood to the point of abrogation. …

[A]ny person who is deprived of his right to livelihood except according to just and fair procedure established by law can challenge the deprivation as offending the right to life conferred in Article 21.”

Therefore, the lockdown last year, according to the Supreme Court’s own jurisprudence, violated the right to life of 18.9 million Indian citizens by taking away their livelihoods. The current lockdowns threaten to do that to many more millions.

Has the deprivation of this right, and the imposition of lockdown, been done in compliance with any just and fair procedure established by law? There is no clarity over what is the procedure followed to arbitrarily designate certain businesses and industries as ‘essential services’ that can operate during lockdowns, and deem others as disposable and non-essential.

Also read: Dignity, Equality and Due Process during the Lockdown

Governments must take responsibility for economic ramifications of lockdowns

Any democracy is a social contract between the governed and those governing them. The preamble to The Constitution of India is the crux of the social contract that we, as the people of India have with the State. The intent of this contract is among other things to secure “to all its citizens social, economic and political justice” and “fraternity, assuring the dignity of the individual…”

With the state unilaterally deciding to take away the livelihoods of millions of people, the social contract demands that in return, it provide all these people with the means of securing their lives, so they can survive and stay put wherever they are.

Also read: Explainer: Right to Wage during Lockdown due to Covid-19

To sum up, the Union Government has not shown any of its citizens even a shred of evidence that last year’s lockdown yielded any good, or was based on any solid research. Nor has it shown us that it used the time during or after the lockdown to mobilise all available public and private resources to come up with feasible policies to protect its citizens against the virus and the destruction it was causing or would cause in the future.

Instead of consulting experts and stakeholders to brainstorm and strategise against possible loss of life and livelihood, the Union Government put 1.3 billion people under the strictest lockdown in the world, without any provision of ensuring their survival, let alone compensating them for the loss of their earnings. In doing so, it not only trampled over the right to life and livelihood of millions but vitiated the social contract that legitimises its existence in the first place.

As we go into lockdown mode once again, albeit those imposed by state governments, it is incumbent upon the Indian State to tell its citizens to what extent these lockdowns will reduce our COVID-19 caseload, and how it seeks to deal with thousands of businesses that will be forcibly shut due to no fault of theirs.

(Vineet Bhalla and Monica Dhanraj are lawyers and part of The Leaflet’s staff. The views expressed are personal.)