Northeast in need of region specific lockdown policies


As the 3rd  phase of nationwide lockdown in India is ending today, which was extended by the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) on 3rd May to contain the spread of coronavirus,  there seems to be fear among the citizens of the country for the possible extension of the lockdown. The idea of lockdown is already facing mixed responses from various sections of the society and states as local conditioning varies region and state wise.

In this backdrop, the Northeastern region is gearing up for a massive challenge as a large number of stranded people are set to return or are returning to their respective states from across the country.

To cope up with this sudden rush of people, the respective state governments of the Northeastern states is leaving no stone unturned. However, with the rapid increase in the number of COVID-19 cases across India, the states are apprehensive over making the region more vulnerable with the ‘homecoming’. Assam has already witnessed a rise in COVID 19 cases during the relaxation of the 3rd phase of the lockdown.

Assam Health Minister, Himanta Biswa Sarma, who has been praised for his tireless effort in controlling the pandemic crisis in the state already stated to the media that  Assam government is not in favour of following the “zone concept” and has already shared its view with the Union Government. Sarma briefed the media that Assam state government prefers the containment zone policy rather than the earlier zone concept where a whole district comes under a specific zone. Assam has already introduced containment zone in various parts of Guwahati where positive cases have been found.

Even though Assam has managed the crisis in a diligent manner so far, but the turnout of about 10,000 stranded people in each district in next 45 days, is going to be a Herculean task for the state government to manage.

Arunachal Pradesh CM Pema Khandu too expressed concern as the state is expecting around 18000 stranded people and Arunachal has only one Covid-19 testing laboratory in Tomo Riba Institute of Health and Medical Sciences (TRIMHS) at Naharlagun with a daily capacity of around 70. The state which is completely dependent on neighbouring state Assam to test more swab samples has sought the Centre’s support in procuring an Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR)-approved TrueNat machine for conducting “faster and effective tests amid a rise in interstate travellers entering Arunachal Pradesh”. Considering the seriousness of the situation, CM Khandu has categorically said that to avoid the rush at screening and quarantine facilities, stranded people will be brought back in a staggered manner to the state.

To ease the burden of conducting tests the state is working on setting up another laboratory in the eastern part of the state by the end of May in the Naharlagun facility.

The Arunachal Pradesh government has earlier appointed 17 nodal officers to facilitate the movement of stranded people across the country.

Mizoram is already facing inconvenience as more than 150 people reportedly returned to the state on their own without informing the authorities during an exercise to bring back nearly 700 stranded residents from Assam, Meghalaya, Manipur & Tripura. The Mizoram government lately formed a task force which vouched for an extension of lockdown till May 31 to check the spread of coronavirus infection.

In case of Nagaland, the state has inadequate quarantine facilities and no COVID-19 testing centre, as such the government came up with a decision to provide one-time assistance of Rs 10000 each to migrants stranded in other states if they choose not to return at the moment.

Manipur government, too, is leaving no stone unturned to bring back the people stranded outside the state. However, the only two COVID-19 testing laboratories of the state are being pushed to its limits. The two laboratories are unable to keep up with the influx of stranded people with insufficient resources and manpower.

There has been a sudden spike in the number of positive cases in Tripura, which had claimed the Covid-19 free status on April 24 after the first two patients had tested negative. With the sudden spurt in the cases amongst the BSF personnel in the state which is bordered by Bangladesh, the state government has requested Delhi-based National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) to send a team to the state to probe the cases and arrest the spread of the disease. Tripura has another challenge ahead as it decided to run ‘Shramik’ special trains from Mumbai to Agartala and special trains from Bengaluru, Chennai, Hyderabad and Kolkata soon for bringing home people in different states. The railway ministry has also announced to run a special train between New Delhi and Agartala from May 18.

Sikkim is the only state where no COVID19 positive case has been recorded so far. A total of 6,922 people, stuck outside the state, have registered themselves with the government’s portal to return to their homes. So far, a total of 1122 people, stranded in various parts of the country due to the lockdown, have returned to Sikkim.

It may be noted that the uniform idea of nationwide lockdown does not reflect the specific needs of a particular state and area. Northeast India, which includes 8 states is so far tackling the COVID-19 crisis in a better, disciplined way compared to other Indian states like Maharastra, Gujarat etc. States like Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim and Mizoram has already set an example in coming up with a successful model in keeping the pandemic at its minimum level. However, with the ‘homecoming’ of the stranded migrants in large numbers and relaxations to be announced by the government in the possible lockdown 4.0 is going to be a matter of concern in the coming days for this part of the country. In such a scenario, it may not be wise to follow what has been suggested for Maharastra, Gujarat or West Bengal where COVID-19 has become a pandemic in real sense.

The prime concern for the Northeastern states is the inadequacy of testing facilities and accommodating such a large number of returnees for quarantine.

Further, it has to be remembered that Northeast India differs with the rest of the country, as well as within itself in terms of geography, environment, border legalities, tradition, customs and food habit. The region has seen and experienced separate political safeguard, environmental and economic policies to tackle its various crisis resulted by local conditioning. Similarly, in the corona crisis too, the region being vulnerable to the pandemic, has been standing tall with its own sincerity and has earned praise from Union Minister Jitendra Singh for its disciplined approach. Union Minister Nitin Gadkari too praised Arunachal and stated that other states should follow Arunachal Pradesh’s models to contain COVID-19.

It’s high time that the Centre should rethink about its uniform approach and develop more region and area specific policies to tackle the pandemic taking other states, particularly Northeastern states in confidence. At the same time, it is important that people stranded outside their home states give a second thought to their plan of homecoming if all is well so far with them. The Sikkimese girl stranded in Delhi, whose video went viral rightly appealed to fellow Sikkimese that for whom returning back home is a matter of choice not necessity to help maintain the COVID free status of their state by staying wherever they are at present.