EXCLUSIVE | Let’s keep Mumbai a little disconnected from India: Milind Deora

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Updated: May 18, 2020 2:47 PM

Covid-19 outbreak: Mumbai alone accounts for about 61 per cent cases in Maharashtra, the worst-hit state with over 33,000 cases of coronavirus.

Former Union Minister Milind Deora.

Coronavirus in Mumbai: Mumbai, India’s financial capital, is by far the worst-affected city in the country. It alone accounts for about 61 per cent cases in Maharashtra, the worst-hit state with over 33,000 cases of Covid-19. The Maximum City, as Mumbai is referred to, has so far reported over 20,000 cases and the numbers continue to rise with each passing day. Financial Express-Online reached out to former union minister and senior Congress leader from Maharashtra Milind Deora to understand the underlying causes behind the spread of infection in Mumbai.

Edited Excerpts:-

Mumbai is the worst hit city in India. How do you see things panning out?

Mumbai is the most crowded and largest city in the country. Covid is a disease whose transmission is highest in populated places. So, it’s natural — in the US, New York is the worst-hit. India’s New York is Mumbai. This is the reality people in the city will have to live with and transmission is going to be higher in the cities. Every Indian city has a large population living in slums, where social distancing is not possible and there are common toilets. We have to fight it but we have to find a way to open the city as quickly as possible. It’s challenging because how do you ensure social distancing in slum areas? It’s not easy but the government and all agencies are doing their best. I cannot fault anyone — BMC is doing what it can, the police and hospitals are doing what they can.

But the BMC commissioner was removed just weeks ago. Do you think BMC failed in certain areas that led to his removal?

I don’t think so. I am not aware of what the reasons were. The administration is doing what it can. These are challenging times, India doesn’t have an excellent public infrastructure. We are a very crowded and dense country. This makes containing Covid-19 a very serious issue. There are always areas where we can improve and we should try and focus on those areas.

What are those areas where you want to see some improvements?

We have to have better screening and more quarantine facilities. We are doing that. I am also contributing to building quarantine facilities for the BMC.

It’s been close to two months since the country is under lockdown. How long do you think Mumbai can afford to be under lockdown?

Mumbai has I-T, financial services, business offices, restaurants, bars, and hotels. Business parts like I-T, to a large extent, can be managed from home. You can have offices where people work three days a week — maybe at one given time, these offices can have 30-50% staff so that social distancing is followed. We can still run these offices. The real part that will be hit is — restaurants, hotels, bars etc. And it’s going to take time, no quick solution for this. The street vendors and a lot of support staff in hotels and restaurants have gone back home — when they will come, we will see.

What would you recommend, lockdown extension or phase-wise relaxation or reopening?

We need to have phase-wise relaxation. We need to have some form of shutting down Mumbai from the rest of India. Maybe, let Mumbai be a containment zone of its own so that it doesn’t take the cases around India. If you open, for example, trains and flights for the rest of the country, you will have a higher spike in cases. Keep Mumbai isolated from India for some time. Let Mumbai open gradually.

The states have two criticisms against the Centre. First, it did not think through about migrant workers. Second, it should leave it to states to decide where to put what restrictions. Do you agree with this?

These are unique times in our country or the world. Nobody knew that we would have lockdown or migrant problems – nobody thought of it. Nobody could think that there would be migrants wanting to rush home. How do you make the best of that situation? How do you provide them transportation? Who should provide them transportation — Centre or states, UP or Maharashtra? These are the issues that need to be sorted out. In the process, people have suffered. All governments owe some form of reparation to migrant labourers who have suffered the worst. Maybe the Centre and states – both should announce some package, we need to give them food and some money. But nobody can predict what will happen. And I think no government or party, to be fair, wants people to suffer.

As far as zones go, there has to be local coordination and local inputs. And local inputs are determining that (zoning). I wouldn’t say the Centre alone is (deciding), Centre and states are working together. But we need to increase cooperation. If you ask me, should there be greater cooperation between states and the Centre? Absolutely. Should there be greater cooperation between states? Absolutely. Should there be greater cooperation within the state between different agencies? Yes, there should be.

Dharavi is emerging as a new hotspot in Mumbai…

Dharavi is the largest slum in Asia. Slums are hotspots anywhere in the world. Dharavi is such a large slum, obviously infection will spread here faster. The only thing the government can do here is test and identify who has Covid, quarantine them, make sure people who are in their homes are given access to food. It’s not easy, no quick solution. When so many people share a toilet, there is a limit to how much social distancing can be done.

If you were at the helm, how would you have handled this pandemic? What are the steps that you would have taken?

Nobody knows what can happen and what will happen. Every government is doing its best. So far, people have done their best. What I would say is that we need to find a way to re-open Mumbai as quickly as possible. Keep non-core businesses working from home as much as possible. Build quarantine facilities near congested areas. Quarantine people quickly after they are tested positive – so reduce the spread. And if I were the government of India, I would say let’s keep Mumbai a little disconnected from India for some time. Let’s not open up connectivity between Mumbai and rest of India for some time. Let Mumbai come under control, then will open up.

The Centre has come up with a huge stimulus package. What do you make of announcements that have been made so far?

There have been good things in the package, a big boost for MSMEs. There is certainly a need to give some more money to people, which I’m sure the government will do – some details are still awaited. But to me, the initial relief has been given to people, companies, and industries. The core issue now is to look at the kind of structural reforms this government enacts. Every state and Center — after Covid-19 settles down — will be under pressure to rebuild and revive the economy. The country that does the best to revive its economy and to make it an attractive destination for manufacturing and investment that country will grow fast. India has to be a world leader in that – look what Vietnam is doing, it has gained so much from Covid-19. Relief package is good but the real thing will come after Covid settles down. How we can bring investment in India.

But if we were to follow Vietnam, we really need to have less complex labour and land laws…

No doubt…that is why I said we need structural reforms. We need easy clearances, we need partnership between Centre and states. Leaving it to the Centre is not enough, states will have to give land. States deal with labour and power.

You understand it well that the moment you give concessions to industries, you are called anti-poor. So are you saying regardless of this, the Centre should move ahead and bring about some reforms?

Structural reforms are necessary to make India an attractive nation. The nation that does best to attract investment will gain more in the post Covid-19 world.

There are two subjects that are being talked about the most – land acquisition and labour laws…

There are many (subjects). Land acquisition is one component, there are Centre-state relations. Today, a plethora of permissions one needs, somebody goes to court. In a vibrant democracy that we are without taking away the rights of people to defend, we have to find a way to make India an attractive investment destination. What will happen now is that the states that are forward thinking and aggressive in attracting destinations will gain the most. We have to forget politics for some time and focus on rebuilding India.

Would you elaborate a little bit what kind of structural reforms you want the Centre to undertake?

We should do a thorough re-evaluation of our SEZ policy. There is a Baba Kalyani Committee report, which has made many suggestions on SEZ. We should examine those kinds of suggestions. SEZ is a very powerful idea to attract investments. We are fortunate to have GST, it is a good thing. GST will make manufacturing easier. It will create a level playing field. Any state – HP, Assam, Maharashtra, Kerala now can compete equally. GST was a structural reform. Labour laws are a structural reform. Land acquisition is certainly a structural reform. But in context of land acquisition and labour laws, SEZ is a solution for that. SEZ was created to go around very cumbersome labour and land acquisition laws. So now we can reevaluate our SEZ policy – why don’t states create more SEZs.

Some economists say the Center in its stimulus package has focused on supply side problems. But this is the time to boost demand. If there’s no demand and even if you give money to industries, they won’t manufacture because they see no demand in the market.

I don’t agree with this (assessment) – if you protect small industries from going bankrupt, it does have a trickle down effect on the economy. That individual, promoters, employees whose jobs are saved will go and spend. We need to create demand as well. Giving money in people’s hands is a good thing. We should do more, the government has done that and should expand that. To create demand, the government can give money in the hands of people. It can rationalise taxes, give rebates on individual taxes. The good thing that the government has done is that it has given money to migrants, rations and gas – good thing to start with for three months.

But Rs 500 for a woman, do you think it is sufficient?

We need to expand this amount, considerably. We need to increase this amount and give to more people. The MSME side is a good thing, but much more needs to be done.

India has been losing in the competitive index. Today, if a firm shifts from China, most probably it will go to Vietnam or Malaysia or Singapore instead of coming to India.

In India, labour laws actually have hurt manufacturing more than it has helped in the last 50 years. Land acquisition constraints have hurt people more than it has helped them. We need to make it easier to do business here.

This government had tried serious land acquisition reform in 2015. But it had to take back that under pressure from Congress. What do you have to say on those amendments by this government?

Land is a very political subject in India. The government may and may not be able to bring about those kinds of changes. Maybe we can look at SEZ policy as a solution to that. Every law can be re-evaluated. We have to make our land acquisition process easier. If we find SEZ policy circumventing that, we can do that. We will have to be comparative now.

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