While one of the stated objectives of resuming domestic flights is to restart the economy, India’s confused federal structure will ensure that travel will largely be restricted to those wanting to go home at any cost, and is not likely to act as a catalyst for either business or economic activity.
The reason is that under the terms of engagement of the lockdowns announced by the Union government, protocols to be followed in respect of those entering a state are to be decided by provincial administrations. It is here that India’s much-vaunted cooperative federalism dissolves into chaos.
A random check of protocols followed by some state governments is illustrative and reveals large variations in approach. With the exception of Delhi, which allows asymptomatic travellers to go about their business (with an advisory to download the Aarogya Setu app) and of Rajasthan which advises visitors to wear masks and follow social distancing norms (residents returning to the state must remain in home quarantine), most states mandate quarantine in government centres for varying lengths of time.
Those entering Karnataka must be in a quarantine centre for 14 days; those entering Odisha are institutionally quarantined for 28 days (with a possibility of a seven-day remission); those entering Tamil Nadu must accept Government quarantine for seven days, followed by home quarantine of seven days and those entering Jammu and Kashmir must be institutionally quarantined until they test negative for the virus.
Punjab and Jharkhand mandate institutional quarantine but are not specific on the duration. Gujarat has posted its instructions in Gujarati alone, which would suggest that those who do not read the language are unwelcome in the state. Other states have followed similar protocols with some variations; but in general, air and rail travellers entering a state must be prepared for a spell in institutional quarantine.
How this confused melange of instructions is likely to act as a catalyst for economic activity is unknown. For it means that a businessman from Bengaluru with a day’s work in Bhubaneswar must prepare for 42 days in quarantine as the cost of doing business.
This is plainly ridiculous and if it is sought to be justified as a public health measure, the Union Government would do itself a favour if it refused to describe the resumption of air and to a lesser extent rail services as part of measures to re-start the economy.
It will do nothing of the sort; on the contrary, it will empower a paranoia-afflicted bureaucracy to further throttle enterprise. If truly the intention is to bring economic activity on track, these mind-numbingly restrictive rules will have to be revisited by the Union government.
Even if it means encroaching on a state’s rights, and riding roughshod over notions of cooperative federalism, New Delhi must set new and uniform rules of engagement for inter-state travel. These rules must be guided by common sense and not panic. Economic activity cannot be carried out from a quarantine centre.