India to extend lockdown; eases restrictions

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India’s government on Sunday (May 17) extended its nationwide lockdown until May 31, while further easing restrictions in certain sectors to boost economic activity as coronavirus cases escalate across the country.

Earlier, India‘s National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) on Sunday requested that a nationwide lockdown to prevent the spread of novel coronavirus be extended to May 31. The NDMA, that is responsible for setting policy on the lockdown, made its request in a letter to India‘s interior ministry.

Sports complexes and stadiums will now be able to operate without spectators and interstate travel will be allowed with permits, the home ministry said in a statement on Sunday evening. Public transport, along with malls, cinemas, schools, gymnasium and tourist spots will remain closed.

The government is hoping to ease the economic impact of the world’s biggest lockdown, which has crippled business activity and left millions jobless.

Schools, malls and other public places will remain mostly closed, though rules will be relaxed in areas with low numbers of cases, according to an order from the interior ministry.

“New guidelines have permitted considerable relaxations in lockdown restrictions,” the ministry said in a tweet accompanying the order. Large gatherings are still prohibited, but outside of containment zones with high numbers of active cases “all other activities will be permitted”, it said, potentially allowing commerce and industry to reopen across much of the country.

Decisions on where to set containment zones would be decided by district authorities, the order said. Several Indian states, some of which had lobbied the federal government for a relaxation in the lockdown, immediately said they would allow many businesses to restart.

Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani said all industries and offices would be allowed to operate, barring those in containment zones.

India also softened its stance on a contact tracing app, which it previously said was mandatory for all public and private sector employees returning to work.

While it once said that heads of companies and organizations needed “to ensure 100% coverage” of the Aarogya Setu app among employees, it now says employers should get employees to use the app on a “best effort basis”.

India has now reported more cases than China, where the virus first emerged late last year, although deaths, at 2,872, remain much lower than China’s 4,600. The death toll in the United States and some European countries is much higher.

India‘s lockdown, introduced on March 25 and extended several times, had been due to expire at midnight on Sunday.

The curbs have sparked a crisis for the hundreds of millions of Indians who rely on daily wages to survive.

Meanwhile, India also announced that it was to ease restrictions on the level of foreign ownership in defence manufacturing, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said on Saturday, in a move aimed at cutting down on imports.

Under the plan, foreign investors would be able to own a stake of up to 74% in defence manufacturing ventures, up from the 49% limit now, Sitharaman told a news conference.

The increase in foreign investments would help reduce a “huge defence import bill” and make India self-reliant in defence production, she said, adding India would also expand the list of weapons that could not be imported.

The move would give a major “incentive to foreign defence manufacturers who want to retain control” in the joint ventures, said Atul Pandey, a partner at India law firm Khaitan & Co, that advises defence firms.

He said major defence manufacturers, such as Lockheed Martin Corp., Boeing, MBDA, Raytheon and Dassault, which all have joint ventures in India, could expand their investments, he said.

The government, facing a big drop in revenue collections amid the coronavirus crisis, has faced calls from policymakers to cuts in spending, including defence imports.

In February, the finance minister allocated 4.71 trillion rupees ($62.1 billion) for defence in the annual budget for 2020/21, including about 1 trillion rupees for capital spending.

Between 2013 and 2017, India was the world’s top arms importer, accounting for 12% of total imports globally, with Russia, Israel and the United States among the top suppliers.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi earlier this year set up a target to double defence exports in next five years, from about $2.4 billion a year now.

Reuters / Strait Times 


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