India’s business leaders are calling for the COVID lockdowns that Modi has resisted

India’s leading business groups are pushing for expanded lockdowns to control the country’s surging COVID cases, breaking with the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who says there are other ways to control the virus’s spread.

Uday Kotak, president of the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), urged the federal government on Monday “to curtail all nonessential economic activity requiring physical presence of employees at the workplace for the next two weeks. Industry should review operations and minimize the use of in-person manpower, limiting it to only critical operations or activities required by law,” he said.

Vineet Mittal, member of CII’s National Council and chairman of the renewable energy Avaada Group, told Fortune that there was a need to shut down industrial activity in acutely affected areas without delay. “What is this wealth for if you are not able to help your friends, family, and society?” he said. “Our role has to be to safeguard lives.”

A senior executive of a top Indian oxygen supplier called for a complete lockdown on Wednesday.

“Such waves will continue till such time [as] we break the chain and go for a lockdown. If we don’t, you can’t stop the wave, unless we have 100% vaccination,” Siddharth Jain, director at Inox Air Products, told the Times of India. 

What business leaders are now asking for contrasts with Modi’s approach.

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Two weeks ago, the Prime Minister called on states to consider lockdowns only as a last option and urged them instead to stop the virus through “microcontainment zones,” targeted areas in which the movement of people is restricted. Since then, COVID cases and related deaths have skyrocketed. India has shattered daily records for new infections and deaths, filling hospitals and overwhelming crematoriums. On Tuesday, India recorded 357,229 new cases of COVID, even as case counts in parts of the country, including the capital, Delhi, showed signs of plateauing. In total, India has recorded 20.28 million COVID cases and 222,408 deaths, figures that are second only to those of the U.S.

Swaths of the country are under lockdowns imposed by state governments, including the three largest cities of Delhi, Mumbai, and Bangalore. But Modi has argued that larger lockdowns are unnecessary since the country has sufficient gear, such as personal protection kits and sanitizers, to control infection.

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Rahul Gandhi, leader of India’s main opposition Congress Party, slammed the government’s response to the second wave of coronavirus. “The only way to stop the spread of corona now is a full lockdown with the protection of [welfare programs] for the vulnerable sections,” Gandhi said in a Twitter post.

Any widespread lockdown would come at a tremendous economic cost. After Modi imposed a countrywide shutdown to combat India’s first COVID wave in March 2020, the economy contracted by 8% in the fiscal year that ended March 2021, according to the National Statistical Office. But given the scope of India’s current crisis, business leaders say measures to save lives are worth the economic sacrifice.

Dilip Chenoy, secretary general of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, said his organization had encouraged its industry members to ask employees to work from home, follow COVID protocols, and get vaccinated. He said the group urged the government to allow only essential business and minimize the movement of people.

Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, executive chairperson of Biocon and Biocon Biologics, wrote in an editorial in the Economic Times that India seems to have forgotten all the lessons that it learned in the first COVID wave.

“There has been a visible lack of preparedness planning, as our response has been inadequate. In fact, there is a strong opposition against any lockdown,” she said. “A month into the second wave, lockdowns are being enforced much like bolting the stable door after the colt has [escaped]. Hospitals are collapsing with lack of oxygen, ventilators, beds, and human resources.”

The second COVID wave has busted the myth that Indians have an innate immunity and that its relatively younger population is better suited to withstand the virus, Shaw said. “A combination of lockdowns and vaccination is the only sure shot way of overcoming this virus onslaught,” she added.

Not all industry representatives want comprehensive action. Deepak Sood, secretary general of the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India, said his organization favored some reduction in economic activity, such as closing malls and cinema halls, but was against a national lockdown. He argues that reducing industrial activity drastically could also reduce supplies of products needed by those ill with COVID.

Meanwhile, the Confederation of All India Traders, a body representing wholesale traders, says a complete lockdown is exactly what’s needed: “It is time for India to choose between casualties and the economic impact of COVID.”

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