West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is roping in the services of Nobel Prize winning economist, Abhijit Banerjee, as she forms a team to tackle the economic and social fall-out of the coronavirus pandemic.

According to the Chief Minister, the State’s revenues have been badly hit with the lockdown and there is also “uncertainty” over normal resumption of economic activity, even when restrictions are withdrawn.

The Nobel laureate, and Indian-origin economist, will be part of the Global Advisory Committee for Covid19 Response Policy in West Bengal announced today. As of now other members include some doctors; and the team will be “expanded” over time. Details of the committee are still being worked out, senior bureaucrats said. It is also not clear as to the terms of reference of the committee.

“Due to lockdown, there’s no revenue. We don’t know how long we’ve to stay like this. We’ve to plan for future. Our government will form a Global Advisory Committee for Covid-19 response policy in state. Nobel laureate Abhijit Banerjee will be a part of the committee,” CM Banerjee said.

Abhijit had called-up the CM on March 28 and have reportedly spoken with the later on multiple issues.

Cash starved

Citing paucity of funds, the West Bengal Chief Minister has already written to the Centre calling for a ₹25,000-crore relief package. She had previously called for a moratorium of interest payments made to the Centre for loans taken by the State government. One of the highest debt-stressed states, annual interest dues are to the tune of ₹50,000 crore. So far, there has been no response to these specific appeals.

However, the Centre has already approved the release of ₹11,092 crore to states under State Disaster Risk Management Fund, following an assurance from Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, to augment state resources needed to fund coronavirus containment efforts. West Bengal is expected to get ₹505 crore.

Tea garden opening

Meanwhile, Banerjee said tea estates in the State will not be immediately opened. The Centre has been asking West Bengal to open and resume work at tea gardens.

The Chief Minister reasoned that Covid-19 positive cases have been reported from different parts of North Bengal – where all tea gardens of the State are located – and there was still “some concern” amongst the local in joining work there.

“We are talking to the people there in North Bengal. Some Covid-19 positive cases have been reported from the region (north Bengal districts) and people have concerns about going back to work. Hence, despite the Centre’s request, tea estates shall not open now. We will take a call on this after a few more days,” she said.

The tea industry, which has already been reeling under the pressure of higher costs outstripping price realisations, is staring at a drop in output this year, especially with estates being closed down due to the outbreak of Covid-19.

According to Tea Board Chairman PK Bezbaruah, the closure of estates has come in the peak of the plucking season of the first flush crop. This is likely to impact output by nearly 10 per cent. Added to this, there is also likely to be a delay in the second flush which could also impact production.

“So production of tea could be down by around 15 per cent during this year. Lower output could have brought some rejoice to tea manufacturers in the form of firming up of prices during a normal year. However, this year that is unlikely as demand both in domestic and international markets are likely to be down,” he said.