Casting a welfare net
Coming out in support for the poorest of the poor, the Central government on the second day of the national lockdown unveiled a number of welfare measures amounting to Rs 1.70 lakh crore. The Pradhan Mantri Gareeb Kalyan Yojana casts a wide welfare net for as many as 80 crore people comprising of workers in the unorganised sector, particularly the daily wage workers as well as urban and rural poor. Such an extensive package essentially should have been brought into effect with the announcement of the national lockdown by the prime minister since the 36 hour-delay has only pushed the poor towards uncertainty. Yet, sooner the better and hence the announcement from Finance Minister is surely going to benefit the poor who will undoubtedly be bearing the brunt of the national lockdown. The scheme is extensive in the sense that it not only aims to reach all in the unorganised sector but aspires to adequately compensate them in these unfortunate times. As Nirmala Sitharaman apprised, "no one will go hungry", the scheme grants each person an additional 5 kg wheat or rice free of cost for the next three months besides the 5 kg per month already given under PDS. Not just wheat or rice but one kg of pulses will also be provided per household as per regional preferences. Food scarcity is one of the prime issues for those in the unorganised sectors who depend on daily wages to procure meals. Through proactive dispersal of earmarked ration under the scheme, the Central government will ensure that no one is deprived of food. The beneficiaries of Ujjwala scheme — who were given free gas connections — will be given free gas cylinders for three months by the government; benefitting nearly 8.3 crore families. Women with Jan Dhan Yojana accounts will get an ex gratia amount of Rs 500 per month for the next three months empowering them to run their households without difficulties. An ex gratia sum of Rs 1,000 would be provided in two instalments to poor pensioners, widows and disabled over the next three months. The Centre will direct State governments to provide assistance and support to 3.5 crore building and other construction workers out of work due to the lockdown with an earmarked welfare fund of Rs 31,000. Centre's efforts to cover the poor population during the crucial phase of lockdown is commendable but smooth implementation is the key. Unless last-mile delivery happens, these laudable announcements would be as good as election sops.
The Rs 50 lakh insurance cover for every frontline health worker currently braving the fight against the Coronavirus is the least of incentives that could have been given. Given how many lives stand at the risk of contracting the virus, the insurance cover, again, should have been placed at the onset of the combat. While the Centre has earmarked Rs 15,000 crore for healthcare in order to combat the spread, timely procurement of personal protective equipment as well as ventilators, isolation beds, requisite drugs, etc., is necessary. In such situations, timing is the most crucial. Resources, if not adequately directed, would result in a catastrophic situation. While government efforts to provide basic ration is commendable, the former has to ensure that prices of vegetables and food grains do not surge. In such times, prices can surge and vendors can well-exploit the situation which is why the government has to ensure that prices remain under a cap and people procure items without any hassle. In the meantime, reports have risen of how delivery agents of e-commerce players have been disrupted by police personnel on account of lockdown rules. The government, both Centre and state, is obligated to ensure that supply chains are up and running smoothly so that no neighbourhood experiences a shortage of any essential item. Supply chains of essentials and ease of delivery executives are crucial in this lockdown phase.