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Millennium Post

Survival

These are a harrowed and tortured lot—youngsters and the old carrying their belongings on their heads and trudging along on roads paved and unpaved, mile after mile. Some food in the belly and a glimmer of hope for the future would go a long way right now. Most of them are Indians, some are not, but they are all human beings. But today, the nightmare they are living is anything but human

Survival

Let's talk money. Or rather, let's talk about the lack of it where it matters the most in these troubled times—in the hands of the daily-wagers and economically-weaker sections of society who the Government has sought to provide succor to. On Thursday, Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman rolled out a Rs 170,000-crore Garib Kalyan Relief Package for India's less-privileged, outlining a slew of measures ranging from free rice / wheat and dal, gas cylinders, direct bank transfer payouts, rollover of loans and so on. There's enough debate in political and economic circles on whether this Rs 1.7-lakh-crore package is enough or not, so let's leave that aside. The devil lies in the details.

There is a logistical nightmare being played out which the targeted people are facing. Enough or not, aside, how do they avail of whatever is being doled out? First and foremost, what has been announced needs to reach the poorest of the poor, and reach them fast, as most of them are either surviving on a single, frugal meal per day, or not at all. We are talking about families, including children, who have even resorted to eating grass to survive. There are millions upon millions of desperate and starving people living in remote areas, thousands upon thousands of whom are still walking on our country's highways for hundreds upon hundreds of kilometers to reach their villages and homes, away from the metropolises that they fled after losing their livelihoods.

The target audience of this 'relief package' faces a peculiar problem—the lockdown and resultant police action on 'curfew violators' makes it incredibly difficult for them to reach Public Distribution System (PDS) centers and bank ATMs. And even if / when they do get there after plodding on foot for miles, a majority do not have ration cards and ATM cards. Are PDS shops and ATMs even functional? And paradoxically enough, this dilemma is only faced by those who have a Ration Card, a Jan Dhan Account, Below Poverty Live (BPL) cards—what of the homeless and those living on the streets, as also those who cannot step out for reasons related to health and / or disability? How do they survive this lockdown?

The truth of the matter is that decades of administrative indifference and callousness, even avarice, have slowly but surely fueled a different pandemic in the country over the years, one that is rearing its ugly head today—the benefits of PDS and BPL are just not available to most of the poor in the country. While this pandemic went largely unnoticed and uncorrected for decades, with the poor surviving as best as they could, COVID-19 and the resultant lockdown has seen to it that the poor cannot even scrounge around or step out for even the most menial of jobs. That spells no money, and in a matter of days, no food.

A simple solution could be that the PDS system starts recognizing and honoring Aadhar Cards as a means to providing sustenance to ensure the survival of the most needy through this current crisis. Most Indians of all classes and creed have Aadhar Cards. But this move needs administrative resolve and instant action, or hunger and starvation may take as high a toll as the coronavirus. Let's not even talk right now about the complete loss of dignity and self-respect being faced by millions of India's poor.

If we dig deeper into the Jan Dhan accounts program, the cash transfer benefits announced by the FM on Thursday are only for women. This is peculiar, given that most Jan Dhan accounts have been opened by men, not women. Even where women do have accounts, many are inactive and money thus cannot be transferred. In January this year, the Government issued 29.86 crore RuPay cards to Jan Dhan account-holders—a simple extrapolation of this is that there are around 30 crore Jan Dhan accounts in all, a majority of them held by men. Therefore, this part of the relief package will reach only a fraction of the 80 crore poor people targeted by the Garib Relief Package.

If we talk about Ration Cards (under the PDS scheme), around 21 crore cards have been linked to Aadhar Cards under the National Food Security Act. Again, this number is well below the 80 crore targeted. Also, there are scores of people who do have valid ration cards under the PDS scheme in their villages, but are confined to and stuck in cities due to the lockdown. There is no immediate relief in their sights—and right now, their need is 'immediate'.

Finally, the Direct Bank Transfer benefit through RTGS announced for daily wage laborers will only be applicable to those who are registered. Most of this target audience is not registered, being a 'floating population'—in fact, a few daily-wagers that the author spoke to had never even heard of the scheme. Similarly, benefits under MNREGA are only for those who are registered and / or who have worked on MNREGA jobs, and most of the rural populace working in cities as daily-wagers have not registered for this scheme or have not worked on MNREGA sites for a long time. In short, they can only get paid if jobs under the MNREGA scheme are made available to them.

Clearly, while well-intentioned, many of the heads of the relief package announced by the Government will fall short of targeted numbers. So where can true, ground-level support and succor be found for the people who urgently need help today, this instant? Some Corporates have stepped in and are doing their bit to help the needy. Even here, however, a comparison with what Corporates in other affected countries are doing makes Indian contributions pale away into insignificance.

The need of the hour is for those who are well-off and are sure to survive COVID-19, at least from the hunger and starvation perspective, to step in and do their bit. And thankfully, glimpses of this can now be seen, with many in the Indian middle- and upper middle-class working with NGOs and voluntary organizations to feed and support those in dire need.

As Prime Minister Narendra Modi prepared India for the 21-day lockdown, the nation's most vulnerable population was left unprepared for the chaos that was about to befall them. India's migrant labourers, urban poor and homeless have been the hardest hit and while the Centre has announced what seems like a generous relief package for the poor, it seems to have left the onus of helping the tens of thousands of migrant labourers who are walking through the country's highways trying to get back home, on the State governments. However, this has given states an opportunity to show how well they are able to plan and account for humanitarian spending.

Kerala:

Kerala was among the first to have announced a Rs 20,000 crore relief package for the needy. The Kerala government, from the get-go, has maintained that it will not let anyone go hungry. Among others, the Vijayan-government had announced one month of free cereals for families, Rs 1,000 to families not eligible for social welfare pensions, increased pensions and free food stalls across the states for the poor, homeless and needy.

The government in the state, which the CM said has learnt from the Nipah crisis, has also organised their protocol in a way that puts the onus of taking care of poor and needy on the local administrative bodies such as Panchayats and Municipalities. There are also innovative measures like the plan to introduce a phone number which can be dialled for free to get food delivered.

West Bengal:

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had already asked the Centre to stop domestic flights to Bengal well before the Centre had decided to take the call of a complete shutdown. However, as the lockdown intensified in the state, the West Bengal government announced a Rs 200 crore relief package for the poor and needy.

In fact, the Bengal government had announced subsidised rates of rice and wheat before the Centre and had soon converted that into free ration expected to reach about 7.5 crore people in State as the restrictions continued. Her government's plan is to provide free ration to the needy till September.

Delhi:

The Arvind Kejriwal government followed suit quickly to announce measures for the needy during the lockdown, among which free ration for over 70 lakh beneficiaries has been a key feature. The Kejriwal-government has announced a scheme which will provide a basic pay of Rs 4,000 to Rs 5,000 to pensioners, widows and the differently abled residents of Delhi.

In addition, the Delhi government has announced that its basic pay scheme will be raised to a higher monthly pay-out in the first week of April and that in the meantime, the free ration being provided to people will have 50 per cent more quantity than normal entitlements.

Maharashtra:

One of the first few states to announce a unique work-from-home model, the Uddhav Thackery-led government had come up with a plan to ask companies to operate at 50 per cent capacity. What this entailed was that 50 per cent of employees would work on one day and the other 50 per cent would work the next day, limiting the number of people in the workplace. The state government has allotted Rs 45 crore to districts worst hit by the crisis and the labour commissioner has also asked employers not to fire any employees.

While other states like Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and others have also taken measures to make sure their needy do not go hungry, the plight of the migrant labourers meandering through the National Highways continues. Just recently, UP government has allowed them to be transported through state buses. Meanwhile, thousands who set out on foot to cross Delhi borders were turned back and forced to walk all the way back into the city.


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