After three days of the nation-wide lockdown, the Finance Minister yesterday announced an economic package aimed at providing some relief and social security to the poor and informal sector workers whose livelihoods have been affected as a result of the hit on economic activity following the COVID 19 pandemic. The sudden closing down of all establishments and the suspension of most activities in order to maintain physical distancing has meant that millions of informal sector workers are left jobless. Many of these people depended on daily wages to meet even their most basic needs including food. In fact, even formal sector has been badly affected with a ‘no work, no pay’ situation now. Workers in factories, plantation units, handloom and crafts businesses, and so on have been facing the brunt.
Although delayed, it is welcome that the Government has finally woken up to the mass hunger and displacement that the lockdown is causing. However, the measures announced are very inadequate in the context of the challenges that people are facing.
The package of measures under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana (PMGKY), mostly identify the correct schemes and programmes through which relief could be provided to people. But much more needs to be done. Doubling the foodgrains given under the Public Distribution System (PDS) and including pulses is something that the Right to Food Campaign had also been demanding, and if delivered effectively will definitely contribute to mitigating some of the hunger.
However, this benefit is still restricted to those who already have ration cards under the National Food Security Act (NFSA) which would leave out many who are excluded. There are a number of exclusions in the PDS, especially of people belonging to very vulnerable communities such as migrant workers, homeless populations, nomadic tribes and so on.
The need for biometric authentication mechanisms add to the problem by not only disallowing a lot of people from accessing these entitlements, but also require multiple people to touch the same scanner. For this reason, states like Kerala, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Odisha have already stopped or limited their use of Aadhaar based biometrics.
Further, since the ration cards were distributed based on the 2011 Census numbers, the coverage is also lower than what is deemed under the NFSA due to increase in population.
We demand that the PDS entitlements be available to anyone who demands it, at least for the next three months. Simple measures of transparency and accountability can be put in place to ensure that there is no pilferage or stocking up of grain by the PDS dealers. One important measure would be to widely publicise the entitlements through various media. The delivery mechanism can be worked out to ensure that people arrive —at the ration shops and other collection points in turns so as to not crowd. The ration for three months can also be given in advance.
The increase announced in the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) wages cannot really be considered as part of the special package. The MGNREGA wages are routinely updated every year keeping in line with the consumer price index. Over the last many years, the wages have not been rising sufficiently and are now much below the statutory minimum wage rates as well as the market wage rates in most states. This increase had already been announced on 23 March 2020, is grossly inadequate and not part of any additional measure.
Further, currently due to the lockdown all MGNREGA worksites are closed. The announcement stated that a Rs. 20 increase in wage rate will result in additional Rs. 2000 income for all MGNREGA households in 2020-21. This assumes that all households will get 100 days of work which does not happen even during normal times.
Over the past five years, only 8 per cent of all households that could access any MGNREGA work got 100 days of work. What would be required is to clear all pending wages under MGNREGA immediately, and give a cash transfer to all the MGNREGA job card holding households to help tide through these months of slowdown.
Similarly, while the increases announced in the old age, widow and disabled pensions are welcome, as these are the most vulnerable groups, the amount is very meagre. Rs. 1000 over three months is hardly enough to cover for their basic needs. The central contribution to these social security pensions is as low as Rs. 200 and has not been enhanced since 2006. As a regular measure the central contribution should be increased to at least Rs. 1000 per month. The cash transfer to Jan DhanYojana bank accounts are also very small, of Rs. 500 a month.
The PM-KISAN announcement also only involves payment of the benefit in advance but not an increase in the amount. There have been some other measures announced such as using the construction workers welfare funds, district mineral fund and so on. Many of these are funds that have been by contribution from employers and employees in any case. Overall, it is not clear how the figure of Rs. 1.7 lakh crore worth of relief measures has been arrived at. Schemes that already existed and have not seen any major enhancements cannot be counted under relief measures.
In fact, our estimates suggest that the additional spending taking into account cash transfers to the Jan Dhan Yojana accounts, additional amount through social security pensions for old, widows and disabled, additional grain and pulses under PDS, cylinders under Ujjwala Yojana and EPFO contributions would come to less than Rs. 1 lakh crore. Expenditure on MGNREGA and PM-KISAN are already reflected in the Annual Budget and using construction worker welfare board funds, district mineral funds or giving additional loans to SHGs we believe cannot be included in the estimates of what the government is spending for relief measures. In many places across the country, there are reports of people already being on the verge of starvation and desperately looking for food and other support. In the light of this, the measures that have been announced are lackluster and do not show the urgency required to respond to the gravity of the situation.
Rather what we are witnessing is increased police repression where people, especially vendors and migrant workers, are being beaten up and humiliated in many ways for even being seen out on the roads. In these times of distress, the reports of food supplies being wasted and/or limited are severely disturbing, to say the least.
We demand that the following measures be announced immediately:
1. Open up the PDS entitlements to everyone who demands it on the basis of any identity card that they have (in line with the Supreme Court order for drought, under the Swaraj Abhiyan case) and discontinue ePOS based verification mechanisms.
2. Include cooking oil and increase the quantity of pulses in the PDS package.
3. Make arrangements for distribution of cooked food, especially in urban areas through community kitchens, night shelters, schools and anganwadi centres. The more decentralized this facility is, the less crowded will be the feeding centres, making it possible to follow the norms of physical distancing.
4. Make immediate arrangements for accommodation of migrant workers stranded in public places like bus stops and railway stations with nowhere to go during this lockdown.
5. Provide all MGNREGA workers full payment– at not less than the state minimum wage rate– for the three months lockdown period irrespective of work being available.
6. Enhance the social security pension amounts to at least Rs. 2000 per month,
7. Provide maternity benefits of at least Rs. 6000 to all pregnant women, immediately, without any conditionalities.
8. Ensure unhindered inter/intra-state movement of goods transport vehicles carrying food and other essential items. The travel restrictions must not affect these items from reaching PDS shops or even regular grocery stores.
9. Establish a system where civil society organisations can give feedback to the government on the effectiveness of these measures. A functioning grievance redress system must also be put in place – this could build on the existing toll-free help line numbers, DGROs and state food commissions under the NFSA.
10. Households that have children who are school going/anganwadi beneficiaries should be given an equivalent amount of the meals as dry rations or food security allowance.
11. As mentioned by the Finance Minister in her speech, works that can be undertaken under MGNREGA and otherwise while maintaining the norms of physical distancing should be identified. Such work if allowed to continue must ensure that adequate safety and sanitary measures are put in place.
12. Mechanisms to help vegetables, fruits, milk etc. cultivated by farmers to reach consumers should put in place so that farmers do not suffer and consumers can get food without price escalation. Otherwise, farmers are having to destroy crops.
13. Action must be taken against formal sector declaring ‘no work, no pay’, and not paying workers for lockdown. It is also important that the delivery mechanisms for all these schemes are put in place in a sensitive manner. Accessing banks will be almost impossible for most of the beneficiaries. Some way of making the cash available at the community will need to be worked out – through gram panchayats and banking correspondents.
Right to Food Campaign (Secretariat) 24, Block A, Adhchini, Sarvodaya Enclave, New Delhi – 110017, India