An inadequate lockdown package
The government must ensure that the spectre of SARS-CoV-2 is not replaced by the spectre of hunger.
- The Central government has asked States to seal borders to prevent lakhs of workers, who have been rendered jobless overnight with no guarantee of wages and shelter, from reaching their villages.
- The Home Ministry has also invoked Sections 51 to 60 of the Disaster Management Act, 2005, to imprison those who violate government instructions.
- However, it is not using the same law to transfer essential funds to the States in the front line of dealing with the COVID-19 crisis.
- The sealing orders come after the Finance Minister’s announcement of a “package of ₹1.7 lakh crore for the poor”. If the workers really believed that the package was helpful, they would not have started their long march home.
Two welcome initiatives
- With the sharp rise in the prices of essential commodities, this measure will also bring down the prices of foodgrains.
- The government should follow this up with the inclusion of other essential commodities at subsidised rates through the PDS.
- The challenge will be to ensure that the free foodgrains reach the beneficiaries. For this all the conditionalities should be waived.
- Thousands of migrant workers stranded in the cities should also have access to free foodgrains.
- Two, all beneficiaries of the PM Ujjwala Yojana will be given free LPG cylinders over a three-month period.
- Apart from monetary relief, this will especially help women who will find it difficult to step out of their homes to collect fuel.
- So far, for the last few years, the government has not given any benefits to the people in spite of the sharp reduction in global crude prices, the levying of higher duties on petroleum products, and the consequent windfall in government revenues. A free gas cylinder would be a tiny portion of this revenue.
Problems in the package
- The rest of the “package” can be described in many ways, the most polite of which would be to call it disappointingly inadequate. For crores of daily workers the reality is that if they stay home, their families can’t eat.
- For this large section of the population, what was required was an immediate cash transfer, through the PM Jan-Dhan Yojana or MNREGA accounts of a minimum of ₹5,000 for the three-week period of the lockdown.
- Instead, the government has decided to give a cash transfer of just ₹500 a month to women with Jan-Dhan accounts. These cash transfers are the lowest in the world.
- Every other country hit by the COVID-19 pandemic has done more for its poor and working people than the Indian government.
- It is sad that a government that can write off bad loans, primarily to corporates, amounting to ₹2.4 lakh crore (in 2019) cannot even match that amount to save its poor from certain hunger and starvation.
- Whereas countries have guaranteed up to 70% to 80% of workers’ wages to prevent lay-offs, the Indian government limits it to a subsidy on EPF.
- The ₹2,000 for farmers is already a government scheme which was due in four months and has been accounted for in the Budget.
- It would be deceitful if this amount were to be included in the ₹1.7 lakh crore package, as seems to be the case