Activists, academics seek relief measures for people affected by lockdown

Published : March 24, 2020 19:46 IST

In Mumbai’s Lokmanya Tilak Terminal, migrant workers wait to take trains to their home towns in the wake of the shutdown announced by the Maharashtra government, on March 21. Photo: Aadesh Choudhary

A group of more than 50 academics and social activists have urged the Union Government and the States to urgently undertake measures to provide immediate relief to millions of people in India whose lives have been thrown into disarray by the COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdown. The country enters an indeterminate period of lockdown that threatens to unleash utter havoc on the lives of those at the bottom of the pyramid in both rural and urban areas.

Noting that large sections of agricultural workers, farmers, the aged, widows, slum dwellers and those engaged in myriad informal activities in urban and rural areas are affected by the unprecedented public health crisis, the statement on March 24 calls upon all governments to not only harness existing government-run programmes but also undertake wider measures that address the prevailing emergency.

The appeal, signed by academics Prof. Jean Dreze at Ranchi University, Prof. Amit Basole of Azim Premji University, social activists Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey, and Yogendra Yadav, among others, notes that existing programmes like the pension schemes, the MGNREGA, Ujjwala, PM-KISAN and the provisions of the National Food Security Act have already laid the infrastructure, which can now be harnessed to deliver emergency relief to those who are seriously affected now. But those in informal occupations, construction and migrant workers, and nomadic communities, who are “unlikely to be listed in any welfare programme”, must be reached out to “using all available measures”, the statement urges.

The appeal categorises the relief into two sets. The first consists of the existing programmes and schemes that function for a specific purpose. Among these are the pension schemes, the MGNREGA, the PM-KISAN, the foodgrain delivery schemes, the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana, the housing scheme for the rural poor, and the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. It suggests that supplies of food, cooking medium, salt and condiments and soap for three months starting in April be done immediately. Moreover, it suggests that cooked meals be provided twice daily using the facilities that already exist in villages and towns for the mid-day meals scheme for school-going children and anganwadis.

Moreover, pension payments that are due to beneficiaries ought to paid in one shot for the next three months, it suggests. As for the MGNREGA, as a first step it asks the Centre to clear all lending liabilities amounting to Rs.8,396 crore immediately. Moreover, it urges the Centre to pay wages to these workers for the entire period of the lockdown. This ought to be treated not as an unemployment allowance but as wages for the period in which they ought to have been working but would be unable to find work, the signatories reasoned. It also calls for the immediate release of the first instalment of the PM-KISAN payment that is due to farmers in the first quarter starting in April, apart from clearing all pending instalments due to beneficiaries of the PMAY and Swachh Bharat Mission schemes. Rajendran Narayanan of Azim Premji University, one of the signatories to the appeal, told Frontline that these payments would not amount to a fiscal burden on the state. “This is merely front-loading already committed expenditures by releasing them now rather than later,” he said.

Apart from these measures, the statement urges the governments to undertake an emergency relief programme for poor households by providing Rs.7,000 per month for two months (April and May). It estimates that the bottom 80 per cent of the population would imply about 26.80 crore households, which would result in a total cost of Rs.3.75 lakh crore or about 1.92 per cent of GDP. It suggests that the scope of MGNREGA work ought to be widened to include the production of items such as masks and sanitisers, which would facilitate the safety of workers. It suggests that MGNREGA workers be brought under the provisions of the Building and Other Construction Workers (BoCW) Act. This, it pointed out, would enable the workers under the scheme to access social security benefits available to the latter in the form of insurance, scholarships for education of children, pensions, and so on.

As for the delivery of benefits, it suggests that the relief package should be door-delivered in a box containing cash in an envelope and rations for three months. Neither banks nor the use of biometric means of identification are feasible because of the peculiar and particularly hazardous nature of the pandemic. “Banks tend to get crowded, and since there is a moratorium on going into crowded spaces we strongly recommend that people, especially in rural areas, be discouraged to go to banks.” The biometric option is ruled out specifically because COVID-19 is known to spread through touch. Local Self Help Groups could be used by gram panchayats for making the deliveries. Transparency would be served by maintaining registers of cash payments accessible to the public for scrutiny, it added. Where feasible or desirable, the delivery of rations could also be done through existing networks of the PDS at designated times in order to avoid crowding, it said.

Looking at the medium to the long term after the immediate emergency is over, the statement notes that the effects of the lockdown would last longer than the immediacy of the epidemic. The lockdown has already resulted in a large number of migrants in more than 80 cities returning to their rural homes, many of whom would need employment. “The MGNREGA would serve as a critical source of social security over the coming financial year,” It says.

The statement calls for a more flexible approach to the working of the scheme by waiving the 100-days of work limit that currently characterises it. “The categories of permissible works should also be expanded to include specific personal and collective kinds of work. Supervision and measurement systems would have to be made flexible to suit the particular conditions.” The statement also urges the expansion of work to include horticulture, forest works and home-based work to give it a meaningful reach. It also makes the suggestion that it is time to consider seriously an MGNREGA-like scheme for urban areas. Given that the lockdown is likely to cause serious dislocations, resulting in prolonged underutilisation of capacity and widespread unemployment, an “urban extension of the MGNREGA can be considered,” the note concludes.

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