Kerala starts free food grain supply; seeks a month’s salary from government employees

Published : April 01, 2020 21:07 IST

Scene at a ration shop in Thiruvananthapuram as the free supply of food grain began on April 1. Photo: By special arrangement

On the day it rolled out the free distribution of 15 kg food grain to 81.14 lakh ration card holders in Kerala, an important component of its programme to ensure a “hunger free Kerala” during the COVID-19 crisis, the Kerala government also decided to organise a “salary challenge” for its employees in order to find more funds to tide over the emergency.

All State government employees would be required to contribute a month’s wages to the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund, the State Cabinet decided on Wednesday. But orders have not yet been issued. It has also been decided that all (20) State Ministers should contribute Rs.1 lakh each to the fund. The government is to determine the modalities of implementing the salary challenge after seeking the opinion of employee organisations.

However, several opposition employee unions have objected to the proposal and some have made it known that they would approach the High Court against the move. There are suggestions that employees should be left to decide the amount they want to contribute and that lower grade employees should be excluded. Opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala described it as a “unilateral’ decision and said the government should have held discussions with the employees’ organisation before taking the decision.

Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, however, said the government was yet to issue an order and had only made a request. “Ours is a society where a large majority of people are willing to involve in such things with a lot of social commitment. We saw it during the floods of 2018, when despite opposition, so many people participated in the salary challenge. Now, when we are facing such a severe danger won’t we all think that we should participate in it as best as we can? What the government has said is that employees should be ready to contribute a month’s salary for it. We hope they will all agree to it.”

Though facing a severe cash crunch, Kerala was the first State to announce a Rs.20,000 crore economic stimulus package to address the hardship in society following the coronavirus outbreak. The State may, however, find the going tough in the days ahead even though it has set its priorities right—targeting benefits to mitigate the suffering of the poor first—in the fight to contain a deadly pandemic.

On April 1, the first day of the free food grain distribution, nearly 14.5 lakh card holders got their quota of free rice and wheat in the 1,41,89 ration shops in the State. Keeping in mind the norms of physical distancing, only five customers were allowed to wait near the counter at a time and the rest were provided token numbers. The distribution in the forenoon was for priority sections and in the afternoon for non-priority sections. People without a ration card were also eligible for the free food grain allotment.

The government also sanctioned Rs.350 crore as advance from the Chief Minister's Distress Relief Fund (CMDRF) for the distribution of a free kit of provisions to all families in the State, in stages, this month. The free kit is to include a fortnight’s supply of cooking oil, salt, wheat flour, rava, green gram, black channa, urad dal and sugar, tur dal, mustard, fenugreek, coriander, chilli powder and tea and two bars of soap and is to be distributed from April 4. All this is in addition to the monthly ration quota for the underprivileged sections.

As announced by the Chief Minister, 1,316 community kitchens too have started functioning in the State, distributing, for instance, food to over 2.70 lakh people in a single day on March 31. According to State government estimates, 90 per cent of them availed themselves of the food free of cost.

Kerala is now in a crucial phase in its COVID-19 surveillance efforts, as the quarantine period of people who returned to the State in large numbers from other countries just before the lockdown enters its last seven days. Though the lockdown was declared on March 25, most international flights had stopped operating to Kerala from March 22.

All those who returned to Kerala before this are under observation and their quarantine period will end around April 7. Over 80 per cent of COVID-19 positive cases in Kerala are those who came back from abroad.

As of April 1, 265 people have tested positive for COVID-19 in Kerala, including 191 who returned from abroad, 67 others who came in contact with them, and seven foreigners. A total of 237 persons are still under treatment, and 1,64,130 are under observation (of which 622 are in hospitals).

Meanwhile, over 300 persons from the State had been reported to have participated in the Tablighi Jamaat congregation at the Alami Markaz Banglewali Masjid in New Delhi in March. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said 61 of them were under observation in the State and warned against sections engaging in motivated campaigns against the Tablighi participants on social media. “We need to understand that all sections of society had taken part in large religious and personal gatherings in the early stages of the COVID crisis. The coronavirus does not discriminate between religious groups. We all need to be united in our vigilance to keep this pandemic away,” he said.

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