Emergency measures proposed and endorsed by 635 people only half-met
Finance Minister (FM) Nirmala Sitharaman has announced a 1.7 lakh crore package to deal with the economic fallout of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. While we welcome that the Union Government is finally addressing this issue, it would have been appropriate to make such an announcement prior to a lockdown so that lakhs of migrant workers would not have panicked and travelled, creating distress and health hazards. The package is wide-ranging in scope but falls short of what is needed to support the poor and to prevent a deepening of the ongoing economic slowdown. Since several states have already announced measures, it is critical that central and state governments work together for smooth operationalisation of relief measures.
635 people, including prominent academics, civil society activists, and policy analysts, sent a letter to the Central and State governments, appealing for a minimal set of emergency measures to deal with the crisis. The appeal focussed on the vulnerable (particularly the unorganised sector, consisting of over 90% of our workforce). From their perspective, FM’s relief measures are highly inadequate for even the coming three weeks with some sense of confidence. The FM’s announcement of Rs 1.7 lakh crore, is less than half of the 3.75 lakh crores required to fulfil the minimal “emergency measures” suggested in the appeal endorsed by 635 people. The calculation of 3.75 lakh crores only referred to an emergency cash relief of Rs 7,000 per household.The appeal also emphasised that access to any rights and entitlements should not depend on Aadhaar-based biometric systems owing to possible spread of infection through touch. The FM’s relief measures also fall short of the measures suggested in the appeal with relation to the ongoing programmes on pensions, rations and programmes for farmers and workers. More specifically:
Ration: The announcement of 5 kg of rice/wheat per person free for next three months and one kg pulse per family is welcome. But there is no mention of vulnerable families excluded from the PDS system. States such as Rajasthan, Jharkhand, Tamil Nadu and Kerala have gone further in assuring food security including delivery of cooked food to the urban poor who are without functional kitchens. To make sure this works, the government must ensure home delivery of rations as well as ensure a minimum of two cooked meals at feeding centres that could include Aanganwadis, government schools, government colleges, community halls, army areas etc. For this to work safely, there must be at least 70 such feeding centres per 1 lakh people, open 12 hours a day. In the current scenario, the government should have made provisions to ensure doorstep delivery of ration to avoid overcrowding at the distribution centres but no such promise was made.
MGNREGA: The FM’s announcement of providing an average of 2000 rupees extra per household through MGNREGA is a misnomer. In fact, the wage rate increase, which was announced three days ago, was a regular adjustment against inflation which is made every year. This cannot be called an "additional resource" as the FM mentions and even now the Central government has not adhered to the constitutional provision of minimum wages for MGNREGA. It would be far more effective for each MGNREGA worker to be paid the full notified minimum wage rate for every day of the lockdown at a time when MGNREGA works have been shut to prevent proximity. FM’s advisory on social distancing norms for MGNREGA isn’t pragmatic as accessing and working in MGNREGA involves several processes with significant physical proximity. Given that a large number of migrant workers have returned to their native villages in light of lockdowns, many more rural residents will need work under MGNREGA over the next year. In such extraordinary circumstances, the number of days of work per rural household should not be limited to 100 days per year. The categories of permissible works should also be expanded to include specific personal and collective kinds of work.
Cash transfer to Pensioners: Support extended to pension beneficiaries of Rs 1000 for three months is also inadequate. This is only an increase of INR 500. Some states are already providing more and have doubled this amount (e.g. Delhi). Also payment should be given in advance for 2-3 months. Rajasthan, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh have announced the advance payment of pensions for two-three months in one go by the first half of April. Every pension beneficiary must be provided Rs 1000 per month in advance for three months i.e. April, May, June.