Hundreds of thousands of migrant workers and scores of poor people were left in the lurch on the night of 24 March, when the prime minister Narendra Modi announced a 21-day lockdown to combat COVID-19. The lockdown, which began within four hours, forced migrant workers to leave urban dwellings and make their way back home, without any state assistance. It led to an almost-complete destruction of economic activity across the country, with trillions of rupees wiped out in a market crash.
On the second day of the lockdown, the union finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced a relief package of Rs 1.70 lakh crore under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana to provide the poor with food and funds in their bank accounts. Several experts have criticised the government for it. In a letter to the central and state governments, 635 people—including prominent academics, civil society activists, and policy analysts—appealed for a minimal set of emergency measures to deal with the crisis. According to them, the relief package of Rs 1.70 lakh crore is less than half the amount required to fulfil the minimal emergency-measures.
Among the people who endorsed the letter was Jean Drèze, an economist and activist who works as a visiting professor at Ranchi University. In a conversation with Kaushal Shroff, a staff writer at The Caravan, Drèze spoke about how in the coming days, access to food and earnings for poor people would rely on the functioning of our public-distribution system, which is under tremendous stress.