By Anushka Gutte, Research Associate, Policy

In late December, 2019, the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission of China reported a number of pneumonia cases in Wuhan, Hubei province. Surfaced in the Chinese seafood and poultry, it was soon identified to be the novel corona virus. As of this writing, the corona virus outbreak has caused over 4 million cases and over 200,000 deaths worldwide. India reported its first case in Kerala on 30th January, 2020, a student from Wuhan. Since then India has reported over 70,000 COVID-19 cases. Over the last three months, India has taken multiple actions in terms of investments in healthcare, vaccine research, testing to deal with the ensuing pandemic. However, these are inadequate at social fronts, especially in a country like India where issues of social inequality are of utmost importance.

While the public health advisories have perpetuated the idea of social distancing, self isolation and sanitation, they seem to be centered around the urban rich and middle class. They ignore the problems faced by the most vulnerable classes and marginalised castes which include poor access to clean drinking water, unemployment and food security among several others. The picture becomes even more bleak as the lock down has thrown many people out of jobs, primarily those in the informal sector. The lock down triggered the exodus of migrant workers from urban areas to their native villages. As many of such workers remain unemployed, provision of food and shelter has become a matter of concern. 

Status of Rescue Measures

To tackle issues of food security and shelter, the Centre and various States have launched new schemes or expanded existing schemes. The Centre has ordered all States to set up relief camps for migrant workers and the order has made it mandatory for those running commercial establishments, factories and shops to pay wages to workers on the due date, without any deduction, for the period their establishments are under closure due to the lock down. It also says that landlords of properties where migrants are staying will not demand payment of rent for a period of one month.

The Delhi government set up over 500 hunger relief camps providing free food (lunch and dinner) across the city for people who have been stranded due to the nationwide lock down. Uttar Pradesh, announced a series of relief measures to help construction workers and self employed cart owners, rickshaw pullers as well as pension earners. A sum of Rs 1,000 was provided to construction workers registered with the labour department and self employed cart owners, small shop owners and rickshaw pullers through Direct Bank Transfer. Similarly, Punjab announced a relief of Rs. 3,000 for all registered construction workers in the State. 

In addition to free supply of 12 kg rice for all families, the Telangana government is to provide Rs 1,500 cash to purchase essential commodities for 87.59 lakh white ration card holders. The State has also been thoughtful in its treatment of pregnant women, wherein the Health department officials are to create a list of pregnant women, scheduled to deliver in the next one to two months so that necessary medical care can be provided. A State that has been resilient in combating the virus while keeping social inequality in check is Kerala. Kerala’s special package of Rs. 20,000 Cr. to fight the pandemic is set to cover loans for employment guarantee programme, welfare pensions in advance and health package for all. The State also launched a mass hand washing campaign called “Break the Chain”, under which water taps were installed at public spots along with awareness regarding personal hygiene.

At the Central level, the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana was launched for the poor in the light of the COVID pandemic. Under this scheme,  approximately 22 lakh healthcare workers would be provided an insurance cover of Rs. 50 lakh. Beneficiaries of PM Garib Kalyan Ann Yojana would be provided an additional 5 kg of wheat or rice along with 1 kg of pulses according to regional preferences, free of charge for 3 months. 20 lakh Jan Dhan women account holders will be given a cash transfer of Rs. 500 per month for three months. From April 1st, 2020, wages under the MGNREGA Act have been increased by Rs. 2000 annually per worker. Women in Self-Help Groups have been provided an increase in collateral loans from Rs. 10 lakh to Rs. 20 lakh. 3 crore senior citizens, persons with disabilities and widows will get one-time additional amount of INR 1,000 in two instalments which will be provided through DBT over a period of three months. PMGKY also provides free gas cylinders for three months to the beneficiaries of Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana Scheme. They can avail these cylinders till the end of this year if they fail to do so now. 

Assessing the Policy Limitations 

A report submitted by the Centre to the Supreme Court states  the condition of migrant labourers and other homeless people dependent on government’s relief camps during the lock down. It has been found that within three weeks of the nationwide lock down, there was a massive surge in the number of people depending on relief camps and food camps across the country. This shows that in the coming weeks, where an extended lock down is imminent, the Centre and States have to work together to set up more relief camps and provide food to the poor and needy. The same study shows that at 69%, Kerala has the highest number of relief camps, while in other major States with high in-migration, the relative number of relief and food camps is lower. Though relief camps are a welcome step in ameliorating the situation of migrant workers, they have not been covered under any food distribution or cash transfer provisions. The government of Delhi had introduced a new mechanism, e-coupons, which could be procured online or through an app by people who don’t hold a ration card, but this created hurdles as some potential beneficiaries do not possess a smartphone or the technological knowledge to obtain these coupons. 

Although relief provisions are meant to provide food and shelter to the underserved citizens, they are bound to face the errors of exclusion. Data suggests that TPDS suffers from 61% exclusion error and 25% inclusion error of beneficiaries. An estimate of the exclusion error from 2011-12 suggests that 65 percent of the target beneficiaries are excluded under MGNREGA. These schemes also exclude migrant workers whose documents or ration cards show them as out of State residents. In case of DBT, 11.48 crore of Jan Dhan Accounts are non-functional either (zero balance or inactive) and in majority of the States people are 3-5 km away from any form of access point. If the beneficiaries fail to access their bank accounts, the cash transfers hold no utility. While various States have taken up measures according to their needs, they seem uncoordinated and lack implementation guidelines. They fail to acknowledge the targeting errors of the existing schemes they have built upon. As these measures have already come into effect, the situation of target beneficiaries has not been improved. 

The relief package under PMGKY excludes sections like migrant labourers, unorganized sector workers, pregnant and lactating women and children, those suffering with critical ailments, etc. Although the amount allocated for the package seems huge, per person merit seems to be inadequate. There is also an absence of clear implementation guidelines, without which the package might conclude to be inefficient. The government should have specified on how food grains would be distributed and cash withdrawal be made, keeping in mind the targeting errors and the importance of social distancing. Through the scheme, the government has also failed to concretise the establishment of community kitchens and relief camps across India. In the case of MGNREGA, most daily wage earners are forced to stay at home which would make unemployment allowance an ideal compensatory instrument, which finds no mention in the scheme. 

Suggestions for Policy Reforms

A study by the Indigenous Lawyers Association of India (ILAI) and Denmark-based International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA) states that ‘reverse migration’ of indigenous people due to racial discrimination, attacks on Northeast people, loss of jobs and inadequate food supply can have devastating consequences on their communities, some leading to their extinction. It is crucial that the government of India make full efforts in avoiding the exodus of migrant workers due to the fear of transmission.

  • As both Centre and State enforce multiple relief packages, it is important that they coordinate with each other. States can learn from each other in dealing with social inequality. Greater collaboration will lead to better schemes and efficient implementation. For example, Uttar Pradesh was the first state to geo-tag community kitchens, a step that can be emulated by other States as well. Such a mechanism can also be made in the Aarogya Setu app, where users are able to locate the nearest relief camp, community kitchen or ration shop. Inter-state committees should be set up to monitor and allow for the safe passage of migrant workers.
  • Community kitchens can also be used to employ migrant workers, thereby providing them with food and shelter. While the food and grains can be provided by the government, migrant workers can use it to run the community kitchens and simultaneously earn some money. 
  • Although the current average wage under MGNREGA has been increased to Rs. 202 per person, it is still far below the recommended minimum wage of Rs. 375. It should, therefore, be revised again. Jobs under the scheme should not be restricted but instead expanded to incorporate paddy cultivation, animal husbandry, etc. In this time of crisis, jobs can be modified to prioritise sectors of food production, waste management, deep cleaning of hospitals/quarantine areas. 
  • While there is no mention of the welfare of migrant workers in Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana, the government can take it up as a separate measure. A number of countries have taken steps to provide support to migrant workers and India can make efforts to emulate the same. In New Zealand, the Wage Subsidy Scheme has been made available to migrant workers. A new fund has been established in California to provide income support to migrant workers irrespective of their status. 

In a country like India, where there is a wide divide between the rich and the poor, it is critical that the government addresses social inequality while making policy changes or launching schemes. As we battle a pandemic, we also have to overcome poverty, economic downturn, unemployment and class/caste differences.