Relief measures for the poor in COVID-19 Crisis & Lockdown: What does the government have to offer?
In India, the poor have always been an afterthought. Considering the fact that this is a country which is made up of huge chunks of people living in poverty, the trifling amount of thought given to them seems odd and yet has been the norm.. And, it was no different on the night 24th March either, when the Indian government declared a 21-day nationwide lockdown, now extended until 3rd May to curb the coronavirus spread.
While significant, the decision did not include several disadvantaged parts of society such as the daily wage labourers, homeless people, beggars, slum dwellers, other low-income classes, and elderly people living alone. Also, as we reach the lockdown process, it becomes increasingly clear that the real challenge for these people is not to escape the coronavirus, but simply to get enough food to keep them alive.
As the affluent segment of society panicked and hoarded up during the lockdown for their Netflix and chill sessions at home, others remained blithely ignorant of the fact that food prices are skyrocketing, thanks to their hoarding. That means most irregular workers in the industry, who do not have any employment right now and who could be trapped in a city where they are migrant labourers and thus have no home, will not even have the money to feed themselves with the bare minimum available to survive on.
Minister for Food and Consumer Affairs Ram Vilas Paswan said that the government is keeping track of the availability of all the important products in the market and people should not be panicking.
“We are in constant touch with state governments to ensure that there is no shortage of any essential items. Traders and manufacturers should not indulge in hoarding and black-marketing during these testing times. People should not panic. There is no scarcity of food grains in the country. As on April 1, 2020, we need 7.46 million tonnes of wheat and 13.58 million tonnes of rice for ration shops. But we have 64.6 million tonnes of food grains in our stock, which is 43.56 million tonnes more than the requirement,”Paswan said.
Several NGOs and companies have shown tremendous creativity so far and have attempted to alleviate the suffering of disadvantaged individuals during the lockout. State governments of Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Kerala, and a few others have declared for these individuals, special packages and relief funds. The Finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman revealed a relief bundle of Rs 1.7 lakh crore to help the country's poverty-stricken people live during these difficult times. These programs tend to help the socially disadvantaged groups that have been affected by the lockout. Below are the key aspects of the relief package:
1) Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi Yojana (PM-Kisan): Under the scheme, all farming families around the country will be provided with an income support of INR 6000 per year in 3 equivalent payments of Rs 2,000/- per 4 months. Sitharaman had said that the 1st Rs 2,000/- installment would be released in the 1st week of April. In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, about 8.69 crore farmers will be benefitted by this scheme.
2) Public Distribution System Scheme: Under this Scheme, a Centre-funded series of stores authorised with the duty of supplying basic essential goods at very cheap rates to the poorest sections of society will be opened. Nirmala Sitharaman had also proclaimed that more than 5 kg of wheat / rice has already been given and an additional 5 kg per person will be provided free of cost under the scheme. Conjointly, 1 kg of the pulse will be provided according to preferred and region-specific preference. Under this announcement, about 80 crore people will benefit.
3) Rs 50,00,000/- Insurance Cover: The Finance Minister also proclaimed that an insurance cover for sanitation staff, ASHA employees, doctors, nurses, paramedics would be given in the sum of INR 50 lakh in case of difficult situations as they are on the front lines of the COVID-19 battle.
4) Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA): MNREGA is a recruitment project implemented by the UPA government under which all houses where the mature members choose an unqualified energy-exhaustive job, a minimum 100 day paid leave will be provided in a fiscal year. Minister of Finance Sitharaman had reported a rise in salary rates from INR 182 to INR 202. The income estimate increase would result to Rs 2,000/- per job. Under this scheme approximately 5 crore people will benefit.
5) Ex gratia for Elderly person and Widows: The Finance Minister had also declared to widows and senior citizens, in two instalments, an ex gratia (as a favour) of Rs 1,000/- for coming 3 months. Around 3 crore elderly persons and widows around the country will benefit from this.
6) Female Bank Account Owners under PM Jan Dhan Yojana (PMJDY): The scheme grants inexpensive approach to the fiscal assistance. With Zero balance, the Account can be initiated in any bank division. Nirmala Sitharaman also mentioned that the female account owners will only get ex gratia of Rs 500/- for the coming 3 months per month. Within this fund, roughly 20 crore women will benefit.
7) Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY): PMUY promises to provide LPG connections to 5 crore women belonging to the Below Poverty Line (BPL) houses over a duration of three years from Fiscal Year 2016-17 to give clear heating gas solution to poverty-stricken families, especially in rural areas. Under this scheme, the Finance Minister declared three months of free cylinders. This will help about 8.3 families with crore BPL.
8) Deen Dayal Livelihood Mission: The Mission looks forward to build adequate and productive uniform opportunities for poverty-stricken section of people and empowers them to raise domestic wages by enhancing tenable livelihoods and improving approach to finance assistance. Finance Minister declared that an assurance-free credit up to Rs 20,00,000/- (previously Rs 10,00,000/-) would be given to women under this scheme. Under this scheme, the estimated number of beneficiaries are predicted to be about 7 crore people.
9) Organised Sector: Nirmala Sitharaman had also declared that the Government of India will carry the expense of both employee and employer's EPF contribution, which will amount to 24 percent for the coming three months. However, this relief is only for establishments with up to 100 workers where less than INR 15,000 receives 90 percent of workers. Around 4.8 Crore workers will benefit from this.
10) Organised Sector (EPFO): Finance Minister announced that the Government of India was prepared to modify the EPF regulation due to the COVID-19 crisis and proclaimed that staff could fetch up to 75% non-refundable credit advance in the Provident Fund account or three-month wage, whichever is less. Approximately 4.8 Crore employees would benefit.
11) Construction Workers: Nirmala Sitharaman has advised the state governments to use the building and construction labourers' welfare funds to mitigate their economic turmoil due to the lockdown.
Industry analysts praised the efforts made by the government as financial markets responded positively after the steps were taken. It is a well-defined package which aims to make sure that no one is deprived of the basic necessities in these tough times, especially the poor people. Other organizations and companies are also doing their bit to help the underprivileged sections of the society, because of whom our normal lives function smoothly. We all hope that this crisis ends soon so that everyone can get back to their daily routines and live happily.
 ‘Ram Vilas Paswan assures availability of essential items during lockdown’ (The Economic Times, 25 March 2020) <https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/government-monitoring-availability-of-essential-commodities-in-market-ram-vilas-paswan/articleshow/74804390.cms?from=mdr> accessed 14 April 2020.  Arfa Javaid, ‘Nirmala Sitharaman announces Rs 1.7 lakh crore relief package for poor: Here's all you need to know’ (Jagran Josh, 30 March 2020) <https://www.jagranjosh.com/general-knowledge/relief-package-for-poor-1585222778-1> accesses 20 April 2020.
National Law University, Odisha.