With lockdown extended and little relaxation in some essential services, the plights of poor are not going to reduce for sure. Lakhs of migrant labourers are struck in metro cities, far away from their homes. The concern which government demonstrated in arranging buses to send 1,800 pilgrims from Haridwar back to Gujarat or another 1,000 from Varanasi back to South India, Maharashtra and Odisha or 7,500 students from Kota back to different places in Uttar Pradesh for free, accompanied by security and food packets, was missing when it came to migrant workers who were largely abandoned. It is disturbing why the most reliable means of transport – railways – was not used either immediately before or during lockdown and instead buses, which cost more than two times the rail travel and were unaffodable for a number of workers, were made available which could not have handled the numbers.
Their earings dipped to zero and small savings have exhausted. As the days are passing, the problems of daily wage labourers are getting worse. Their food reserves have already been depleted and now they are totally dependent on inadequate and erratic supply of ration and food from government and Non Government Organisations.
When a labourer from Chhattisgarh called up Lucknow Nagar Nigam to get food, one packet was delivered for the family and when enquiry was made about the next meal of the day, the reply was that they should take some extra when they get food during the day which they can use in night as well. From the next day there was no food delivered even once at this site. We saw horrifying pictures of outrages in Delhi, Surat and Mumbai. The discontent is only going to spread as the hunger knows no law. The government has an inkling of it. The Prime Minister who in his announcement for three weeks lockdown had mentioned ‘jaan hai to jahaan hai’ (implying life is more important than livelihood) has now said ‘jaan bhi jaroori hai aur jahaan bhi’ (meaning life and livelihood both are important).
We should not forget that industrialist lobby has a heavy bearing on government’s decisions and long lockdown period will hamper their interests gravely. On the other hand, health concern of middle and upper class which is prominent supporter of Bhartiya Janata Party will not allow the government to take drastic decision of lifting the lockdown altogether. So, in the weeks to come we may witness more offices and industrial sectors to resume in restricted manners. It will give relief to the employees of organised sectors.
But for the workers of unorganised sectors the things are not going to improve in the days to come with suggestion by government that mechanised harvesters should be employed instead of manual labourers even in agriculture. The most vulnerable population will be the last to come out of the sanction. How will these people survive without sufficient food and other essentials is a question which nobody wants to confront.
A foreign origin Indian economist Jean Dreze first suggested in an article in The Hindu that government should open up the 7.7 crores tons of food stock in Food Corporation of India godowns to meet the requirements of people. This did not register on the conscience of nation. Then three Indian economists, two of them Nobel laureates and all three teaching in top United States universities, wrote a joint article in Indian Express reiterating the point. The government had announced that every family member whose name appears on ration card will get 5 kg food grains for free. Distribution of this began in mid April, 3 weeks into the crisis.
Now the UP Chief Minister has declared that people without Adhar cards or ration cards will also get ration. However good intentions are likely to be mired in red tapsim when they are implemented by an insensitive government machinery.
Complaints have been received from different places that a number of units in ‘Priority’ category ration cards where every member is entitled to 5 kg food grains at the rate of Rs. 2 per kg for wheat and Rs. 3 per kg for rice have been struck off leaving the families poorer of ration supplies. When three families from Village Pipri Narayanpur of District Hardoi made an online application for ration card with all the required documents they were informed by the Fair Price Shop owner that their names have been provisionally included in the list of people entitled for ration but they will start getting their ration after 3 months.
When twenty families all belonging to Scheduled Castes complained from Village Chandpur Faridpur in District Sitapur that they did not have ration cards, only seven whose woman head had Adhar card and bank account both were entertained. Five of these families where the husband of woman head has Adhar card and one even has a bank account and the remaining eight who have no Adhar cards or bank accounts have been denied the benefit of free or subsidised food grains and the Rs. 1,000 which every ration card, job card or labour card holder is going to get in their bank accounts.
Raziya, whose husband is a mini pick-up van driver but has suffered a paralytic attack, in Lucknow city who got Rs. 1,000 in her bank account thanks to intervention of CM’s office is enquiring merely after a week how she can get more help to sustain her family pointing to the inadequate amount being given. Similarly Rs. 500 in Jan Dhan accounts held by women is a pittance.
Ministry of Cosumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution has said that people not covered under National Food Security Act will get 5 kg food grains per month for 3 months at the rate of Rs. 21 per kg for wheat and Rs. 22 per kg for rice. The ministry also intends to provide food grains to NGOs at this rate for relief work. It is an admission of fact that government is not able to reach food grains to the needy which it thinks NGOs are in a better position to do. The fact is that migrant labourers, daily wage labourers, rickshaw pullers, nomads, sex workers, transgenders and such marginalized people who do not have ration cards are being taken care of by civil society organistations. CSOs and individuals throughout the country are working in full swing in support of the government to reach necessary relief materials to the most afflicted people with no support from anywhere else. The prime concern and priority of these organisations/individuals has been to let no one go hungry. Such a zeal is not being matched by the government. Why does the goernment want to sell food grains to NGOs which it expects them to provide for free to people?
It is true that the pandemic is severe and no nation can take it lightly but India has a very different situation. Our fight is not only with the corona but also with hunger caused by unemployment during and post lockdown. According to a survey by Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy unemployment rate has risen to 23.4 % as of 5 April 2020.
The government must pay heed to the advice of four eminent economists mentioned above and distribute free ration to anyone who cares to stand in the queue in front of FPS. There has been a demand for universalisation of Public Distribution System for a long time in this country. Today it is the need of hour. The exclusion of well off (or well fed) will be voluntary. It beats logic why government still insists on two categories when the rate of food grains is same for both in normal times and why it chose only Antyodaya category for free distribution during lockdown? It has created an additional category outside NFSA under which people, who are most likely the most marginalised and that is why were left out, will have to buy at open market rate. It appears that bureaucracy does not want to give up the control.
Government data says that there are 38.33 crore PM Jan Dhan accounts. Similarly, there are about 12 crore workers registered under Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act having bank accounts. The registered labourers also have bank accounts. Now bank acocunt details of ration card holders are being collected. The government must transfer minimum wages for every day of the period of lockdown in these bank accounts. If most of the organised sector is guaranteed their salaries for the lockdown period why shouldn’t that benefit be extended to the unorganised sector?
What is most important in this time of crises and uncertainty is to provide a sense of security to our poorest population that the government and the nation is standing behind them and they will not be left to fend for themselves, similar to the manner in which the government has done for pilgrims and students.
By Praveen Srivastava, Anand Mathew, Joseph Nitilal and Sandeep Pandey
(Writers are social activists based in Lucknow and Varanasi.)