COVID-19: Bereft of clarity, why relief measures for Indian poor are not enough

Implementation of relief measures remains a concern. Those not registered under PDS scheme can be affected, say experts    

By Shagun
Published: Wednesday 25 March 2020
At kisanpuri mulganzari tank. Source: Flickr

As India entered a 21-day lockdown on March 25, 2020 to control the spread of novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19), questions were raised on how those on the periphery — daily wagers, migrants, homeless — will fill their stomachs.

Several states have recognised the need to provide free or subsidised food to the marginalised, for which they announced measures as well.

Kerala was the first to put a robust structure in place — as anganwadis shut down, the state government ensured home delivery of mid-day meals. ASHA workers made sure that food reached its 26,000 children registered under Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS). 

Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan announced that everyone in need — whether below poverty line (BPL) or not — will get free rice.

Other states soon followed suit. The Delhi government, for example, promised to provide 7.5 kilogram of free ration to its 7.2 million beneficiaries from March 30. It also tied up with non-profits to supply cooked meal to night shelters twice a day.

One the other hand, Haryana government decided to provide all BPL families their monthly ration for April free of cost. All government school children and those enrolled in anganwadis will be given dry ration.

On similar lines, Chhattisgarh government issued an order to provide dry ration instead of hot-cooked meals to children aged between three and six years and who were registered with anganwadi centres.

States like Maharashtra, Himachal Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh announced distribution of three months’ ration through their public distribution system (PDS) in one go.

The move came on the lines of central government announcement allowing 50 million PDS beneficiaries to lift their quota of subsidised foodgrains for six months in one go.

While Uttar Pradesh will provide free foodgrains for April and May to more than 8.38 million widows, aged and handicapped pensioners, Tamil Nadu will give Rs 1,000 to all ration card holders along with free rice, sugar and other essential commodities.

However, there is little clarity on the logistics of these measures.

For example, Karnataka government initially announced that food will be provided free of cost to the poor through state-run ‘Indira Canteens’. But after the lockdown was imposed, it closed all such canteens to avoid large gatherings. An alternate plan was not chalked out till March 25, 2020.

Delhi, meanwhile, abandoned its plan to set up kitchens across the city and decided to provide food in night shelters.

One of the biggest concerns is about migrant labourers and the homeless who are not registered under PDS scheme, and hence remain out of free ration schemes’ ambit.

To address this, a more decentralised system is needed, according to experts. They have warned that if appropriate measures are not taken, India could see high levels of malnourishment.

“It’s an extraordinary situation. It’s good that states have announced certain measures, but many issues remain unaddressed. Most measures announced are for those registered under PDS. What about the migrant labourers who are stuck in cities because of the lockdown?” said Dipa Sinha, convenor, Right to Food Campaign.

Rajesh Kumar, executive director, Society for Promotion of Youth and Masses (SPYM), which is providing cooked meals to over 4,000 homeless people in Delhi with help from Delhi government, said that PDS won’t help the ‘urban poor’ who don’t have the facility to cook. He added that there was a need to have a more decentralised system and involve institutions such as anganwadis. 

“The situation right now is more challenging in terms of accessibility rather than availability. Livelihood options for people are closed. We need a proper mechanism in place, not isolated measures,” said Sachin Jain, director, Vikas Samvad, a capacity building and advocacy organisation in Bhopal.

He pointed out that in states where the state governments have announced dry ration, the quantity needs to be doubled.

“Mid-day meals were provided to children based on assumption that the family is earning and getting food from other sources. Now the whole family doesn’t have anything to eat. So the quantity has to be doubled,” he said.

He added that in Madhya Pradesh, almost 45 per cent population comprised labourers and migrants.

“But there are no measures for them so far. The state allowed people to take ration of three months in one go because the godowns were full and new crop had to be cultivated. But ration includes only rice and flour. What about other essential items like oil and pulses?” Jain added.

In Chhattisgarh, there is little clarity on how dry ration would be provided for the next 40 days, said Gangaram Paikra, an activist.

“There is confusion whether the dry ration will be given at home or families would have to go to the PDS centre to get it. There is no mention of that in the order,” he said.

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