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Increase relief package by 3-4 times, help migrants: Labour economists' letter to Modi

Counterview Desk
Addressed to prime minister Narendra Modi and state chief ministers, a petition drafted by experts associated with the Indian Society of Labour Economics has said that, as in any natural disaster, the governments’ capacity and preparedness to face the outcomes of the coronavirus pandemic has to be augmented by that of civil society, as has been done in Kerala and Chhattisgarh.
Pointing out that nearly 10 to 15 million people, forced to migrate because of the sudden lockdown, particularly require urgent help, the memorandum, prepared by KP Kannan, Alakh Sharma, Ravi S Srivastava, with inputs from Ritu Dewan, Aasha Kapur Mehta, Nisha Srivastava, SK Thorat and Anjor Bhaskar, sought their intervention on the need to scale up the Rs 1.7 lakh crore package announced by finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman.

Text:

As the corona pandemic, and measures to contain it, unfold, we are witnessing a humanitarian and economic crisis of unprecedented proportions. The Central government has announced a Rs. 1.7 trillion package aimed at alleviation of the impact of the lockdown on the poor (Pradhan Mantri Gharib Kalyan Yojna) over the next three months. It is also heartening that a number of states have announced additional measures and relief packages varying in nature and scale.
These measures will have to be scaled up with immediate and unconditional financial and other support from the national government given the magnitude of the crisis that the country as a whole is facing. Therefore we appeal to the Government of India and all the State Governments to initiate urgent additional measures that are required to address critical gaps that exist in the short-term relief measures announced so far. These are listed below:

Immediate measures by governments to provide for food and subsistence requirements:

Cash and kind assistance, and food for the homeless and most distressed, is urgently required by the poor in the informal economy who have lost jobs and incomes. We propose the following:
  1. Cash Income Support: The stoppage of employment and incomes for those in the informal economy urgently necessitates cash income support. The Centre’s announcement of transferring Rs 500 per month to each Jan Dhan Yojna (JDY) woman account holder is grossly insufficient. The Centre and States together should try and ensure a minimum transfer over the next three months of at least Rs 6,000 per month with a major part borne by the Central Government. All households who do not have a tax payer or a formal worker should be eligible to receive the cash transfer through bank accounts. Assuming that about 20 crore households will require such assistance, the total quantum of assistance will be about Rs 3,60,000 crores over three months.
  2. Rations: There is a growing consensus among central/state governments that PDS rations be increased to ten kg per person per month and should also include other essentials – including pulses, oil, soaps, gur/sugar. The Central government has declared 5 kg free rations plus 1 kg free pulses as supplementary monthly ration. Many state governments have announced free basic or enhanced rations. We request all state governments may be asked provide free basic rations (with supplements) free of cost, so that the entire rations can be free for the eligible households. 
  3. As model employers, all central and state government establishments, statutory and public sector organisations should immediately announce that all contract and outsourced employees will continue to be paid full wages during the lockdown. Government of India should send a similar message to all incorporated private enterprises in this hour of survival crisis being faced by workers. 
  4. Some states have already announced increases in old age pensions and ex gratia transfers to workers, including construction workers. We welcome these steps as a good beginning. But States should advertise the mechanism they are following to put their announcement into practice. The Central government has also declared that it will issue a direction to all states to make ex gratia transfers to all construction workers registered under the Boards. This should be done immediately and all states should make immediate ex gratia payments to the registered construction workers through the Construction Workers’ Welfare Fund. All other Central Welfare Funds should be utilized to provide immediate assistance to other workers such as Bidi workers and similar sources should be utilized for other categories of unemployed workers. 
  5. In a time of an epochal crisis such as the present one, special effort has to be made to make assistance to be provided on a non-discriminatory basis, and covering those who for some reason have been wrongly excluded. Special efforts and drives should be carried out to include scheduled castes and tribes, persons of third gender, migrants etc. Not all poor households, particularly migrants, have functional bank accounts, and proper mechanisms need to be evolved on how cash assistance be designed for them. Similarly, special efforts should be put in place to identity and provide rations to landless households/individuals who do not have ration cards or whose ration cards have been deleted mistakenly and to identify and include persons who have been left out of the National Social Assistance Programme (PNSAP) list. 

Urgent steps to deal with stranded populations

  1. The sudden lockdown has created a serious humanitarian and public health crisis involving vulnerable migrant workers and their families. Casual migrant workers, particularly those in construction, manufacturing, and transport workers – who could number 50 to 60 lakh -- are highly impacted by the crisis and most want to head back immediately to their source villages, even under great odds. Many of them have accompanying family workers, so that this number is likely to spill over, in our judgement, to 10 to 15 million. If the lockout prolongs, migrant self-employed daily earners and informal regular wage workers may join these workers. Already lakhs of workers and their families, and also students, are on the roads, prepared to travel long distances. These numbers could mount if the lockdown extends.
  2. The Central government has directed that there should be no movement of migrants and that district and state boundaries be sealed. In our view, this will exacerbate the humanitarian crisis and may result in crowding and consequential serious public health issues. 
  3. We believe that migrants could be encouraged to stay back but not coerced. The facilities and space at the disposal of the Centre and the States should be utilized such that there is no crowding for migrants who stay back, and food and subsistence facilities should be made available. State Governments should immediately summon all facilities, public and private, for sheltering the migrant workers as well as to quarantine and create new treatment facilities. These could include all academic and public institutions such as schools and colleges, hotels, hostels, marriage halls, guest houses, and similar facilities. Government of India should also appeal to all places of worship to provide their facilities for health care and/or sheltering migrant and indigent population. 
  4. Many state governments including Kerala and Delhi have ramped up community feeding programmes for migrant and homeless populations. Kerala has already opened more than 4000 camps for sheltering the migrant workers. We would request all states should step in with similar measures. Government of India should announce that it will defray the cost of sheltering and feeding migrant workers and their families as a matter of national responsibility given their contribution to the national economy. The private sector should be asked to contribute to this effort generously. 
  5. The NDMA should immediately and urgently oversee a coordinated and coordinated arrangement for transporting migrant workers who are already on the road by special trains, buses, or trucks. This should be done on a war footing. The Government should extend the transport vehicles and personnel of the paramilitary forces to the affected State Governments. If necessary the help of the Army should be made available. In our view, migrants will be better off and safer in their home environments than if they are kept back in crowded and congested areas, separated from their families and communities. 
  6. Some state governments have imposed compulsory isolation of 14 days on all returnees in public shelters. We do not wish to comment on the desirability of putting all returnees under compulsory isolation in public facilities at this stage of disease transmission. In our view self-isolation at home under community supervision may be a better solution, if this is considered necessary to contain the spread of the pandemic. Source states should issue clear advisories on the safety and health of the returnees and the host populations and involve the PRIs and local bodies. 
  7. Dedicated multi-lingual help lines for migrants should be set up immediately in all states and committees should be set up with the participation of organisations having experience of working with migrant workers. In this connection, we have already noted the App developed and made available by the Government of Kerala (GoKDirect) with information provided in 6 languages. 
  8. The Special Disaster Relief Fund created by the Prime Minister should be used for providing assistance to the migrants and for facilitating their stay, transport, and safe relocation to their homes, as the case may be. 

Measures to ensure safe harvesting and post-harvesting activities in rural areas

We are already in the middle of the Rabi harvesting season when standing crops have to be harvested, processed, and sold. Some states have already issued notification declaring harvesting and post-harvesting activities, including mandi operations, as essential services. The Government of India has also issued a second addendum to the lockdown guidelines exempting essential farming related operations, including movement of machinery. 
About 20 crore households will require assistance. The total quantum to be required will be Rs 3,60,000 crore over three months
Clear notifications should be issued by all states, which should safety guidelines. Procurement at minimum support price (MSP) and storage needs by the Food Corporation of India (FCI) and State FCIs needs to be enhanced to prevent a famine like condition from evolving. 

Support of civil society and voluntary workers be enlisted in identifying vulnerabilities and assisting with the deliverables

In all natural disasters in the past, civil society has played an important and prominent role in relief and rehabilitation. As in any natural disaster, the government’s capacity and preparedness to face the outcomes of the pandemic has to be augmented by that of civil society. The Government of India has set up a portal for the enlistment of individuals and organisations. 
This is also already happening in many states. The Government of Kerala has already announced the formation of a Community Volunteer Force with a strength of around 2.4 lakh persons to provide support services at the Village Panchayat and Municipal level. Within a couple of days, more than one lakh persons have already registered through an online registration. The Jharkhand Government has also enlisted the support of volunteers. 
All state governments should set up committees at the Village Panchayat, Block, District and State levels, start on-line portals, and organisations could indicate the nature of the resources that could muster, areas of work, support required etc. Panchayat leaders and officials and sub-district health staff should be educated and trained at the very earliest.

Ensuring the safety, security, and welfare of the front-line workers, who are at risk

At present, the Central and state governments have to equip the frontline health workers and the hospitals, which should remain the top most priority for all governments, but frontline workers also include others engaged in essential services on behalf of governments (such as sanitation workers), or private firms (delivery workers, workers in chemist shops etc.) who also are at greater risk and under hardship. States should announce specific measures for the safety, job security, and welfare of all such workers and private employers should also follow up.

Release of prisoners

Some states such as Delhi and Maharashtra have already announced the release of prisoners from overcrowded jails addressing public health concerns and releasing precious resources for other purposes. State should release under-trial persons and political persons, or those in jails for minor issues, in order to immediately decongest prisons and jails.

Revised NDMA Guidelines on the Lockdown suitable for India’s Context

The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) Guidelines have been revised from time to time through addendums. They should be comprehensively revised to allow people to deliver, as well as access essential services, while maintaining social distancing and other public health related measures necessary under the present circumstances. 
Guidelines and explanatory videos should be cognizant of the nature of urban Indian and rural society, levels of homelessness, overcrowding, illiteracy etc. and large scale educational campaigns should be carried out and concerns addressed through press conferences on a daily basis. Police are themselves frontline workers performing their duties under difficult circumstances but clear instructions should be issued to police in the light of these detailed guidelines not to harass distressed citizens who are either trying to provide, or access, essential goods and services.

Larger Support from the GoI is the need of the hour

The Government of India as a sovereign institution alone has the fiscal capacity to raise significant financial resources. It should do so immediately by a three to four fold increase of the current relief package. It should also play a clearer and stronger role interstate coordination and mobilization of non-fiscal resources. This was sadly lacking with respect to the stranded workers in cities and destination states.
We request you to urgently consider the above proposals and to take the necessary decisions at your level.

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