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Casual wages gone 'abysmally' low: FM asked to create urban job guarantee scheme

Counterview Desk
The Right to Food Campaign, which attended Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman-organised pre-budget meet seeking suggestions for the Budget 2021-22 on the social sector, has said that the hunger situation in India remains grave, even five months after the lockdown has ended, pointing out, its survey suggests, a large number of households report lower levels of income (62%), reduced intake of cereals (53%) and pulses (64%).
Insisting upon making provisions for a universal public distribution system that provides every individual with 10 kg grain, 1.5 kg pulses and 800 gm cooking oil, the top advocacy group, in its submission, has asked the Ministry to ensure 200 days of employment per household under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act and a National Urban Employment Guarantee Programme in view of sharp fall in wages in towns and cities.

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The factsheets recently released by the National Family Health Survey (NFHS)-5 show that there has been a stagnation and even increase in some states, in the prevalence of malnutrition among children. While this data pertain to the period before the lockdown, it can only be expected that the situation is much worse after.
The Right to Food Campaign along with a number of other networks launched the ‘Hunger Watch’ in September 2020 to track the situation of hunger amongst vulnerable and marginalised communities in different parts of the country, in the context of the Covid pandemic.
The Hunger Watch aims to conduct field surveys followed by local action towards demanding access to entitlements as well as drawing attention of governments and media to the prevailing situation of hunger in the country.
The Hunger Watch was conducted in 11 states. Vulnerable communities in rural and urban areas were identified by local activists/researchers who then shortlisted the households to be surveyed within these communities based on group discussions with the community.
A simple questionnaire was developed and administered using smart phones. This is one of the few in-person surveys that have been conducted since the pandemic. While the data being presented may not be representative of the district, state or country, they do, however, tell a story of deprivation of thousands of households in similar situations.
The preliminary results from the Hunger Watch show that the hunger situation is grave, even five months after the lockdown has ended. A large number of households report lower levels of income (62%), reduced intake of cereals (53%), pulses (64%), vegetables (73%) and eggs/non-vegetarian items (71%), worsened nutritional quality (71%) and an increased need to borrow money to buy food (45%).
Staggering levels of hunger witnessed during the survey showed inadequacy of measures under Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana
Government support in the form of free rations, and alternatives to school and anganwadi meals in the form of dry rations and/or cash transfers reached more than half the people (PDS having relatively better outreach). While this support from the government programmes has been crucial, the staggering levels of hunger witnessed during the Hunger Watch survey also showed the inadequacy of measures announced in the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana (PMGKY).
Many are left out and even among those who did get the entitlements, the overall consumption was still lower than what it was before the lockdown. This calls for urgently strengthening and expansion of these schemes.
We make the following demands to be considered for inclusion in Budget 2021, towards ensuring a hunger-free India:
  1. Make provisions for a universal PDS that provides every individual with 10 kg grain, 1.5 kg pulses and 800 gm cooking oil.
  2. Enhance the budgets for mid-day meals and Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) to ensure that nutritious hot cooked meals, including eggs, are provided through anganwadi centres and schools. 
  3. Include budgetary provisions for anganwadi-cum-creches and enhance the allocations for the National Creche Scheme (which has been coming down in the last few years). 
  4. In the context of the poor outcomes related to exclusive breastfeeding in NFHS-5 as well as nutrition outcomes, universal maternity entitlements are extremely important. The Pradhan Mantri Matritva Vandana Yojana must be expanded to include all pregnant women without any restrictions on number of births or conditionalities to be met. 
  5. Enhance the contribution of the central government towards social security pensions to at least Rs 2000 per month for old people, single women and disabled persons. This has remained at Rs 200 since 2006!
  6. In the past years, the allocations towards Food Corporation of India (FCI) have been much less than the actual food subsidy. Despite the additional grains being provided as part of Covid relief, the additional budgetary provision for FCI in the supplementary budget is only Rs 10,000 crore. This continuous underfunding of the FCI means weakening of price support to farmers and pushing them also into further debt. Government of India should provide adequate budget to strengthen the system of FCI.
  7. Ensure 200 days of employment per household under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) under the statutory minimum wages. Ensure timely payment of wages. 
  8. Even in urban India, wages for casual work remain abysmally low. Given the lack of social protection and the increasingly private provision of public goods like healthcare and education, a rise in the wage rate from very low levels is not only desirable but urgently needed. As such, there is an urgent need to create a National Urban Employment Guarantee Programme. Variations of this have already been operational in a few states such as Himachal Pradesh, Odisha, and Jharkhand.

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