Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s address to the nation on Tuesday night invited scrutiny after it made no mention of an economic package or relief measures for the marginalised in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Opposition parties questioned Modi and the central government on how it would provide food and others essentials to the poor, migrant labourers and daily wage workers as the lockdown cut off their livelihood for three weeks.
While BSP president Mayawati appealed to the centre and all state governments to provide essential commodities to the poor for free, SP chief Akhilesh Yadav asked the government to take action on the rising prices of essential commodities like milk, grains, vegetables and fruits and medicines.
But several people also drew comparisons between Modi’s lockdown speech and the one made by Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan and the money devoted to relief measures by both.
Last week, as Modi announced the janta curfew, Pinarayi was announcing a Rs 20,000 crore special package to help the people of Kerala during the fight against coronavirus.
The plan included health package, loan assistance, welfare pensions, MNREGS, free food grains, subsidised meals, tax relief and arrear clearance.
When the state announced lockdown on Monday, the CM said special care would be given to daily wage labourers, people quarantined at home and migrant workers and promised the delivery of food at home, if needed.
On Wednesday, after the nation-wide lockdown began, the Kerala cabinet announced it would provide free food grains to all ration-card holders in the state.
Local bodies were asked to identify houses of the marginalised—the elderly, the disabled and transgender people—so that food and essentials can be provided to them directly, Malayala Manorama reported.
Hours before Modi’s speech, Tamil Nadu CM Edappadi K Palanswami had also announced a relief package for people whose livelihood would be affected by the state’s lockdown.
On Wednesday morning, Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal announced relief measures for construction workers, the homeless, the elderly and the disabled.
What should the Centre be doing?
In his two addresses to the nation, the prime minister urged people to pay domestic workers their full salary and announced a Rs 15,000 crore package for medical equipment for the healthcare sector.
“The need of the hour is an economic package,” Madhura Swaminathan, head of the economic analysis unit of the Indian Statistical Institute in Bengaluru told Reuters. “Asking people to stay at home is necessary but the majority of the population can’t afford to sit at home without work and pay.”
“The first step is to make good use of existing social-security schemes to support poor people — pensions, the Public Distribution System (PDS), midday meals, and the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), among others. Initial measures could include advance payment of pensions, enhanced PDS rations, immediate payment of MGNREGA wage arrears, and expanded distribution of take-home rations at schools and anganwadis,” Jean Drèze, activist and visiting Professor at Ranchi University’s Department of Economics, wrote in The Hindu.
Drèze wrote that the scale of relief measures required money from the Central government.
While former finance minister P Chidambaram pointed out the many ways the government needed to intervene to help Indian citizens tide over this crisis, the Right to Food campaign wrote to Modi, demanding urgent steps to ensure social security for poor and informal workers.
“This situation is worse than war,” said Arun Kumar, an economics professor at the Institute of Social Sciences in Delhi told The New York Times. “If we are not able to provide essentials to the bottom 50 percent of the population, then there will be social revolt.”