The Rs 1.7 lakh crore package announced by the government to mitigate the distress and hardship caused by the ongoing 21-day lockdown is aimed at a large population consisting of many segments. It has within its ambit women, farmers, MGNREGA workers, pensioners and many others. Women Jan Dhan account holders, women Ujjwala beneficiaries and women self-help groups are all included. These are all sections of people who are directly affected by the lockdown and who need support. But the benefits may have been targeted too narrowly so that the same set of beneficiaries might be getting most benefits while many others who are equally deserving may be left out. Those who do not have bank accounts or ration cards also need support and succour.
The package is in two parts — cash transfers to be made to the beneficiaries through banks and supply of essentials like rice, wheat and pulses through the public distribution system (PDS). The free rations will take some days to be distributed, and even the cash transfers are at least five days away as they will only be made on or after April 1. The payouts may even be seen as too late and too little. A day under lockout is longer than a normal day, and so sustaining themselves for a week may be difficult for many. MNREGA workers will get only Rs 20 more per day and the farmers’ Rs 2,000 is only an advanced payment. The PDS is inefficient or riddled with corruption in most states, and so the supply of essentials through them will not be easy. The government will have to ensure that the supplies actually reach the needy. There is also the danger of beneficiaries thronging ration shops, defeating the purpose of the lockdown. The authorities should give their thought to this aspect also.
Demands had been made to the government two weeks ago to draw on the overflowing food grain buffer stocks and distribute them among the people, in anticipation of the present situation. But the government has taken so much time to make a plan. In fact, even the lockdown could have been better planned and implemented. It should have enabled migrant workers to go home and PDS shops to distribute food to the poor before the lockdown. The challenge now is to implement the package effectively all over the country. It is a national task, with the burden mostly on the states, though Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman and her deputy Anurag Thakur, who announced the package, avoidably described it as a sign of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s large-heartedness and ‘ashirwad’.