India’s relief plan may leave millions without aid

DM Monitoring

NEW DELHI: Tens of millions of Indians stand to see few benefits from a coronavirus relief package worth $22.6 billion, economists and food rights activists say, a scenario that spells catastrophe for Karan Kumar, a struggling day labourer in the capital.
Living in cramped quarters at a construction site where activity has been halted by a harsh three-week lockdown to stem the spread of the virus, Kumar has been without work for days, unable to earn a daily wage of about $4. “I’m not suffering alone, my family is suffering with me,” said 32-year-old Kumar, who relies on his earnings to support his wife, five children and ageing parents in his home state of Bihar, one of India’s poorest.
“My wife calls up and urges me to get home anyhow,” said Kumar, one of 1,500 workers at the site. “She says that even if we are hungry, we will be hungry together.” Although India’s relief package promises some free food for roughly 800 million beneficiaries, economists and activists say few of those in need are registered with the federal food welfare scheme, or have the documents needed to secure benefits.
“I would argue for universal (food) coverage of rural areas and urban slums in most states for the duration of the crisis,” said economist Jean Dreze, who has co-authored books on hunger with Nobel laureate Amartya Sen.
India’s lockdown will push many more people into poverty and the government must ensure free food reaches everyone in need, Dreze told Reuters, estimating that a tenth of a population of more than 1.3 billion lacks food security now. Without such welfare, India could be facing a full-blown humanitarian crisis, especially if the government decides to extend the lockdown, experts say.
“Massive numbers of people will be pushed back into poverty,” warned Nikhil Dey, who runs farm rights group Mazdoor Kisan Sangathan.
The Indian government is monitoring the situation “very closely” and will ensure no one goes without food, said a top government official involved in the government food welfare scheme, who sought anonymity in line with government policy.