A humanitarian crisis begins to unfold as India goes under a ‘complete lockdown’

For the millions of migrant workers and daily wagers stranded on the roads amid the ‘lockdown’, with no shelter or food, hunger is more real a threat than the Coronavirus

Nidhi Jamwal
Environment Editor| Updated: March 26th, 2020

The world’s largest democracy with over 1.3 billion population is under an unprecedented 21 days nationwide ‘lockdown’ called upon by its Prime Minister Narendra Modi in an effort to contain the spread of novel Coronavirus in India. In his appeal to the citizens on March 24, Modi told people “do not step outside your house. For 21 days, forget what is stepping outside.”

While all modes of transport — road, air and railways — are shut (except transportation of essential goods and emergency services), the Union ministry of home affairs, issued guidelines on March 24 on essential services to continue operation during the 21 days lockdown. On the first day of ‘complete lockdown’, on March 25, the home affairs ministry also issued an addendum to March 24 guidelines, clarifying services exempted from the lockdown. Among other things, “coal and mineral production, transportation, the supply of explosives and activities incidental to mining operations” are exempted.

Meanwhile, the sudden announcement of a ‘complete lockdown’ (some states had already sealed their borders and enforced a curfew) has unleashed mayhem on highways across several states in the country as migrant workers, daily wagers, homeless people and other marginalised sections in the society are left high and dry.

The social media is flooded with videos of hapless people, carrying their meagre belongings on their heads, and endlessly walking kilometres in the hope of reaching their village homes. As workplaces shut down, these poor migrant labourers neither have any work, nor a place to stay in the cities. Despite several official declarations, many people are still going hungry.

The sudden announcement of a ‘complete lockdown’ has unleashed mayhem on highways across several states in the country as migrant workers are left high and dry

Ramsurat Verma, a daily wager lives on a footpath in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, and has no work for the last 10 days. “I am a daily wager. In the last few days, we have finished whatever food we had at home. How will we tide over 21 days of complete lockdown?” he worriedly asked Gaon Connection.

There are reports of migrant labourers stuck on the border of Gujarat trying to reach their respective villages in Rajasthan. The families of daily wagers are walking all the way from Delhi to their home districts in Uttar Pradesh. A couple of days back, there were visuals of a sea of migrant workers at the railway station in Chennai figuring a way to get back to their homes. Whereas Modi has appealed to people to stay put wherever they are, it is near impossible for the poor to continue living in cities with no shelter, no work and no food.

A humanitarian crisis is unfolding amid a major health crisis in the country.

If the virus doesn’t kill the weak and marginalised, hunger may.

On March 25, a 32-year-old man was beaten by the police in Howrah, West Bengal when he stepped out to buy milk. He later passed away.

The same day, the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs (CCEA) headed by Modi took a decision to increase the monthly quota of subsidised food grains from 5 kilogram (kg) per person to 7 kg a person for 800 million (80 crore) beneficiaries through the ration shops across the country under the National Food Security Act (NFSA), 2013. Also, wheat worth Rs 27 per kg will be provided at a subsidised rate of Rs 2 kg, and rice worth Rs 27 kg at Rs 3 kg. The states have been told to take food grains from the Centre in advance and distribute to the beneficiaries through the public distribution system (PDS).

As workplaces shut down, these poor migrant labourers neither have any work, nor a place to stay in the cities

“The relief announced by the Central government isn’t enough at all. It is just two kilogram over what they are anyway entitled to. And, the government has said nothing about the delivery mechanism,” Dipa Sinha, an expert on public policy, nutrition and public health told Gaon Connection. She is an assistant professor with the School of Liberal Studies at Dr B R Ambedkar University Delhi.

Already it has become a challenge to feed over 200 million anganwadi and mid-day meal scheme children in the country, as all educational institutes are shut across the country. It is only after the recent intervention of the Supreme Court of India that states have started to take some initiative to feed the children.

“The way workers are stranded in different states of the country with no shelter and no food, we fear for the lives of 340 million migrant workers in the country. A large number of them may die of hunger than the virus,” Chandan Kumar, a Pune-based labour rights activist told Gaon Connection. He is also part of the Working Peoples’ Charter that represents more than 500 million workers in the informal sector in India.

On the second day of complete lockdown, on March 26, the finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced Rs 1.7 lakh crore relief package with cash to be transferred directly to poor so that “no one will go hungry”. But how it pans out nationwide remains to be seen.

Right to Food Campaign Chhattisgarh has termed the recent announcement “too little and hopefully not too late”. To prevent starvation, it has demanded universal 10 kgs of free grain from ration shops for anyone on demand, free cooked meals in every panchayat for all in need, Rs 3,000 for every bank holder of welfare schemes for 6 months, and dry food ration for every child.

The social media is flooded with videos of hapless people, carrying their meager belongings on their heads, and endlessly walking kilometres in the hope of reaching their village homes

PIL seeking relief for the poor and marginalised

Taking note of the dire ‘lockdown’ condition of millions of poor and marginalised people in the country, a group of organisations have together filed a public interest litigation (PIL) in the Bilaspur High Court, with Chhattisgarh government and the Government of India as respondents, “to take immediate measures especially social security, welfare measures in the interest of the various vulnerable sections of society that are being affected by the COVID 19 shutdown.”

Right To Food Campaign Chhattisgarh, Chhattisgarh Hawkers Federation, Jayendra Jha and Amarnath Pandey are the petitioners of the PIL. They have asked for a series of relief including social security, food security/public distribution system (PDS), health, housing, transportation, education and communication measures.

Under food security and PDS, the PIL has asked for a 50 per cent increase in food grains quantity over the earlier entitlement to be given free of cost for the poor (priority ration cards and Antyodaya ration cards); and three months quantity to be given in advance. Apart from this, the petitioners have also asked the state and the Central government to arrange for free lunch and dinner for urban poor and destitute in government-run community kitchens near bus stands, railway stations, hospitals, religious places etc.

Similarly, under social security measures, the PIL has asked for a monthly unemployment allowance to be paid till the COVID-19 crisis continues to all, but not limited to unorganized sector workers registered with labour department, including construction workers, daily wage workers, street vendors, loaders. It has also demanded a 50 per cent increase in the existing social security pensions (old persons, disabled, widows) to be paid in advance by April 1, 2020.

“There is no progress on our PIL because the court is not conducting regular hearings. A group of senior advocates has already written to the honourable chief justice of the High Court of Bombay requesting to modify the procedure pertaining to affirming, filing and presenting cases as well as prioritising PILs during the lockdown period,” said Rajni Soren, advocate, Human Rights Law Network, Chhattisgarh.

“A 21-day lockdown will increase their [poor] hardships manifold… it is an earnest request that the justice system continues to be accessible particularly for the poor and marginalised during the present crisis,” reads the March 25 letter to the chief justice of Bombay High Court.

Meanwhile, the social welfare department of the Chhattisgarh government issued a circular yesterday, on March 25, listing nine measures to feed the beggars and destitute amid the shutdown. It includes identifying such people in need, and involving local non-profit organisations and religious organisations to cook hot meals and feed the poor and needy till the lockdown is in force. The food has to be delivered door-to-door by identifying a ‘route chart’, reads the March 25 circular.

Clearly, in a crisis, the government is passing on the duty of feeding the poor and needy to the non-profit sector, with district collectors co-ordinating the distribution.

A group of activists have asked for a supply of free ration along with cooking oil, pulses, salt, masala, and soap for a period of three months to be distributed in advance to all those covered under the National Food Security Act, 2013

What about 500 million informal sector workers?

The Working Peoples’ Charter, representing more than 500 million workers in the informal sector, has issued a ‘statement of working people’s charter on coronavirus in India’. Among other things, it has asked the Central government to “create a Rs 50,000 crores Emergency Workers Welfare Fund which can add to and complement the state relief packages and allow states with limited fiscal capacity to rely on central assistance.”

As part of ‘protective’ measures, it has demanded all the workers holding BPL and APL cards to be given ‘immediate cash transfer’ of Rs 10,000, or minimum wages of one month. Workers enrolled in MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, 2005) and agricultural workers should get an upfront payment for 50 days of minimum wages, along with Rs 10,000 or minimum wages of one month.

Further, workers possessing ‘construction worker welfare board card’; street vendors possessing licence for vending by municipal institutions; daily wage workers/migrant workers, domestic workers, waste pickers; auto rickshaw and tempo goods carrier workers possessing driving licence should also be given Rs 10,000 or minimum wages of one month.

The Working Peoples’ Charter has also asked for special trains “to ensure dignified transport to migrant workers in case the affected workers want to go back to their source states”.

An ‘emergency relief package’ of Rs 7,000 for each poor household for the month of April and May has been demanded

“The Centre is fooling the people by increasing grains allocation from 5kg to 7kg. Migrant workers are stranded on the roads. How will the PDS ration reach them? How will a worker from Bihar, having a ration card in Bihar, access PDS while stuck in Telangana?” questioned Kumar.

In addition to this, a group of public figures from different backgrounds in the country, have prepared a roadmap with immediate, medium to long term measures, including delivery mechanism of the food grains to the needy, to tide over COVID-19 crisis.

As part of the immediate measures, the signatories, which include Jean Dreze (visiting professor, department of economics, Ranchi University, Aruna Roy (president, National Federation of Indian Women), Jayati Ghosh (professor of economics, Jawaharlal Nehru University), Yogendra Yadav (social activist), etc, have asked for a supply of free ration along with cooking oil, pulses, salt, masala, and soap for a period of three months (April, May, June) to be distributed in advance to all those covered under the National Food Security Act, 2013.

They have also demanded an ‘emergency relief package’ of Rs 7,000 for each poor household for the month of April and May. This should be hand-delivered in cash along with three months of advance ration, reads the appeal.

Under the medium and long-term measures, the demand is for extension of duration and scope of MGNREGA and an urban version of this programme.

In a crisis, the government cannot abdicate its responsibility towards the poor and needy.