Free ration for poor: precursor to a nationwide lockdown?

Amitabh Tiwari
·Columnist
·4-min read

The Central government has made a big announcement to provide free ration to the poor families in light of the second wave of the deadly coronavirus. As many as 80 crore families will receive 5 kg foodgrains for two months in May and June under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana.

This is expected to cost the exchequer Rs 26,000 crore. In the first wave, this facility was extended to the poor for six months from May to November 2020 and cost around Rs 90,000 crore.

In the prime minister's meeting with states, many chief ministers had placed this demand in front of the government.

Many state governments, over the weekend, have extended lockdown as COVID-19 cases rise across the country to hit a record 3.5 lakh cases in a single day.

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal on April 25, 2021 extended the curfew in the national capital by another week. The Chhattisgarh government has announced a complete lockdown in eight districts.

Maharashtra has announced complete curfew from 8 pm on April 14, 2021 till 7 am on May 1, 2021. Karnataka has announced a 14-day lockdown from April 27. The Jharkhand government has announced lockdown from April 22nd till April 29th with some exemptions.

Uttar Pradesh, Chandigarh and Rajasthan too have imposed weekend lockdowns. Tamil Nadu on April 25, 2021 announced a lockdown in the state from April 26th with some exceptions.

Himachal Pradesh has decided to impose curfew in 4 districts of the State. Lockdown has been extended in various cities and towns of Madhya Pradesh, including capital Bhopal, till May 3rd. Many states have imposed night curfews.

As per an analysis by Hindustan Times ten days ago, 57% of India was under some sort of curbs / restrictions. This number would have increased by now after new lockdowns / curfews put in by states.

Hundreds of migrant workers are fleeing Indian cities as new restrictions in some states to contain the pandemic have stoked fears that they will be left jobless again.

Data provided by Western Railways (for April 1-12) says that almost 4.32 lakh people have returned to states like Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Bihar, Assam and Odisha from Maharashtra.

According to a State Bank of India report, “From Central Railways, our estimate indicates that around 4.7 lakh reverse migrated to northern and eastern states from Maharashtra.”

Fearing a repeat of 2020, the government has proactively taken this step of free ration.

The objective of the decision is manifold:

(i) Workers remain put wherever they are (curb migration);

(ii) they don’t rush back home;

(iii) creating pressure on state governments;

(iv) transmitting the virus from urban to rural areas, and (v) further worsening the situation.

The central government doesn’t want to be caught unawares like in the first wave. The free ration program was announced a month after lockdown was imposed.

To avoid a major the economic crisis the government had to significantly increase the NREGA allocation. Migration had led to a severe labour shortage in industrial areas after the lockdown was lifted, impacting output. It took months for the labour to return and economic activity to stabilize.

Meanwhile, cases continue to rise in India and could peak by mid May with 5 lak new cases per day. Niti Ayog in a presentation during the PM-CM meeting has projected that Uttar Pradesh is slated to report more than 1.9 lakh cases every day by the end of April.

The ongoing deadly surge in the COVID-19 cases is expected to peak in mid-May, with the daily count likely to reach 5 lakh, and may subside by June-July.

According to a mathematical module devised by IIT scientists, the ongoing second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in India may peak between May 11-15 with 33-35 lakh total ‘active’ cases and decline steeply by the end of May.

All this is likely to put a significant strain on our already dilapidated health infrastructure. The PM has said that lockdown should be the last resort. The central government doesn’t want to be criticized for a hasty, unprepared decision like during the first wave, if push comes to the shove.

The free ration program indicates that the government feels jobs / livelihoods and incomes of the poor could be impacted in the short term due to curbs and restrictions.

Is a nationwide lockdown inevitable? I don’t think so. It may not be needed, hopefully. It all depends on how the numbers pan out in the next couple of weeks.

However, the government is keeping the ground work ready in case the last resort needs to be used. By doing this, it hopes it can avert a panic like situation perpetrated by its actions in the first wave.

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