The Centre on Thursday announced a slew of measures to provide relief to poor and vulnerable sections of the population during the Covid-19 crisis, but the efficacy of many of these will depend on a robust last-mile delivery mechanism, which has been badly affected right from the start of the 21-day lockdown.
Experts said most of the announcements pertain to beneficiaries of existing schemes. Hence, anyone who is not part of the current set of programmes may not be able to access the relief measures.
They also pointed out that in some cases, such as raising the MGNREGA wages by Rs 20 per day, the measures were already in the works and would have come irrespective of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Moreover, an ex-gratia payment of Rs 1,000 over the next three months is also minuscule, considering that it translates into around Rs 330 per month.
The Centre already gives a pension of Rs 200-500 per month to poor widows, handicapped and others. After the current announcements, this will go up by Rs 330 per month for the next three months.
The decision to speed up the first instalment of Rs 2000 under the PM-KISAN scheme to April 1, is also part of the ongoing programme.
In the case of MGNREGA, experts said wages were set to be linked to a new CPI-Rural index. This would have pushed them up from the current levels as the new index has a higher weightage for non-food items as compared to the current CPI-AL. But with the lockdown in force, the labourers may not get the work to earn the extra wages.
However, most welcomed the Centre’s decision to give an extra 5 kg of free food grains (wheat or rice) to all identified beneficiaries through the ration shops for the next three months, along with 1 kg of pulses per family.
“The free ration is a welcome step, but the big question is how to ensure their delivery when even ration shops aren’t opening,” said Dipa Sinha, a teacher at Ambedkar University and a member of the Right to Food campaign.
Sinha said deliveries will be a big challenge unless some sort of a doorstep delivery mechanism can be worked out. “A better idea would have been to organise community kitchens or distribute food packets to address the need of migrant labourers who are on their way home,” she said.
Former Food Corporation of India Chairman Alok Singh said that the food grain godowns are usually located 20-30 km away from a ration shop, and if the distribution channels are not clogged, the grains can be transported. He said some ration shops even have two months’ stocks with them. However, the challenge would be to ensure that beneficiaries can get to the shops, Singh added.
Reetika Khera, economist and a member of the faculty at Indian Institute of Management (IIM)-Ahmedabad, said that the direct transfer of Rs 500 per month to women Jan Dhan account holders for the next three months is too little.
“In case of MGNREGA, the work site may increase the risk of community transmission. These people should have been given cash,” she said.
The government is expected to bear an expense of Rs 5,600 crore on increased wages to benefit almost 5.5 crore families.
Some experts said that as penetration of digital payments is very low among poor households, it remains to be seen how the poor can come to the banks to collect their pensions during the lockdown.
“Penetration of digital payments among poor households is very low so people may start crowding the banks and business correspondents (BCs) to withdraw money, which will defeat the whole purpose. Home delivery of money through BCs and bank officials needs to be mandated,” said Anil Gupta, partner of MicroSave Consulting.
Moreover, dormant accounts belonging to women should be activated and there should also be the option for opening new account with “social distancing” in force, he added.