The poorest of the country are the ones hit most hard by the restrictions

Published - March 26, 2020 11:34 pm IST

A migrant worker carries his son as they walk along a road with others to return to their village, during a 21-day nationwide lockdown to limit the spreading of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in New Delhi on Friday, March 26, 202

A migrant worker carries his son as they walk along a road with others to return to their village, during a 21-day nationwide lockdown to limit the spreading of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in New Delhi on Friday, March 26, 202

Estimates suggest that more than 70% of the population of Delhi works in the unorganised sector. Often, the poorest from villages migrate to the city in search of livelihoods and work as daily wagers, with minimal or no savings to dip into in times of crisis. It is not surprising, therefore, that the 21-day curbs announced by the Prime Minister, albeit necessary, is pushing these residents of Delhi into abject destitution.

Reassurances by the Prime Minister and the Chief Minister that essential commodities will continue being available in neighbourhood shops, mean little to those who have no money to buy them. Heart-wrenching pictures of families carrying their young on their backs, walking towards villages hundreds of miles away during the nation-wide curfew, are a grim reminder of their economic fragility. Lack of social infrastructure and recurring expenses — the average rental for a jhuggi in Delhi is around ₹3,000 — make it unviable for them to continue living in the city without any source of income for extended periods of time.

A large number of Delhi’s children are no strangers to hunger. The post-mortem of three sisters aged two, four and eight, who died in east Delhi two years ago revealed that they succumbed to starvation — there was zero gram of fat on their little bodies. Since schools and anganwadis have been shut down due to the pandemic, children in the Capital are being denied their mid-day meals on which many subsist — putting them at grave risk.

The Finance Minister on Thursday announced a financial package to mitigate the disastrous consequences for the poor. While the measures are welcome and much needed, they are mainly focused on providing relief to those who are already covered in the food and social security net of the government. The supply of additional foodgrains to existing ration card holders and enhancing pensions of existing beneficiaries, while necessary, is in no way sufficient. These measures ignore the poorest, especially migrant workers, who have been excluded from the ambit of social security programmes of the government because they do not possess the necessary documents and proof of address.

No identity cards

Only 40% of Delhi’s population has a valid ration card, leaving lakhs of deprived residents out of the ambit of the Public Distribution System. Similarly, the pension scheme excludes a very large number of the old and the handicapped, who desperately need social security benefits. Now, more than ever, is the time for Delhi to learn from the experience of Kerala and other States which have universalised their social security programmes to ensure no deserving family is excluded.

In the meantime, it is incumbent upon the Delhi government to immediately deploy its resources to assist those who are left out. In addition to making sure that foodgrains and pensions are efficiently delivered to all, the government must set up proper shelters for the poor who are rendered homeless during this crisis and provide cooked food to those who need it.

While doing so, care needs to be taken to ensure that social distancing norms necessary to prevent the COVID-19 from spreading are adhered to, else the entire purpose of the curbs stands to be defeated. Currently, the Delhi government is distributing free cooked meals at all night shelters in the city. Experience of the first two days of the curbs is clearly showing at the 234 shelters are not adequate to feed the needy.

COVID-19 hotspot

Thousands have been congregating at meal times making these places hotspots for the spread of the dreaded COVID-19. Also, not everyone who needs food is able to reach these centres during curfew conditions. There is an urgent need to decentralise the distribution of cooked food. The network of anganwadis and government schools must be used to enable easy access and prevent overcrowding. It is critical that the mid-day meal scheme, and support to pregnant and lactating mothers, be immediately resumed.

There is no excuse for putting the already vulnerable at greater risk. This would also be in line with the recent Supreme Court judgment directing States to promulgate policies to immediately ensure provision of these meals. Implementation of curbs in a city like Delhi, with its teeming, poor and vulnerable population was never going to be anything short of a herculean task. Lack of proper planning and prompt implementation of requisite emergency measures could hurl the national capital into an economic and health abyss.

(The author is a social activist associated with Satark Nagrik Sangathan, a citizens’ group working to promote transparency and accountability in government)

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