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It is to be welcomed that on the second day of the lockout the Union Government announced a lockdown relief package aimed mainly at the weaker sections. This shows the government recognition that a lot of efforts are needed to avoid a serious many-sided crisis during the lockout period and its immediate aftermath. Even leading opposition leaders like Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi have welcomed the package and so should we IF an additional sum of Rs. 170000 crore has actually been provided. Of course several experts and activists had asked for more than this—they still do—but a real, solid additional allocation of Rs. 170000 crore would not have been such a bad start.
However a question that is bothering many concerned people is– have the weaker sections really got a relief amounting to Rs. 170000 crore or whether a considerable part of this amount really amounts to a repackaging of what was already available?
- There is an announcement of big relief for construction workers . The impression created in the announcement is that this may amount to Rs. 30000 crore. But this is what has been already available with the construction labour boards for a long time for the welfare of construction labour households. If what the government means is that allocations from this amount will be increased during the lockout period then this is good but this is not an additional allocation at all. In this context the biggest recent concern has been that the construction labour laws of 1996 under which this welfare fund for construction workers became possible are themselves threatened under the labour code changes the government is making in the name of so-called labour reforms. Other similar laws which provide cess-based labour welfare funds are also threatened, as per numerous petitions made by organizations of affected workers to which they have not received satisfactory answers. It will be a big relief if the government assures that such protective labour laws will continue and will not be adversely affected in any way.
- Regarding the availability of Rs. 2000 for farmers under the Kisan cash-transfer scheme, it should be clarified that this will be additional to the three instalments of Rs. 2000 each in a year to which the government was already committed before the lockdown. So far 4 instalments should have been paid but in most parts of the country farmers have not received this, in most parts only one or two have been received. So actually the news is that, even if the promised Rs. 2000 reach all farmers, the government will still be behind meeting its commitments of cash-transfers to farmers. In addition there are questions of how farmers are defined, whether sharecroppers are included etc.
- A higher wage rate for NREGA was due anyway and benefits for this are likely to accrue only when the stage of social distancing has been passed, unless some new ways of limited work are found. An announcement could have been made that in April the government will clear all due NREGA and other payments of workers and this would have a big relief, although this only amounts to the government fulfilling its overdue legal obligation.
- Most welcome part of the package relates to additional free cereals and pulses. But please remember that due to disruptive recent and ongoing conditions, for example closure of schools , an enormous amount of food-products to be distributed under mid-day meals, ICDS and Sabla schemes has not been distributed by the government. Net of what was not given under ordinary nutrition schemes what is the additional contribution the government has actually made needs to be calculated, also keeping in view the fact that foodgrain stocks piled up in FCI godowns cannot be costed at market rates in any such calculation.
- Pension relief for weaker sections is also welcome to the extent that it has come, but we should remember that the commitment of the union government to pensions is shockingly low at present ( under NSAP of Rural Development Ministry) and what has been long overdue is a permanent and substantial upward revision. Budget after budget we have waited for this without getting the good news. In most states pensions are higher because of the additional contribution made by state governments and it needs to be checked whether the states will be required to make their additional contribution to the same extent as in the past before the lockdown special relief amount reaches them.
- . It is wrong to divert funds meant for welfare of mining workers ( district mineral foundation trust ) for other uses, no matter how necessary. These funds should be used for providing relief to mining and crushers workers , or to a category of workers close to this urgently needing help. If funds are diverted away from worker welfare then this is injustice, not relief, for workers.
In the interests of transparency and to get a proper understanding of how real relief to lockout affected weaker sections will evolve, the government should make it very clear how much of it is additional and how much of it is repackaging.
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As the government owes a lot of money to weaker sections comprising NREGA workers, midday meal cooks etc. this should be the right time to clear all such legal obligations within April.
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