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Feeding India In Corona Times

Feeding India In Corona Times

Dirty, unkempt streets, closed malls, movie theatres, restaurants, schools, colleges and workplaces! This is how India Inc., looked until a few days ago when the lockdown was relaxed. Why this happened? We all know that a virus, which existed only in science books and, probably, science labs, has taken over the entire world, forcing closures and lockdown across the globe.

However, the above description would be incomplete, without recalling several images that spoke about an India, which while having surplus food-grains had starving people. 

Millions of migrant workers with baggages over their heads and children in their hands were seen walking barefoot, all the way from Delhi, Mumbai and many other cities and towns, to their native places. Why? They had lost their jobs overnight and had no money to stay in cities like Delhi. 

They came months or years ago to the cities to earn a living, away from their family members, thinking they would be better off financially. Some had lost the 8 ft by 10 ft room they took on rent as the landlord knew that they would no longer be able to pay rent.

Our ministers appealed to the general public. “Please bear with the changed circumstances. Don’t throw people out of the rented places. Don’t ask people to pay rent. Allow them to pay in installments over a few months”. This is all our elected representatives could do.

Many state governments announced that the people would be given food. But how many could actually get? Many did not have ration cards. This writer also applied for an e-pass for availing of the food-grain facility for a kindred soul. But she never got a response. Nor did she get an acknowledgement of her application. 

Many people complained that their e-passes were rejected. The e-commerce companies faced similar issues. They either had no workforce to deliver or were facing supply issues. Many also did not get approval. To cut the long story short, the government had no clue how to deal with the situation.

Our health infrastructure was clearly inadequate to take care of the increased number of people affected by Coronavirus. The numbers started increasing. There were stories that our health workers had no safety equipment. There was a shortage of masks, gloves and hand sanitisers, forget the much needed Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).

In this hour of crisis, a sector -- that came forward and was attending to the immediate needs, be it migrant workers, daily-wage workers or health professionals – was the NGO sector, including civil society organisations. This was the same sector which has faced the wrath of the government and its policies over the last many years.

When our Prime Minister was busy asking the people to clap or light candles or clang vessels, the NGOs were busy resourcing food-kits, sanitisation kits, PPE kits, and creating awareness and fighting the pandemic on a war footing. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the PM-Cares Fund, there were organisations like Give India, Deepalaya, CRY, Goonj, Zomato feeding India, Protsahan and many others, who had already collaborated to work together for a common cause.

Even before the government could think of relief packages, the sector had already chalked out detailed plans for supporting millions of families. Volunteers had already started moving in the field, distributing food to millions, operating community kitchens and resourcing masks and PPE kits for the doctors. 

Many NGOs provided financial relief, ranging from Rs. 3000 to Rs. 7000 a month, depending upon the funds they could raise. It was certainly much higher than the Rs. 500 that was transferred into the Jan Dhan accounts by the Central government.

The government did realise the contribution made by the sector much later when we had reached mid-way of the Lockdown 1. The first letter came from the home ministry asking the NGOs to fill in details as to how they could support the government and how much money they would be spending.

The letter also had the details of the people, who could be approached for obtaining various permits for working on the field. It is a separate matter that those officials were not easily approachable. Nor were they available in their offices. 

The subsequent letters came from the NITI Ayog. The letters started with “Dear Friend”. Most of the NGOs were confused whether these letters actually sought help or were directions that they have to mandatorily follow. And there were a group of NGOs, which did not get any such letter, assuming that they were, perhaps, not in the good books of the government. In other words, the confusion never ended.

The relief package announced by the government was much less than what other developing countries have been providing. The schemes were just the refurbishment/ reiteration of the existing government schemes. For instance, the government allowed employees to withdraw money from the PF account. This provision already existed in the Act. 

Similarly, cash benefits to the farmers, widows and people with disability were already budgeted. Support to the construction workers was also announced from the existing construction welfare fund. In other words, a majority of the announcements did not entail any additional expenditure on the part of the government.

On a different note, how prudent a decision like this is to encourage people to withdraw their hard-earned and saved money from social security schemes? Would the government or the person who withdraws money be able to save it again? What would be left with the employees for a situation that may turn worse than this?

Be that as it may, we had just adjusted ourselves to the new way of living that the government extended the lockdown twice. Lockdown 3.0 came with certain relaxations. However, many were confused whether it is still a lockdown. We could see the rush on the streets again. Many state governments opened the liquor shops, without realising that people will suddenly come in huge numbers, flouting all social-distancing norms. 

The abrupt decision might have brought money into the government coffers but it was taken without taking into account the violence that women would be subjected to. Ever since the lockdown was announced, women and children were already at risk of being physically and sexually abused.

Not only this, many of the migrant workers and people from religious places were brought back to their native places. A majority of them were brought without complying with the guidelines, risking many lives. Needless to say, many were found to be corona positive. Now who would be answerable for this callous behaviour?

In fact, many were asked to pay for the journey, knowing well that people have lost their jobs and have no means to bear this expense! What a pity that a government that was elected with the motto – sabka sath sabka vikas – does not even know what the aam janta needs? And how it has to be given?

A report published in the India today magazine mentioned that NGOs fed more people than the government. Food was a basic necessity, which the government could not fulfil. In one of the letters Niti Ayog asked the NGOs to procure material from the FCI godowns. Was the government think-tank not aware about the transport issues? Or was it not aware that people will not be able to use food-grains like wheat without going through the grinding process?

There have been many incidents of suicide or people running away from the isolation centres and beating the health workers. The government has miserably failed in not only providing relief but also taking the people into confidence and convincing them that there is a life beyond corona, albeit, a little tough. Amid stigma, fear and uncertainty, how will India win this fight against Coronavirus?

Come June 1, the sector, which proved to be a boon, will soon be struggling for getting their certificates renewed. The NGOs are constantly under fear whether they would be able to retain their charitable certificates. Thanks to the new finance Bill, which was passed without amendments despite several pleas and letters from the civil society organisations.

 (The writer, a company secretary, can be reached at jassi.rai@gmail.com)

(Published on 18th May 2020, Volume XXXII, Issue 21)