Universalise benefits

Topics Coronavirus | Migrants | Lockdown

The sight of a large number of people, many of them migrant workers, crossing state boundaries, lining up for buses and in some cases simply walking along highways, reveals that the national lockdown will be ineffective unless accompanied by quick action on the part of the Union and state governments. Clearly, before the lockdown was imposed, better signalling was needed to the population of the importance of staying in place. But there are those for whom staying in place would not be a feasible option. Some daily-wage earners might worry about the ability to afford necessities such as food. Others might have no real place to stay, having been in temporary accommodation or refused further tenancy by a landlord, or are without money to pay the rent that is due. Thus, there is a certain involuntary component to their movement, which must be recognised. Most of those trying to reach their native places may not have a choice.

The problem is that large-scale movement clearly undermines the whole point of the lockdown. The lockdown, while costly and disruptive, may be the only way to avoid the large human cost of a swiftly spreading virus. Yet all the effort will be wasted if there is no clear control of movement, as well as careful quarantining of those coming from high-risk areas. This is both a problem of communication and a problem of action. But the second must predate the first — to reassure worried people, it is necessary to ensure first that there are facilities that can be effectively communicated to them and prevent them from taking the decision to move. The vital measure required in the current situation is to universalise benefits — access to cooked food for those who have no access to a kitchen, places to hunker down if landlords have thrown someone out, telecom facilities to make calls in case people can’t recharge phones, and free medical testing and protective equipment like masks.

It will be an expensive and difficult undertaking for the Indian state. But that is the cost of a (hopefully) once-in-a-lifetime public health crisis. This will require greater co-ordination between various departments and action from both the Union and state governments. At the moment many of these, including the Union government, have been slow off the mark. This slowness risks rendering the entire lockdown a pointless waste of time and energy, and opens the possibility that uncontrolled virus spread will create a humanitarian crisis at levels not seen in recent history. The chaos in the various government and departmental responses, as well as the confusion and concern that is widespread in India, is beginning to look like a repeat of the chaos of demonetisation — but with even more at stake. The poor can’t be left on their own to die either of Covid-19 or of hunger. Then there is the challenge of planning for a post-Covid world. According to the International Labour Organization, Covid-19 could render 25 million people unemployed and many more underemployed by virtue of reduced wages and working hours. This is especially critical in India, where a large part of the population is either self-employed or dependent on daily wages for their subsistence. There is no time to be lost.

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