On Thursday (March 26), Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced the Prime Minister’s Garib Kalyan package — a range of measures that the Government of India will take to alleviate the economic, health, and food-related distress of India’s poor in the wake of the national lockdown to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus.
The FM said the package will cost the national exchequer Rs 1.7 lakh crore, which is 0.8 per cent of India’s estimated gross domestic product in the current financial year (about Rs 204 lakh crore). However, not all this money is in addition to what was announced in the Union Budget; some of the announcements refer to expenditure which would have happened under normal circumstances as well.
Ever since last Sunday’s (March 22) Janata Curfew, there have been demands that the government should come out with a relief package for the poor, as well as those in the informal sector, which accounts for 90 per cent of all jobs in the country — the demands increased after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a 21-day national lockdown starting March 25.
The FM’s previous relief package, announced on March 24, was primarily targeted towards the firms in the organised sector of the economy. The PMGK, which came 36-hours after the start of the national lockdown, attempts to plug these gaps.
There are five elements to the PMGK package.
#1 Medical insurance cover of Rs 50 lakh for all health workers (doctors, paramedics, Asha workers etc.) treating patients.
#2 Help for the poor and those engaged in the unorganised sector.
#3 Help for the poor engaged in the organised sector.
#4 Help for construction workers.
#5 Use the money already available in the “district(-level) mineral fund” to pay for medical testing and screening for the coronavirus.
The help is in two ways — free food grains, and cash transfers.
One, the central government, working with the state governments, will provide an additional quota of food grains free of cost to all 80 crore beneficiaries under the Public Distribution System. As such, PDS beneficiaries will get 5 kg of wheat (or rice) per month for the next three months. Additionally, each household (or family) — typically, a household is assumed to have 5 members — will get 1 kg of pulses per month.
Two, the government announced 6 types of additional cash transfers. These are:
* Rs 2,000 per farmer to 9 crore farmers under the PM-KISAN scheme.
* An additional Rs 1,000 per month pension for the next 3 months for those receiving old age, widow or disability pensions. This is one-time payment; in other words, it does not mean their basic pensions have been raised. This is expected to help 3 crore beneficiaries.
* Rs 500 per month will be transferred for the next 3 months to women holding a Jan Dhan bank account. This is expected to help 20 crore women.
* Over 8 crore women who are registered beneficiaries under Ujjwala Yojana will get one LPG cylinder per month for the next three months. While this is not exactly a cash transfer, these cylinders will be free of cost.
* Women Self Help Groups across the country — roughly around 63 lakh of them — can now take collateral-free loans up to Rs 20 lakh instead of the existing limit of Rs 10 lakh. This too, is not a cash transfer, rather an enabling provision for receiving higher credit.
* Wages paid for manual labour under MGNREGA have been increased from Rs 180 per day to Rs 202 per day. According to the FM, this move will help 5 crore households (since only one person per household can avail of employment under MGNREGA) and enable them to earn Rs 2,000 as additional income. However, the work needs to be done in a manner that ensures social distancing.
This help essentially relates to the Employees’ Provident Fund. There are two initiatives announced by the government — one in which the government actually pays on behalf of the poor and the other in which it enables the poor to withdraw their own money from their EPF accounts.
Under the first provision, the GoI will pay the EPF contributions — 12% of the basic salary — of both the employees and the employers for the next three months. However, this move applies only to about 4 lakh firms where the total number of employees is less than 100, and where 90 per cent of the employees earn less than Rs 15,000 per month.
The move is aimed at reducing the monetary strain on small firms in the organised sector that may feel compelled to fire employees given the mounting financial strain.
Secondly, the government has amended the Employees Provident Fund Organisation (EPFO) regulations to enable workers to withdraw a non-refundable advance from their EPF accounts. This amount is, however, limited to 75 per cent of the total money in one’s EPF account, or one’s salary for three months, whichever is lower.
So, if one earns Rs 20,000 per month, and has Rs 1 lakh in one’s EPF account, then one can only withdraw Rs 60,000 from it (not Rs 75,000). This move is expected to help close to 4.8 crore workers registered with the EPFO.
The construction sector traditionally employs a large number of people, especially those who leave villages and farming out of distress, and come to cities looking for work. However, construction activities have been severely hit over the past few years, given the sharp slowdown in the Indian economy as well as the mess in India’s real estate sector.
The complete shutdown of economic activity as a result of the lockdown has essentially rendered all labourers jobless overnight.
To alleviate the economic distress of construction workers, the government has asked state governments to use the money — roughly Rs 31,000 crore — already available in a welfare fund for construction workers.
The announcements related to the provisioning of food grains via PDS will be especially helpful. However, a few points need to be flagged.
One, some of the measures would have happened on their own. For instance, MGNREGA wage increases typically happen in April. Similarly, the first instalment of Rs 2,000 under PM KISAN would have been due in April.
Two, some of so-called cash transfer amounts are too small (like Rs 500 per month for women Jan Dhan account holders); some others are not really there (like the doubling of loans for women SHGs).
Three, there is the question of implementation.
For instance, at present many construction workers and labourers are struggling to reach their homes. To receive help, they will need to have been registered in a particular state, but there is nothing to assume that they are in the state in which they are registered.
Similarly, it is an open question how manual labour under MGNREGA can happen while maintaining social distancing. If a lot of people join in, there would be a concern of disease transmission — and if very few join in (fearing the disease) then the hoped-for benefit may not actually accrue.
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