THE second tranche of the economic package announced by the government on Thursday relies upon two existing mechanisms, the MNREGS and PDS, to offer wage labour and free foodgrains to migrant labourers returning from urban areas to villages.
However, there was no cash relief for the labourers, who have lost wages over 50 days of the lockdown. The one change seems to be the government’s offer to bear the financial burden of foodgrains for two months to migrants who are not covered either under the National Food Security Act (NFSA), 2013, or state government schemes. Announcing the scheme, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said their number is estimated to be around eight crore.
As per the announcement, migrants who don’t have ration cards will get 5 kg of wheat or rice per person and 1 kg of pulses per family for May and June each, with the cost working out to around Rs 3,500 crore.
While this is part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Rs 20 lakh crore package announced on Wednesday to tide over the Covid-19 crisis, the Union Food Ministry in fact has been offering additional foodgrains to states for those without a ration card from the first phase of the lockdown, starting end-March.
In another announcement, on April 7, the Centre had told states that they could avail additional foodgrains through the Food Corporation of India’s open market sales for non-ration card holders.
Additionally, in the third week of April, the Rural Development Ministry had released to states funds required for the first three months of the fiscal towards the MNREGS – the second half of the relief announced for migrant labourers on Thursday. In that respect, it is not an additional benefit as the labourers always had the option of taking up work under the scheme – which is demand-driven — in their villages.
Noted economists and opposition leaders have been asking the government for a one-time cash transfer to vulnerable sections like migrant labourers. Whether Thursday’s announcements will instead help stem their flow out of the city remains doubtful, given that the migrant labourers have been leaving for villages despite the MNREGS and PDS being already in place. Earlier, on March 26, the Centre had announced 5 kg free foodgrains per individual and 1 kg pulses per family under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana for existing beneficiaries of the NFSA.
The Finance Minister said, “We are engaging with state governments to make sure they know where these migrants are. Most of those who have no cards are staying in camps run either by the government or NGOs. Therefore, based on a rough assessment given to us by all the state governments, we think there are about eight crore migrants who will benefit through this free foodgrains supply.”
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Sitharaman also announced the rollout of the ‘One Nation, One Ration Card’ project. But this is still under works, and a nationwide integration is not likely before March next year. While the Centre had hoped to roll out the project by June 1 this year, only 17 states and UTs have come on board so far.
Sitharaman said, “By August 2020, 67 crore beneficiaries in 23 states, or 83% of the PDS population, will get covered by One Nation One Ration Card and we’re sure of 100% coverage of national portability by March 2021. All the states and Union territories will complete full automation by March 2021.”
Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution Minister Ram Vilas Paswan said, “States will be provided foodgrains to distribute to migrants free of cost. The list of beneficiaries will be taken up later so that the distribution starts immediately.”
Talking about how the MNREGS was supporting migrant workers who had returned to villages, the Finance Minister said the government had managed to generate about 14.6 crore person-days of work and offered work to 2.33 crore wage-seekers till May 13. She said wages under the scheme have been raised to a national average of Rs 202 per day against Rs 182 per day in the last financial year, and Rs 10,000 crore spent overall till date in the current financial year.
Incidentally, this revision in MNREGS wages was notified on March 23, a day before the first phase of the lockdown.
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