Prime Minister Narendra Modi received plaudits just about 10 days ago for showing unprecedented resilience in the face of adversity by imposing a 21-day national lock down. Even his critics and the opposition parties had to admit that in the wake of the spread of the killer Coronavirus, which could take thousands of lives, a lockdown was the only solution even if it meant a huge blow to the economy. What no one had then accounted for, was the mass migration of daily wage earners from urban centres to their homes in the tiny villages across the hinterland.
Heart wrenching news reports and pictures showing the plight of homeless and penny-less, desperate to return home started flooding social media handles, bringing much embarrassment to New Delhi.
While the government was quick to announce a Rs 1.7 lakh relief package under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana for the poor, who have lost their jobs due to the lockdown, it has not yet carved out any concrete plans to come to their aid to ensure their safe return to their respective homes or providing with shelter and food in case they wished to stay back.
The financial package is of no use if the benefits do not reach the eligible in time. Clearly it also does not address their immediate concern of food and shelter and when I say immediate, it means the next couple of days.
There has been no announcement on the implementation of the package either. Clearly that is no solution. All that the Centre and the state governments’ have done is to repeatedly urge citizens to help the poor.
And how will citizens help the poor on the road if no one is allowed to be on the road?
The government has to come up with a well thought out plan to rescue these workers, whose lives and livelihood need to be protected as much as those who have been rescued from other countries and brought back to the country.
Until the government addresses the immediate problem of the millions, who were engaged in the unorganised sector, it will soon lose face and goodwill that it won after imposing the lockdown as a precautionary measure, despite the timely action taken including the Rs 1.7 lakh crore relief package and the Reserve Bank of India’s injection of Rs 3.74 lakh crore into the system.
In case steps – not monetary but that of a socially equitable nature — are not taken immediately, the debate will soon take a different turn. One needs to take extraordinary measures during extraordinary times.
Why can’t the government use schools and university premises to shelter the poor for the time being? Why can’t food be provided to them at these shelters? The government must mobilise its district administrators to take steps to ensure that the daily wage earners get their due.
The loss and uncertainty are difficult to quantify at this point but after all, the fight to overcome COVID 19 should not result in the loss of lives due to hunger.