Under attack for its alleged apathy for the distressed migrant workers, the worst victims of the Covid-19 crisis, the Centre on Thursday announced free grains for the next two months for all migrants who don’t have ration cards in the states they have been working. This will cost the Centre Rs 3,500 crore and benefit about eight crore workers.
Asserting that the plight of migrant workers “tugs at her heartstrings”, finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman said each of them will be entitled to free rice or wheat of five kg, and each of such families will get one kg of pulses for free.
In another major initiative, the government has decided to introduce a ‘One Nation One Ration Card’, which will enable migrant workers to draw ration supplies at their workplaces from the quotas meant for their families living elsewhere, even across states. This would cover about 67 crore beneficiaries in 23 states, or 83% of the Public Distribution System (PDS) population by August and the entire country by March 2021, Sitharaman said.
The finance minister announced a Rs 5,000-crore special credit facility for street vendors, which is expected to benefit 50 lakh people. Under the scheme, each of them will be eligible for an initial working capital of up to Rs 10,000 to resume their businesses. The minister also pledged Rs 1,500 crore for offering a 2% interest subvention for the prompt payment of Shishu loans, which have a limit of Rs 50,000 each, under the Mudra scheme. This will help the small-time entrepreneurs in largely poor households.
The announcements were part of the Rs 20-lakh-crore relief package, announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Tuesday to tide over the damaging impact of the pandemic. The government has already announced two rounds of relief, including a Rs 1.7-lakh crore package on March 26 that focussed mainly on the poor and the vulnerable.
Sitharaman also listed several measures, both direct and indirect, taken by the Centre since the lockdown was announced to assuage the pain of migrant workers. The Centre has allowed states to utilise State Disaster Response Fund (SDRF) to set up shelters for migrants and provide them food and water. It has also released Rs 11,002 crore of its contribution in advance to all states on April 3 to augment funds in their disaster relief funds and bolster their responses. Three meals a day were provided for the residents of shelters for the urban homeless during the lockdown (since March 28).
For those migrant workers who have returned home, employment was offered under the MGNREGS. As many as 14.62 crore person-days of work was generated until May 13, which involved an expenditure of Rs 10,000 crore so far this fiscal. This marks a 40-50% year-on-year jump in such spending, the minister said. The workers also gained from the recent announcement to raise the daily average wage rate under MGNREGA to Rs 202 from Rs 182.
Commenting on facilitating migrant workers’ journey back home, Sitharaman said already about a million of them have gone back. The railways have offered 806 special trains for transporting the workers and its for the states to submit their demands for such trains and pay only 15% of the operating expenses (the Centre bears the 85% cost). So far, Uttar Pradesh has availed of 386 trains, followed by Bihar (206), Madhya Pradesh (67), Jharkhand (44), and so on, she added.