New Delhi: The Narendra Modi government Thursday announced a Rs 1.7 lakh crore relief package, including cash transfers and free foodgrains, for the poor and migrant workers who have been hit the hardest by the Covid-19 lockdown and the ensuing halt in economic activity.
The steps announced will also benefit farmers, affected employees of the organised sector, and women.
Called the ‘Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan scheme’, the scheme seeks to provide the poor with 5 kg of rice or wheat per person and 1 kg of pulses per household free for the next three months. This will be over and above their existing food-security entitlement of 5 kg foodgrains and will benefit an estimated 80 crore people, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said at a press conference with Minister of State Anurag Thakur.
The government also announced several measures that will bolster the bank balance of poor households by way of direct benefit transfers under various schemes. The cash transfers will start flowing into the targeted bank accounts from April.
The government has increased wages under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) that will provide an additional income of Rs 2,000 for every worker every year, a step that will benefit an estimated 5 crore families, according to the government.
Besides this, payouts to farmers under the PM-Kisan scheme — which seeks to provide farmers with an additional annual income of Rs 6,000 — will be front-loaded and an instalment of Rs 2,000 paid out in April.
For the 20 crore women who hold bank accounts under the Jan Dhan scheme, the government will transfer Rs 500 each for three months. The government will also provide 8.3 crore poor households with free cooking gas cylinders for the next three months under the PM’s flagship Ujjwala scheme.
Widows, pensioners and the specially-abled will also get a one-time payment of Rs 1,000 into their bank accounts.
For organised sector workers, Sitharaman announced that the government will pay the employee provident fund (EPF) contribution of both the employer and employee for the next three months. This will be applicable for all entities that have upto 100 employees, and 90 per cent of whose employees earn less than 15,000 per month.
The government will also amend regulations to allow EPF withdrawals amounting to either 75 per cent of the corpus or the last three months’ wages, whichever is lower. This will benefit 4.8 crore workers registered with the Employee Provident Fund organisation, the government said.
The government will also ask states to use the construction fund, with a corpus of Rs 31,000 crore, for the benefit of the 3.5 crore registered workers to protect them from the fallout of the economic disruption. Other steps include doubling of the collateral-free loans available to self-help groups under the National Rural Livelihood Mission, to Rs 20 lakh from Rs 10 lakh.
The government has also announced a medical insurance cover of Rs 50 lakh per person for the 20 lakh front line health workers fighting Covid-19. This will include Asha (accredited social health activists) workers, sanitary workers, paramedics, nurses and doctors.
‘Helping the most vulnerable the immediate priority’
Sitharaman said the package would address the welfare concerns of poor workers. “Many migrant workers have been left homeless without any source of income. Poor and migrant workers have to reached out with tangible help and assistance,” she said, claiming that the government’s immediate concern was to help the most vulnerable.
Sitharaman did not answer queries with regard to the fiscal impact or the source of funding of these schemes, which is likely to adversely impact government finances in 2020-21.
PM Modi announced a 21-day lockdown Tuesday, taking effect Wednesday, as the government looks to contain the spread of Covid-19 through strict social distancing. But this has hit the poor and migrant workers hard, with reports of many migrant workers left stranded without any income or housing and essential supplies. Sitharaman said further measures for other sectors hit hard were being discussed.
Many Indian states have already announced economic relief packages for the poor, including cash transfers and free foodgrains. Former finance minister P. Chidamabaram had suggested similar measures to the Modi government in a statement issued Wednesday.