Direct cash transfer needed for social net

Left-ruled Kerala responded in the most effective way by announcing a Rs 20,000-cr package, plus free ration and other measures to tackle the health and economic crisis. Delhi too has announced an increase in ration allotment besides food kitchens and night shelters. The cruelty here is that the AAP welfare model, with Mohalla Clinics and schools, requires interface with the public, which stands curtailed due to the lockdown.

Direct cash transfer needed for social net

Saba Naqvi

Senior journalist

Sometimes, a crisis lays the seeds of real change. Before the coronavirus hit the United States, a fierce debate had been going on in an election year about the need for a social net, including universal healthcare, versus corporate bailouts. As New York reeled under the crisis, I heard the Democrat Governor of the state, Andrew Cuomo, give a detailed briefing, telecast live on CNN. Among the other steps, he asked for nationalising medical supplies.

Meanwhile, in Italy, the country worst affected by the virus, a 52-member brigade of doctors and nurses from the communist-run Cuba landed at the request of the badly affected Lombardy region. Cuba has a fine reputation in medical care and sends its armies of 'white robes' across the world. Cuban doctors were at the frontline of the fight against cholera in Haiti and the Ebola in West Africa in 2010, but this was the first time they sent a team to one of the world’s richer countries. In a quote to the Reuters news agency, a Cuban doctor said: ‘We are all afraid, but we have a revolutionary duty, so we put the fear aside’.

We need a revolutionary zeal to help others that can come from just human compassion. The entire Indian economy, stalled by a national lockdown, will be devastated on a scale that we cannot imagine. As Africa remains largely unaffected by corona, any large spread in India would eventually mean the virus now reaching its poorest victims, unlike its human hosts in China, Europe and the US. Iran, too, in spite of economic sanctions and being hit by the virus, faces impoverishment but does not have the mass hunger, common to many parts of India. We may be a large powerful country, but are low on every human development and hunger index.

The question now is: in the post-corona apocalyptic world that will emerge, how will governments, both at the Centre and in the states, respond? It’s very reasonable to expect the Centre to eventually give breaks and bailouts to those busted industries that also employ thousands. But could we also see the beginning of something else: the recognition that India needs to create a social net, upgrade public health services and work towards a basic minimum income?

At this point, it’s been the Left-ruled Kerala that has responded in the most impressive way. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has announced a Rs 20,000-crore package, plus free ration for every household for two months, besides a slew of other measures, responding both to the health and economic crisis. Delhi too has announced an increase in ration allotment and promised to deliver the allotment for April by March 30, plus food kitchens around night shelters and Rs 5,000 to the construction workers.

But the AAP regime is faced with a conundrum. The AAP won an election on the basis of deliveries in health, education, free water, electricity and subsidised transport for women. They got strong voter support from the 1,000 slum clusters of Delhi of which 680 are recognised settlements. In none of these parts of the teeming metro is social distancing a possibility, even inside homes and shanties. The urgent question is: without much physical contact, how does a government now serve the poor in the time of calamity?

The cruelty here is that the AAP welfare model, mostly seen in the Mohalla health clinics and government schools, requires an interface with the public. That is now severely curtailed during a lockdown that now extends till the middle of April. Indeed, so perverse is the problem that corona presents that many people who would have otherwise volunteered are reluctant to physically lend a helping hand. The volunteers of AAP are severely strained; even health workers and nurses are being warned by their families to stay away and harassed by landlords and housing societies. To their credit, many continue to soldier on in the National Capital.

From the time, therefore, that AAP won a second term on February 11, they have been hit by one disaster following the other. The vicious communal violence in north-east Delhi was first, followed by the virus and lockdown. Even as the process of distributing relief in the violence-affected parts — which is never enough after a large population is dislocated — was going on, came the virus that demands social distancing. This means that relief camps and people rendered homeless, crowding any space, can be a source of infection. Where will people, whose homes are burnt or looted, go?

Meanwhile, one of the reasons why the Arvind Kejriwal government swiftly announced a lockdown on the heels of the March 22 Janata Curfew was the social touching and congregating that took place at 5 pm during the community clapping and banging of utensils suggested by the PM. By that time, the Delhi Government was shown assessments that the infection would spread in West Uttar Pradesh and people would cross the border to be treated in the National Capital. That would have overwhelmed Delhi’s already strained hospitals.

On the heels of that has come the national 21-day lockdown announced by the PM, without any specific relief measures till the time of writing. No one knows what is coming next. We are already seeing the horrific consequences in Delhi, one of the world’s most populated cities, where millions of daily-wage earners and migrants have stopped earning and they can’t depart for their villages.

State regimes and the Centre need to prioritise bailing out the poor first before putting in big bucks to bail out the banks and billionaires. The best that can come out of this calamity is that we start thinking of creating a social net and begin direct cash transfers beyond just promising them.

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