India’s virus lockdown leaves poor struggling to find food

India’s homeless eat a meal delivered by the government in New Delhi. A nationwide lockdown has left more than 800 million people facing acute food shortages. (AP)
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Updated 27 March 2020

India’s virus lockdown leaves poor struggling to find food

  • Massive $22bn stimulus package includes emergency rations for itinerant workers

NEW DELHI: Some of India’s legions of poor and people suddenly thrown out of work by a nationwide stay-at-home order began receiving aid on Thursday, as both the public and private sector work to blunt the impact of efforts to curb the coronavirus pandemic.

India’s finance ministry announced a 1.7 trillion rupee ($22 billion) economic stimulus package that will include delivering monthly grains and lentil rations to an astonishing 800 million people, 60 percent of people in the world’s second-most populous country.

In the meantime, the police in one state were giving rations of rice to shanty-dwellers, while another state’s government deposited cash into the bank accounts of newly unemployed workers. Aid groups also worked to expand the number of meals they hand out.

The unprecedented order keeping India’s 1.3 billion people at home for all but essential trips is meant to stop virus cases from surging above the 553 already recorded and overwhelming an already strained health care system.

Yet the measures that went into effect on Wednesday — the largest of their kind in the world — risk heaping further hardship on the quarter of the population who live below the poverty line and the
1.8 million who are homeless.

Rickshaw drivers, itinerant produce peddlers, maids, day laborers and other informal workers form the backbone of the Indian economy, comprising around 85 percent of all employment. Many buy food with the money they make each day, and have no savings to fall back on.

Untold numbers are now out of work and many families have been left struggling to eat.

“Our first concern is food, not the virus,” said Suresh Kumar, 60, a rickshaw rider in New Delhi.

He and his family of six rely on his daily earnings of 300 rupees ($4),

“I don’t know how I will manage,” he said.

In northeastern Assam, police began handing out rice in some of the poorest districts.

In India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, the government already sent 1,000 rupees ($13) to 2 million informal workers who are registered in a government database and have bank accounts. It was handing out free food rations to those are are not registered, though some in the state capital, Lucknow, said they weren’t aware of such handouts.

In New Delhi, authorities teamed up with local charities and aid groups to map out locations where the city’s poor congregate, distributing 500 hot meals cooked in schools and shelter kitchens.

Details of the programs, from how well-funded they were to how many people they hoped to help, remained scant, however.

“These are extraordinary times and proving food to the poor is a mammoth task,” said Vinay Stephen, who runs a nonprofit group working with the government to feed the capital’s homeless. “But we will do it.”

Economists had urged the government to create a stimulus package to blunt the effects of the lockdown on the poor, many of whom migrated to big cities for work and now now find themselves unable to earn a living or go home.

The $22 billion package announced on Thursday, which includes distributing five kilos (11 pounds) of grains and one kilo (2.2 pounds) of lentil beans every month from government stocks to 800 million people, is in addition to an earlier pledged of $2 billion to bolster the health care system.

It hasn’t been only the poor caught out by the lockdown. Even those with money to spend in shops have met with long lines and confusing regulations.

In Bangalore, people crowded roadside vendors outside a closed wholesale vegetable market. Others stood in line outside grocery stores behind chalked markings to maintain social distance.

People ignored India’s social isolation norms and crammed in to buy food at one store in Lucknow during the limited allowed window for shopping.


British Airways burning through cash, CEO urges unions to engage

Updated 04 June 2020

British Airways burning through cash, CEO urges unions to engage

  • Job losses necessary as cash reserves of IAG, British Airways’ parent company, would not last forever

LONDON: The boss of British Airways said its parent company IAG was burning through $223 million a week and could not guarantee its survival, prompting him to urge unions to engage over 12,000 job cuts.
British Airways came under heavy attack from lawmakers in parliament on Wednesday, who accused it of taking advantage of a government scheme to protect jobs while at the same time announcing plans to cut its workforce by 28 percent.
Planes were grounded in March due to coronavirus restrictions, forcing many airlines to cut thousands of staff as they struggle without revenues. Airlines serving Britain now face an additional threat from a 14-day quarantine rule.
In an internal letter to staff seen by Reuters, Alex Cruz, the chief executive of British Airways said the job losses were necessary as IAG’s cash reserves would not last forever and the future was one of more competition for fewer customers.
BA also wants to change terms and conditions for its remaining workers to give it more flexibility by, for example, making all crew fly both short and long-haul.
Cruz said IAG, which also owns Aer Lingus, Iberia and Vueling, was getting through $223 million a week, meaning that it could not just sit out the crisis. The group had €10 billion of liquidity at the end of April.
“BA does not have an absolute right to exist. There are major competitors poised and ready to take our business,” Cruz said in the letter.
He urged two unions which represent cabin crew and other staff, GMB and Unite, to join in discussions to mitigate proposed redundancies. Pilots union BALPA is “working constructively” with the airline, he added.
Cruz also joined other airline bosses in criticizing Britain’s quarantine rule, due to come into effect on June 8, calling it “another blow to our industry.”