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.