Coronavirus Outbreak: Are the COVID-19 schemes introduced by the Indian government working for the rural poor?
Survey findings reveal that despite government reassurances, just a fraction of people have benefited from direct cash transfer and free ration schemes.
The COVID-19 pandemic has temporarily paralyzed numerous countries. Many people are under some degree of lockdown to control the spread of the novel coronavirus . Governments have had to pass massive stimulus packages in the form of handouts to vulnerable populations, tax cuts and subsidies, and low-interest loans to help people and small businesses survive the economic catastrophe.
MyUpchar spoke with Gram Vaani, an IIT-Delhi social tech company that, amongst other initiatives, collects data from marginalized populations using Interactive Voice Response (IVR) technology. Gram Vaani has developed a voice-based participatory media platform and deployed it across 25 districts. In a recently published survey, respondents from Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand and Bihar replied to 11 multiple-choice questions (MCQs) detailing their experiences of the lockdown. The findings reveal that despite government reassurances, just a fraction of people have benefited from direct cash transfer and free ration schemes.
The situation of the rural poor in MP, Bihar and Jharkhand
A total of 1,737 people across the three states responded to the survey which was held between March 24 to April 14 - the initial duration of the lockdown. Out of these, 840 were from Bihar, 398 were from Jharkhand and 499 were from Madhya Pradesh. The majority were involved in farming activities, and the remainder were largely daily wage labourers.
Overall, over 60% of the respondents said they had not received the free ration to which they were entitled, and half of them had not received the financial assistance that was guaranteed to them. Worryingly, 25% had said back then they would not be able to manage if the lockdown was extended any longer. On the brighter side, most respondents said that the police were cooperative and didn’t resort to coercion, whereas 25% claimed heavy-handed behaviour.
Under the PM Garib Kalyan Yojana, the government had guaranteed double the amount of free ration to all those eligible, free of cost. Despite this, the data from Gram Vaani is disappointing; close to 90% of respondents in Bihar were not given their due, nearly 70% in MP did not get their allotted ration, whereas the figure was 63% in Jharkhand. According to reports on the ground, while ration has arrived in the villages, it has not been transferred to those who need it most - either ration cards are missing or not accepted or the food is being siphoned off and withheld from those who are entitled to it.
When it comes to cash transfers, the data doesn’t inspire much confidence either. Under the Divyang pension scheme, the government had said that three months of pension would be provided to those entitled to it. However, close to 60% of applicable respondents said that no transfer had been made. Similarly, the government had said that it would transfer Rs 1,500 to women who held Jan Dhan accounts in a three month period. A dismal 19% received the payments in Jharkhand, 34% in MP and 40% in Bihar.
The road ahead
As the report suggests, there are major gaps in the distribution of ration. While the goods arrive in villages, there are issues at the local level that prevent marginalized families from getting them. To this end, Gram Vaani has suggested that helplines be set up to inform relevant authorities in case of ration dealers withholding supplies. Further, those who submitted applications for ration cards years ago but still haven’t received them should get ration regardless.
Another urgent issue is Aadhar linkages; since many cards were made in haste, personal identifying information was often misrepresented - this has made it difficult for people to open bank accounts and get benefits from DBTs (direct benefit transfers). Gram Vaani underlines that these issues need to be amended at the earliest; until then the PDS (Public Distribution System) should universalize grain distribution at least in marginalized districts.
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