How will the Atmanirbhar Bharat scheme benefit the urban poor when its long term vision discounts vital short term measures?

On May 12, finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced the second stimulus package, named Atmanirbhar Bharat in the aftermath of the COVID-19, which has since then been unveiled over five tranches. The package, which is mostly liquidity driven, would be the size of 10 percent of India's GDP.

Evita Das July 22, 2020 16:22:16 IST
How will the Atmanirbhar Bharat scheme benefit the urban poor when its long term vision discounts vital short term measures?

On 12 May, finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced the second stimulus package, named Atmanirbhar Bharat in the aftermath of the COVID-19, which has since then been unveiled over five tranches. The package, which is mostly liquidity driven, would be the size of 10 percent of India's GDP. The stimulus package has received a mixed response from the media and experts, with some calling it a rehash of old packages while others highlighting the attempts to further privatise certain industries.

The question arises what benefit is the Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan providing to the urban poor? The Centre announced measures on free ration (which qualifies as a short term measure) affordable rental housing for migrants, dilution of labour laws in the name of benefits to workers, loan facilities to street vendors, one nation one ration card ( qualifies as a long term measure). While all of these measures sound appealing, they lack a plan of implementation.

The short term plan of providing free ration to migrant labourers is dependent upon the long term goal of one nation one ration card being realised, without which migrant labourers cannot get ration where they work even if ration is made free. Sitharaman promised to implement one nation one ration card by early next year.

We can decode the sector-wise promises laid out from 13 May, 2020 to 17 May, 2020 in the same light. A total of 395 promises were made in a power point presentation released by the government over the span of five days introducing the AtmaNirbharAbhiyan across various sectors. It mentioned the policy introductions, impacts such measures going to bring in the economy, status of the concerned sector in current times, allocation of money to the sectors to revive the economy, etc.

What does it have for the Urban Poor

Among 395 promises there are 41 catering to the informal sector. Among these, 16 are directly linked to policy reforms of dilution of labour codes. Only 25 promises focus on the kinds of benefits to be provided to the informal sector.

It is important to point out that the informal sector has been categorised as a homogenous population group. The promises made focus primarily on the plight of migrants, with a brief mention of street vendors. However, an analysis of these statements shows that they did not become concrete measures.Within the category of migrant workers, there were five important points:

1. Technology Systems to be used enabling Migrants to access Public Distribution System (Ration) from any Fair Price Shop in India by March 2021 - One Nation One Ration Card.
2. Affordable Rental Housing Complexes (ARHC) for Migrant Workers / Urban Poor
3. Rs 5,000 crore Special Credit Facility for Street Vendors.
4. Free Food grain Supply to Migrants for 2 months.
5. Dilution of labour laws.

It is also to note that Rs. 1.70 lakh crore relief package under Pradhan MantriGaribKalyanYojana was for the poor to help them fight the battle against coronavirus. (13 detailed promises made for this section which includes for urban and rural areas , among which 6 can also be considered for informal sector in cities)

A section of economists have pointed out those excluded from the government relief — stranded migrant workers without ration cards, seasonal or circular workers in unorganised, semi-formal sectors such as construction, who are not registered with the labour department, as well as, those who don't have access to banking.

These aside, domestic workers, waste pickers and homeless people have been ignored. The 'one size fits all' rule does not apply to the spectrum of informal sectors, as the needs of each sector is different.

Allocation of money

Sitharaman stated that allocation made for poor was Rs 3,10,000 crore, which included free food grain supply to migrant workers for two months, interest subvention for MUDRA SISHU LOAN, Special Credit Facility to Street Vendor, Housing CLSS-MIG, Additional Emergency Working Capital through NABARD,Additional credit through KCC( Kisan Credit Card). This accounts to 14.7 percent of the ‘Special Economic Comprehensive Package’. Moreover, to unpack this particular section for the informal sector will imply different results.

Among the allocation made for the poor, selected provisions qualify for the urban informal sector. That is free food grain supply to migrant workers for two months, Special Credit Facility to Street Vendor. The Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana which addresses the issue of migrant workers and poor in urban and rural areas. Henceforth, the allocation made for urban informal sector is 1,78,500crore. This accounts to 8.9 percent of the ‘Special Economic Comprehensive Package’. Approximately this is 0.89 percent of the entire Nominal GDP of the country 2019-2020.

Unpacking the short term and long term measures

If we take the risk of breaking down these 25 points further, we see that there are promises made both for the short-term and the long-term issues. Among the 25 promises made for the informal sector, 12 focus on short term plan and 13 on long term. Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the economic package is to “to restart economic activity, put some cash in people’s hands, and infuse liquidity in the system.”

In reality, however, the biggest concerns of the informal sector are short term in nature: food and shelter primarily. Then, there is the concern of whether jobs will come back or not. However, it is extremely disappointing to see that the short term plan has only increased allocation of grains per person through the Public distribution System for five months with an allocation of Rs 3,500 crore. While this is a welcome move, the bitter truth is that of Rs 20 lakh, less than 2 percent has been allocated to take care of the most immediate needs of the labourers that constitute 93 percent of our population.

It has become clear that the urban spaces have failed informal groups completely, forcing them to walk thousands of kilometres to go back "home" to access food, shelter and financial support. The plight of the informal sector has been massively documented by the media, families walking from cities, children dying on streets, harassment faced from police officials. When these steps have not been enough, they have been made to stand in groups and sprayed with chemicals in the name of "quarantine ".

How will the stimulus money be disbursed? When will it be disbursed? Which nodal agency will overlook the disbursal and how do vendors apply for the same? There are no answers. What about the hundreds of thousands of street vendors who missed out? Will they have a place of redressal? If yes, then where?

Similarly, the AHRC sounds good and is a welcome step if done correctly, but there are no details on the implementation. Where are the AHRCs to begin with? How many homes will the government build and by when? How does a migrant worker apply for it? If it will be in a PPP model, how will the government pick partners? What is the timeline for the completion of this project? The problem of housing in urban India is well documented and the last thing we need is another plan. The AHRC, for now, seems more like another smart city project.

And lastly, one nation one ration card scheme. It is important to point out that even the government has acknowledged the importance of the PDS, hence the allocation of Rs 3,500 crore. What we need is more allocation for the PDS right now, not another ambitious plan that seems ripe for failure. The PDS is a complicated system wherein state governments also play an important role: by calling for one nation, one Ration card, the role of states is likely to be diminished but we are unclear as to how this transition will take place. Also, how will the system take shape? What are the issues that the government will face and by when can we expect this in motion? Adding to this, on 30 June, 2020, Modi announced the extension of free ration scheme till November.

While the extension of ration is lauded, one would again want to ask how this extension will help the migrant workers when the idea of one nation, one ration card has not been implemented yet.

The author is a researcher working on issues related to caste and housing and is also associated with the National Alliance of People’s Movements and the National Coalition for Inclusive and Sustainable Urbanization. She tweets @evita_das

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