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This article is co-authored by Isha Chawla and Saurav Gupta, from Hidayatullah National Law University, Raipur.

Introduction 

The Covid-19 pandemic has taken a toll on everyone’s life all around the world. In India, the Government has imposed a nation-wide lockdown to curb the spread of the virus by invoking Section 6(2)(i) of the Disaster Management Act, 2005, ensuring the availability of essential commodities and services as mentioned under the Essential Commodities Act, 1955 and Essential Services Maintenance Act, 1981. But the point that needs to be focused on is what is the Government doing in order to help the most vulnerable section of the society i.e. the economically backward section. This includes daily wage labourers, migrant workers, homeless households et cetera. It also includes children and old-age people as they are dependent on society for a living. According to the 2011-12 census, 21.92% of the people in India are below the poverty line (BPL). The economic activities have slowed down and most of these people fill their stomach with the money they earn on a daily basis. In this regard the Government has announced a relief package under ‘Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana’ on 26th March, 2020. The article focuses on the Law involved i.e. Article 21 of the Indian Constitution also covers various aspects of the scheme along with its benefits, shortcomings and who all have been ignored by it. 

Article 21 of the Constitution 

Article 21 of the Constitution provides that, “No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law.” Article 21 constitutes of one the most important Fundamental Rights of a citizen i.e. Protection of life and personal liberty. The article covers a wide ambit and its interpretation has been expanded after the famous Maneka Gandhi case. 

Right to livelihood is borne out of Right to life. This means that Right to livelihood is a part of Article 21 and if a person is deprived of his livelihood then he is deprived of his right to life. There is a nexus between Right to life and Right to livelihood. In Olga Tellis v. Bombay Municipal Corporation & Ors. the Supreme Court held that the term ‘life’ in Art. 21 is not restricted to mere animal existence of a person. It means something more and “the inhibition against the deprivation of life extends to all those limits and faculties by which life is enjoyed.”

Right to life under Art.21 also states the Right to live with human dignity. In Shantistar Builders v. Narayanan Khimalal Totame, it was held that “the right to life under Article 21 would include the right of food, clothing, decent environment and reasonable accommodation to live in. The difference between the need of an animal and a human being for shelter has to be kept in view. For the animal, it is the bare protection of the body, for a human being, it has to be suitable cognition which allows him to grow in all aspects – physical, mental and intellectual.”

It is the duty of the State to protect the Fundamental Rights of the individual and the State like in this case has to provide means of livelihood to its citizens in order to protect their right. 

Although the State has done their part by announcing the scheme, we need to analyse if it is actually helping people on the ground level.

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Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana 

Using the digital payment infrastructure, Union Finance Minister Smt. Nirmala Sitharaman announced a relief package that provides financial assistance of Rs 1.70 lakh crore to poor people to help fight the impact of the lockdown. The main components of the package are as follows – 

Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Ann Yojana 

80 crore individuals would be covered under this scheme and will get 5 kg wheat or rice and 1 kg of preferred pulses free every month for the next three months. 

Shortcomings – A lot of other poor people will be excluded because many of them do not have ration cards and have not registered themselves to get one. The Government still uses the 2011 census to know PDS coverage. 

The Government should use projected 2020 data instead of the 2011 census to find out the excluded population and also identify people with no ration cards and provide them with the required food grains. 

Cash transfer to Jan Dhan women account-holders 

Around 20 crore women will get ex-gratia of Rs 500 in the Jan Dhan accounts every month for the next three months. 

Shortcomings – First, not every poor woman has a Jan Dhan account. Many women who do not have a Jan Dhan account will be excluded from this scheme. Second, if cash is transferred in bank accounts then there is a risk of community transmission of the virus as the main aim of the lockdown i.e. social distancing will be defeated due to overcrowded banks. 

The Government with the help of local district authorities should assign a team with PPE kits that will go to the doorstep of each individual and distribute funds. 

Increase in MNREGA wages and wages to low wage-earners in organized sectors

The Government has increased MNREGA wage to Rs 202 a day from Rs 182. This will benefit around 13.62 crore families. The Government has also proposed to pay 24 % of the monthly wages of low wage-earners in the organized sector to help them prevent any hardships in their employment. 

Shortcomings – Along with the wages, the Government could have given work guarantee to the people so that they had a sense of security. The Government could have prescribed a certain number of days it could provide employment to the people under MNREGA. The Government should clear all wage debts for MNREGA workers. 

Ex-gratia of Rs 1,000 to 3 crore poor senior citizens, disabled

The Government will provide an ex-gratia of Rs 1,000 to poor senior citizens, widows and people in the Divyang category every month for the next three months. 

Shortcomings – The said amount is very less. It should be increased for them to at least take care of the essentials that they need. 

Welfare Fund for Building and Construction workers

The Centre has directed the State Governments to use the welfare fund collected through cess under the BOCW Act. Around Rs 52,000 crore has been collected through the same. The Finance Minister conveyed that there are around 3.5 crore registered workers in the fund. 

Shortcomings – The total number of registered workers is unknown. Various sources claim the actual number to be higher than 3.5 crore. The point here is workers who are not registered or are not known to the authorities will be excluded from the scheme and will not benefit from this move of the Government. 

Insurance scheme for health workers in Government hospitals and Health care centres

If any health care professional while treating COVID-19 patients, meets with an accident, will be provided Rs 50 lakh under the scheme. Safai karamcharis, ward-boys, nurses, ASHA workers, paramedics and other health workers would be covered by a special insurance scheme.  

Gas cylinders to be provided free of cost 

8 crore poor families will be provided with gas cylinders, free of cost, for the next three months under the scheme. 

Farmers are the ones who will be the most affected during these times. Our survival is dependent on them and vice versa. The Kharif season is about to start and the farmers need seeds, fertilizers and other things for the same. The Government has to take care of this and has to allow the local authorities to keep farm input shops open.

Benefit to Farmers 

Under the PM KISAN Yojana, the first installment that is of Rs 2,000 will be front-loaded and paid in April 2020 and not in 2020-21. This will benefit 8.7 crore farmers. 

Shortcomings – The Central Government had to allocate the said Rs 2,000 in April, 2020 which is already mentioned in the Budget and so there is no new allocation of Rs 2,000. Moreover, some State Governments are not a part of the PM KISAN Yojana, thus, the farmers in these states cannot avail the benefits of the scheme. The Government should also help the farmers by allowing the function of small and medium seed industries and other units associated with agri-inputs. 

Backdrops of the Scheme and who all have been ignored by it

One major flaw of this relief package is that it does not make any mention of the migrant workers and the daily wage labourers that have been hit worse by the lockdown. It is known to us that the migrant labourers who had come to the cities for work were headed on long journeys back to their homes on foot due to the absence of buses and trains. The main reason behind this was that no economic activities were taking place and therefore, the labourers had no work and couldn’t earn any income. This resulted in loss of food, shelter, health as well as other basic needs. These homeless people were in need of protection. 

According to the Census of 2011, India has more than 1.7 million homeless residents of which 938,384 are located in urban areas. These figures, however, grossly underestimate the real numbers of the homeless.

The Central Government had directed all states to make the required arrangements for the stranded workers. Various states have opened up community kitchens and shelters with the help of various local agencies and NGOs.

The Delhi Government is providing free food to people at night shelters. The Telangana Government has made makeshift-shelters for the homeless in the state. They are also providing healthcare facilities to them. All migrants in the states are provided with Rs 500 and 12 kg rice or wheat. The Kerala Government has opened community kitchens and is distributing food to people who are in need. Gurudwaras in Punjab have offered help to distribute food packets. 

Although various State Governments have taken initiative to provide food and shelter to the homeless as well as migrant workers, it is evident that the Central Government in its Relief package has paid no heed to the issues of such people. 

Calling and Internet services should be free of cost. Most of the poor people get to know about what is happening in the country with the help of their phones and many of them do not have television sets at their place. So, calling and internet charges should be free till the lockdown comes to an end and the situation is under control. 

Along with the financial assistance that the Government is providing, it should also provide with some in-kind assistance of essential commodities other than food grains under Public Distribution System (PDS). 

Certain health related measures should be taken by the Government. Spread of awareness of self-isolation and what care should be taken needs to be addressed. A lot of people who do not have access to social media are unaware of basic hygiene like washing hands regularly. Health activists should be given tasks to create awareness of the symptoms and precautions of the virus. 

People who live in densely populated slums do not have toilets in their houses and they use public toilets in their area. These public toilets should be sanitized on a daily basis to prevent spread of the virus. 

Steps taken by Other Ministries 

The Ministry of Railways and Coal has offered to supply 2.6 lakh meals daily from various railway kitchens wherever the district administration is able to pick up and distribute among the people who are in need. These kitchens provide over 20.5 lakh hot cooked meals. Railways is working day and night to ensure that essential commodities are available at the right time and place. Till now 4.2 million tonnes of foodgrains have been transported. Indian Railways has taken a great initiative by identifying 65 routes to parcel perishable commodities which include fruits, vegetables, milk and dairy products and seeds of agricultural purpose. Railways are running on those routes as well where the demand for all essential commodities is less to ensure there is no shortage of the goods during this pandemic.

The Ministry of Postal Department has delivered over 100 tonnes of medicines and other essential medical supplies across the nation using mail vans and freight flights during this lockdown. The ministry is also ensuring that people get payments through the scheme of Post Payment Bank using Aadhaar-based payments. With the help of this service, people would get cash in their hand at their doorstep and they did not need to step out of their homes in search of ATM’s and get cash withdrawn. The department has also made special efforts to deliver pensions and other social benefits provided to the people by the government. The Ministry of Postal Department has also collaborated with different NGOs to distribute essential food items at their doorstep to the people who all are in need. 

REC Foundation, the CSR arm of REC Limited is distributing cooked food, ration, utility packets, masks, sanitizers and shelter to the people who all are in need and in vulnerable condition. These efforts taken by the ministry and all other departments have benefited 76 thousand daily wagers and their family so far. 

Conclusion 

The relief package announced by the Central Government cannot be termed as an ideal one. The Government could have taken better steps to reach out to more people. The package may look effective on paper but it cannot be said that it is one of best strategies that the Government has followed. The Government should come up with better plans to benefit more people and should make sure if this package is actually helping them or not. However, steps taken by other ministries have benefitted many people.

References

https://www.hlrn.org.in/homelessness

https://data.gov.in/catalog/below-poverty-line-india

https://www.mohfw.gov.in/pdf/MoFPMGaribKalyanYojanaPackage.pdf

http://newsonair.com/Main-News-Details.aspx?id=386359

https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/postal-department-delivers-over-100-tonnes-of-medicines-other-supplies-during-coronavirus-lockdown-home-ministry


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