As Covid and lockdowns increased distress and deprivation in many countries, governments in most countries including India responded with relief packages aimed at directly helping the poor and vulnerable sections as well as reviving the economy. However there are several indicators that the actual relief which reached needy people in India was much less than what was suggested by official announcements.
The lockdown in India were described as among the most stringent and sudden in world. Poverty and hunger are known to be high here even in normal times and the extent of mass distress suffered by migrant workers and other vulnerable sections during the lockdown could be seen by all. So relief on a really big scale was needed and if this has not reached people then this needs to be stepped up substantially without further delay.
The Accountability Initiative located in the Centre for Policy Research has monitored government spending during the year. Its director Avani Kapur and Research Associate Sharad Pandey have written in a recent article titled ‘Decoding the dip in published Expenditure’ ( The Hindustan times, December 21, 2020), “ Despite announcements of over Rs. 20 lakh crore in fiscal packages, total expenditure till October this year increased by only Rs. 6550 crore when compared to the same period last year. In fact, as a proportion of its initial Budget Estimate (BE), actual expenditure is lower by five percentage points than the same period last year. A deep-dive into the ministry-wise expenditure data shows that, in terms of the total quantum of funds spent, a staggering 41 out of a total 55 ministries spent less this year till October, compared to last year.”
This review points to the recent Hunger Watch Survey, covering 11 states and 400 respondents, which revealed that more than half the surveyed households had no income source since April and 62% households reported reduced income, and recommends the universalisation of the Public Distribution System to deal with the hunger crisis. As against this need, this review says, we have the distressing situation that “ the department of consumer affairs, which is responsible for subsidizing foodgrains, till October, spent 9 per cent less this year than in the same period last year.”
What is more, the review states, “Lower tax devolution to state governments has hampered their own ability to increase expenditures. Till October, states had received 19 per cent lower funds than they did for the same period last year.”
These are very disturbing finding emanating from a leading institution and published in a leading newspaper. In addition we will like to draw attention to some other aspects. A widely appreciated aspect of the relief package has been that of some free grain and pulses provided to needy households up to November. The further extension of this scheme is still awaited eagerly.
Meanwhile we need to consider not just the free food transferred by this scheme already, but also the free food transferred normally every year but withheld this year because of the non-functioning, more or less, for the greater period and the greater part of the country, of the mid-day meal scheme and of the ICDS ( anganwadi ) scheme, not to mention the less known ones like sable ( for adolescent girls).
After the free food transfer is adjusted for this withdrawal, what is the net addition left, or is there an overall reduction?
Hence there is a clear need to bring out to what extent badly needed relief has reached needy and vulnerable sections , and to take urgent steps for ensuring that this relief is stepped up in a big way without further delay.
Bharat Dogra is a journalist and author. His recent books include Protecting Earth for children and Planet in Peril.