Given the surge in cases and deaths in Tamil Nadu, it does not really come as a surprise that the newly elected DMK government was forced to go for a stringent lockdown from May 24 that shut even grocery and vegetable shops. The two days preceding the lockdown saw surging crowds out shopping for essentials across the State leading to fears of a ‘super-spreader’ event; it has raised questions as to whether it was really a good idea to go for a total shutdown. Be that as it may, the more important point, though, is that if stringent lockdowns are to be enforced as the only way to curb the spread of Covid till vaccinations pick up, the poor and vulnerable need to be protected, whether in Tamil Nadu or elsewhere. They need both food and cash to tide through what looks like another long summer of dwindling incomes and rising expenses, as lockdowns of varying degrees of severity are likely to persist for the next few months. Tamil Nadu has done well in sanctioning a sum of ₹4,000 for every family with a ration card. Maharashtra and Karnataka have devised their own cash transfer schemes. But more needs to be done, both at the State and at a national level, to help the informal sector workers and migrants by deploying the Centre’s schemes and datasets to maximum effect, setting aside political differences.
An increase in ration entitlement under the Garib Kalyan Yojana will help, as it did last year — foodgrain stocks of about 80 million tonnes can be deployed to good effect. However, the real challenge is to reach out to the urban poor, which includes migrant labour employed in construction projects, in terms of providing food and cash. Tamil Nadu has been a pioneer in community kitchens, and there can be no better occasion than now to ramp up scale through its Amma Canteens, which have been doing a wonderful job catering to the urban poor. For instance, Karnataka’s Indira Canteens, which have been allocated extra funds in the Yediyurappa government’s latest ₹1,200-crore package, have played a salutary role. For cash transfers, the Jan Dhan Yojana bank accounts can be used for assistance over the next six months as this will cover even those who do not have ration cards, such as migrants.
For construction workers, the Building and Other Construction Workers’ cess fund must be effectively used. The Supreme Court has bemoaned its poor implementation by States, a fact that came cruelly to light in the context of the exodus of construction workers from cities during the first Covid wave. The registration of workers under this Act has remained cumbersome, as a result of which barely half of the estimated 60 million construction workers are registered. A combination of cash support, free foodgrains through the PDS and community kitchens needs to be deployed to help the poor tide through the lockdown. At a time of national crisis, it is necessary for governments to shed their differences and pool in their experience.