Welfare schemes, well-oiled PDS helping Tamil Nadu’s poor
It is either vattams (circle) or kattams (square). Hemalatha, 38, has stood in both shapes — chalk-drawn on the road to help people maintain distance — while waiting her turn to pick up rations from the fair-price shop in Usilampatti in Madurai district. “My father is over 60 so we got an SMS saying that we should stay home and we will be given a token which will specify the date and time on which we have to line up outside the ration shop,” she told Hindustan Times. “Before us the residents of the next street were asked to line up. It is done in an orderly way.”
Hemalatha, who works as an assistant project officer at the Tamil Nadu State Rural Livelihoods Missions, said that two volunteers of a local self help group are deputed to a ration shop each morning. They are provided gloves, masks and sanitisers and they must ensure that people in the queue maintain adequate distance. There are also notices by the government on how to wash hands thoroughly, and the sanitation workers sprinkle bleaching powder in neighbourhoods and roads regularly, she said.
Though 31 out of Tamil Nadu’s 37 districts have been affected by Covid-19 cases — the updated total on Saturday was 485 — the state has largely been able to avoid a humanitarian crisis largely due to the containment strategy it put in place after over 1000 persons who attended a religious conference of the Tablighi Jamaat in New Delhi, returned.
More importantly, a well-oiled public distribution system and well-supplied social welfare schemes of the state have been able to help residents, particularly those with livelihoods at stake, during the 21-day national lockdown.
Hours before Tamil Nadu went into lockdown mode, on March 24, the government announced a Rs 3280 crore special relief package which included Rs 1000 cash assistance to each rice ration card holder, construction worker and autorickshaw driver. Those with “rice” ration cards were also promised free rice, lentils, palm oil and sugar for April.
Based on socio-economic vulnerability, the state provides five types of smart ration cards. The relief measures apply to all those who have ration cards to avail rice in both priority and non-priority households. However, those who do not want to avail the service can give it up by indicating their choice online. More than 20.1 million ration card holders were covered in the Covid-19 relief announced by the government, a senior official at the TN Civil Supplies Department said on condition of anonymity.
“All the beneficiaries will get cash support at their door and tokens will be issued to collect food grains from allotted fair price shops in a staggered manner. We are ensuring that up to 100 tokens are issued per day and people are given date and time in their tokens,” he said. “We are also providing doorstep delivery for those who are home quarantined since they cannot come to the shops. There is a separate team that is involved. All government employees have been reorganised to complete this task,” he added.
All 35,244 ration shops in the state are operated by the government.
“No private agents [are involved in the operation] like in states such as Uttar Pradesh or Maharashtra. From procurement from Food Corporation of India to sending it to different godowns at the district level, and then from there to fair price shops, [all of] it is done quite smoothly. It is easier to coordinate passing of information, and each transaction at the point of sales devices is captured in real time,” the senior official said.
Besides the PDS system, Amma Canteens provide subsidised food said J. Jeyaranjan, director of the Institute of Development Alternatives. The canteens were launched by former chief minister J. Jayalalithaa in 2013, and offer cooked food is offered at heavily subsidized prices. For instance, an idli costs one rupee, Pongal (a mix of rice and lentil) costs Rs 5 and curd rice is available for Rs 3. “The point is the system is in place. While previously you would have seen 200 people visiting the Amma Canteen, now it is 600-700 people. The advantage is, you don’t have to invent something new to manage the crisis but you will need to pump in [more supplies],” he explained .
There is “faith” in the system that it will work, Kripa Ananthpur, associate professor, Madras Institute of Development Studies, said. “For me the fact that migrant workers are not fleeing the state is an indicator that things are working,” she said.
In the past week, the state also created containment zones to tackle the return of 1103 persons who attended the Tablighi Jamaat conference in New Delhi in mid-March. Many of them identified themselves promptly. For the past four days, the number of persons who have tested positive in the state has been driven by conference attendees.
State health secretary Dr. Beela Rajesh announced that a detailed containment plan involves intense contact tracing: the attendees of the conference, their family members, their primary contacts are being investigated and tested. Health workers are also visiting homes in the area and checking for symptoms of Covid-19. The areas are also being cordoned off and movement is restricted.
“Five kilometres is earmarked as a containment zone and two kilometres as a buffer zone. This is restricted and cordoned off by police and for each containment zone we have assigned staff including an anganwadi worker,” a senior official from the National Health Mission, Tamil Nadu, said.
A doctor is put in charge of four zones, and can get a snapshot of prevalence of upper respiratory tract infections. “The moment a positive person is identified, he is isolated to a Covid-19 ward. Apart from that close contacts are brought to a facility’s quarantine.” Already 21 hospitals have been identified as Covid-19 treatment facilities in the state.