People wait in lines on the banks of Yamuna River to be transferred to a shelter during a lockdown imposed due to the coronavirus in New Delhi on April 15, 2020.(Bloomberg)
People wait in lines on the banks of Yamuna River to be transferred to a shelter during a lockdown imposed due to the coronavirus in New Delhi on April 15, 2020.(Bloomberg)

World Bank to fund $1bn for mobile safety nets for Covid-19 hit migrants in India

Finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman on Thursday announced free food assistance to 80 million migrant workers that is worth Rs 3,500 core, part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Rs 20 lakh crore economic package to pull the economy out of a slump.
Hindustan Times, New Delhi | By Zia Haq
UPDATED ON MAY 15, 2020 02:01 PM IST

The World Bank on Friday announced a $1-billion programme aiming to integrate India’s 400-plus fragmented social-security programmes for migrant workers hit by the coronavirus pandemic, part of an initiative that seeks to rebalance access to safety nets between rural and urban India.

The “Accelerating India’s COVID-19 Social Protection Response Programme” will focus especially on making social benefits such as subsidised food under the National Food Security Act, cash transfers and pensions etc, portable so that beneficiaries could access them from anywhere in the country, not just from their home districts, the World Bank said.

Portability simply refers to a digitised, universal and always-on platform, which ensures benefits move along with migrants.

“Very clearly, everybody recognises the shock (from the pandemic). The choice is being said to be between lives and livelihoods. This is not a choice the government of India is making,” Junaid Ahmad, the World Bank’s country director, said.

Ahmad said this was a “watershed moment” in social security of the country because the government had for the first time opened up an “important window” in the form of the state disaster response fund, which is now linked to social safety.

The Union government had, in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, allowed states to use the fund freely without usual approvals to provide social protection.

A widespread lockdown announced on March 24 shuttered shops, factories and construction sites, pushing millions of migrant workers out of jobs.

Finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman on Thursday announced free food assistance to 80 million migrant workers that is worth Rs 3,500 core, part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Rs 20 lakh crore economic package to pull the economy out of a slump.

The first phase of the World Bank operation will be implemented countrywide through the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana (PMGKY).

It will immediately help scale-up cash transfers and food benefits, using a core set of pre-existing national platforms and programs such as the Public Distribution System (PDS) and Direct Benefit Transfers (DBT), the bank said.

Jobless migrant workers, hit by the lockdown, have fallen through the cracks because static social safety nets did not reach them in the absence of portability.

Economist Abhijit Sen, however, cautioned against over-centralising India’s safety net.

“If the World Bank wants to streamline our social safety nets, first off, they are getting into very complicated things. The issue sometimes is not so much about how to reach the people as it is about how to get two wings of the government talking,” Sen, a former member of the erstwhile Planning Commission, said.

The arguments are on two things, he said.

“One, don’t over-centralise things. Where the World Bank can intervene and should is portability. Two, if I had to give out a billion dollars, then, I would give very little of that to the federal government and most of it to the states, in fact, more to the municipalities,” he said.

More than 90% of India’s workforce is employed in the informal sector, without access to basic savings or pensions, or paid leave from work.

“There are large transfers to the rural poor. Look at the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana. The idea is to make social benefits such as food and cash transfers just as easily accessible for urban informal workers and migrants,” Shrayana Bhattacharya, the World Bank lead of the project, said.

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