Concern for the vulnerable comes to the fore in Kerala’s Covid-19 relief efforts

Subin Dennis
A descriptive account of the
socio-economic measures initiated by the Kerala government as part of its
battle against Covid-19 and its fallout.
Measures to provide relief and support
to the sections of people who are most adversely affected by restrictions on
economic activities have been at the core of the efforts of the Left Democratic
Front government of Kerala amid Covid-19.
Instead of announcing a lockdown suddenly
without any preparation (as the BJP government at the centre did), the
CPI(M)-led LDF government of Kerala gradually placed restrictions to break the
chain of transmission of the coronavirus. The closure of educational
institutions and cinema halls was announced on March 12. All government
programmes were postponed, and an appeal was made to avoid festivals. As it
became clear that the adverse economic conditions in the rest of the world, in
India and in Kerala itself would deeply impact people’s livelihoods, the
government announced a package of Rs. 20,000 crore on March 19.
 
The package included loans worth Rs.
2000 crore to be made available to families through Kudumbashree, advance
payment of social welfare pensions, Rs. 1000 each to the poor who do not
receive social welfare pensions, free food grains to everyone for a month,
expedited setting up of 1000 People’s Restaurants which provide food at subsidised
rates, a health package of Rs. 500 crore, relaxation in bill payment deadlines
for water and electricity, relaxation in tax payment deadlines for some
sectors, and a rural employment guarantee scheme for the months of April and
May (which has not been implemented due to the lockdown) for Rs. 2000 crore.
A lockdown was announced on March 23,
and implemented from March 24 onwards.
The state government, with the entire
machinery of local self-government institutions (LSGs) and the rest of the
government apparatus have been engaged in providing relief to the sections of
people who are most affected, with the help of mass and class organisations,
cooperatives, collectives, and volunteers.
Ensuring food to all has been the
foremost goal, along with providing income support to workers and protecting
the most vulnerable, including the destitute, the elderly, the disabled, and the
migrant workers.
1) Food
Security
“Nobody should go hungry in Kerala” is
something that Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan repeatedly said in a press
conference on 25 March, the first day of the lockdown in the state.
Distribution of Food and Rations
The government had announced on 19 March
that food grains will be distributed for free to everybody in the state for a
month, without APL/BPL distinction.
Food for anganwadi children are being
delivered at home. Those who are under quarantine at home and who find it
difficult to access food are also being provided food.
Those who will find it difficult to
sustain themselves if they can’t go to work on a daily basis, such as daily
wage workers, have been identified. Senior citizens staying alone, disabled
people, and others who cannot cook for themselves due to illness have also been
located. Ward-level committees of Local Self Government institutions —
panchayats, municipalities and municipal corporations — are doing this work
with the help of volunteers. The committees and volunteers are ensuring that
the needy will receive food and medicine. Community kitchens have been set up
by the local bodies in collaboration with Kudumbashree to cook food, which is
being delivered to the homes of those in need. By 26 March,15,433 ward level
committees were working in the state. Particular attention is being paid to
deliver food kits to Adivasi areas.
Along with the free distribution of food
grains, the government – through the Supplyco (Kerala State Civil Supplies Corporation)
– is also distributing grocery kits – containing 17 essential items including
sugar, salt, pulses, cooking oil, soap and other items – to all families for
free, without APL/BPL distinction.
Distribution of ration was done in a
planned manner to avoid overcrowding. People with ration card numbers ending
with the digits 0 & 1 were supposed to collect the rations on April 1,
those with numbers ending with 2 & 3 on April 2, and so on. Only five
persons were allowed at a ration shop at a time. Physical distancing was to be
strictly followed. LSGs were asked to ensure that orderly distribution takes
place.
The Legal Metrology Department had
conducted random checks at 198 ration shops by April 3. Problems were found in
19 cases, and Rs. 12,000 penalty was imposed on the guilty.
At its peak on 4 April, 1314 Community
Kitchens distributed food for free to 3.08 lakh people, out of which 2.79 lakh
received food for free. Food was delivered for free to 2.62 lakh people. As the
distribution of free rice and grocery kits progressed, demand for food from the
Community Kitchens has come down in the subsequent days. 96.5% of people had
already received free rations by April 13. Nevertheless, 2.07 lakh people were
provided food from 1181 Community Kitchens which are in operation in the state
as on April 21. Out of these, free meals were 1.81 lakh, and home deliveries 1.64
lakh.
As part of the expedited setting up of
1000 restaurants which provide subsidised food at the rate of Rs. 20 per meal, 343
People’s Restaurants have been started by Kudumbashree by April 21. The
restaurants provide home delivery as well.
The Kerala government has also demanded
to the central government that the Public Distribution System (PDS) should be
universalised to ensure food to everybody in the country.
Harvest
The measures initiated by the Kerala
government to ensure the food security of its people doesn’t end with food
distribution. This is the time of paddy harvest in several districts. If it is
delayed due to the lockdown, the crops will be damaged once rains start in
June. Therefore, harvest is being considered an essential service. Combine
harvesters are being used for the purpose, and District Collectors were given
instructions to ensure harvesting at all places. Panchayats and the
cooperatives of the area are to jointly arrive at decisions regarding places to
store the harvested paddy. The Chief Minister also made an appeal to families
across the state to grow vegetables at their homes to bolster their
availability in the coming days.
This is the harvest time for many crops
such as pineapple, mango, and pepper. In some cases like cashew, the harvest is
done and procurement is to be done. In some places, cooperatives have been
procuring cashew. The Agriculture Department has taken steps to ensure the
harvest and procurement of pineapple and mango. LSGs were asked to pay
particular attention to harvest, procurement and storage. Vegetable procurement
is being done under the aegis of Horticorp (Kerala State Horticultural Products
Development Corporation).
The aim is to build three months’ stocks
of food grains, and stocks of other food items that can be stored. The effort
is led by the Food and Civil Supplies Department.
2) Volunteers
The Sannadha Sena (Volunteer Force) has
been a crucial part of the relief efforts. The aim was to raise a force of 2.36
lakh people of the age group 22 to 40 years. The registration was done online,
and the target was overshot – 2.95 lakh youth have registered as volunteers by 22
April.
Volunteers are working to identify those
who need assistance, deliver food and essential items to the needy, provide
emergency assistance at homes, help with the operation of call centres and
control rooms, deliver materials to camps, communicate alerts, and help in
hospitals. Volunteers’ services are also being utilised to procure locally
produced vegetables for use in Community Kitchens. The volunteers are deployed
LSG-wise, and are deployed to the panchayats, municipalities and municipal
corporations as per requirement.
3) Guest / Migrant Workers
The
migrant workers of Kerala have been adversely affected by the restrictions in
place, and the Kerala government has been taking steps to alleviate their
hardship right from the beginning.
The Kerala government right at the outset recognised that the accommodation
facilities for the migrant workers (who are called “guest workers” by the
government) were mostly inadequate to ensure physical distancing. Therefore it
was decided to set up camps for the workers, and to arrange for medical
check-ups for them.


 
To ensure hygiene, masks, soap, and hand sanitiser have been made available in
the camps. The government is also paying to recharge the mobile phones of the
migrant workers, for Rs.100-200 a month to help them keep in touch with their
families. Mobile vans are being used to conduct health check-ups.



 

 

As of April 11, 18,828 camps had been opened for migrant workers, and 3.32 lakh
workers were staying in the camps. This is the highest number of such camps in
the country. According to the information submitted by the Union Home Ministry to
the Supreme Court on April 8, Uttar Pradesh came second with 2230 camps. By
April 20, the number of camps for migrant workers in Kerala had gone up to
19,902, with 3.53 lakh workers staying in the camps.
 

 

Usually it is the Labour Department which takes care of migrant workers. But considering
the scale of operations needed, LSGs have been given the primary responsibility
at the local level, with the official responsibility falling on the secretary
of the respective LSG.
 

 

Leaflets, brochures and small videos in Hindi, Odiya and Bengali are being
circulated among the migrant workers to create awareness about the steps to
prevent coronavirus infection. Information regarding district level control
rooms have been circulated in Hindi, Odiya, Bengali, Assamese, Tamil, English,
and Malayalam. Health workers and Home Guards who can handle Hindi are being
utilised for awareness programmes. Home guards are visiting camps to ensure the
welfare of migrant workers, and explaining the steps taken by the government.

 

To ensure continued services to the migrant workers in the
future, it has been decided to collect information about them. The effort will
be led by the Additional Director General of Police. Workers will be registered
and given identity cards, which will be used to provide them health insurance and
other benefits.
Food has
been made available. Community kitchens have been set up for the purpose. The
cooperation of contractors is also sought to provide food and other amenities
to migrant workers at their camps. Employers have been instructed to provide
food to the migrant workers who work and live in factory premises. Arrangements
have been made to provide atta, potato, onion and dal to those who prefer food
of the kind that is commonly available in their home regions. In several
places, cooked dal, chapati, pickle, khichdi etc. were served from Community
Kitchens, with the menu varying according to the taste of the workers coming
from various states.

 

 
To handle the affairs of the migrant workers, an
official has been specially entrusted at the state level. The charge for
general supervision at the district level is with the Collector. A committee
which includes the District Police Chief and the District Labour Commissioner will
conduct the necessary inspections. There is a state level counselling centre
with 20 counsellors available to take calls from the migrant workers.
 
The government has also issued strict instructions
that migrant workers should not be evicted from their accommodation facilities
by their landlords.
 
There are migrant workers who are with contractors,
and those who are independent workers. The government has given instructions to
ensure that those who live alone should not be left out from food distribution.
 

 

 

4)
Protecting the Most Vulnerable
The LDF government has taken measures to
take special care of the destitute, that is those who live in streets, sleep on
shop verandahs and so on. They have been put up in secure places and food is
being provided to them. Educational institutions have been used to accommodate
them, with – 3680 such persons staying in rehabilitation centres as on April 22.
There are 33,000 inmates in the various
care homes (such as old-age homes, orphanages, and homes for the disabled) in
Kerala. There are about 3000 government-recognised care homes in the state.
Free food grains and grocery kits are being distributed to these homes.
Medicines are also being made available to them with the help of the Civil
Supplies Corporation and the Kerala Medical Services Corporation. The welfare institutions
which are not recognised by the government, such as care homes, charitable
institutions, charitable hospitals, ashrams, and convents, are also being given
food grains and grocery kits.
Anganwadi workers have been deployed to
reach out to the elderly in the state during the lockdown. They have contacted 37
lakh senior citizens till April 16 and enquired about their health status. A
week before this, Health Minister KK Shailaja informed the press that the
health status of 89 per cent of the elderly population was satisfactory. 11
percent had serious health issues, and measures will be taken to ensure medical
care to them, she said.
Particular attention is being paid to
ensure food and safety in Adivasi areas. Volunteers and the educated among the
Adivasis themselves are being deployed for awareness and relief programmes.
Food items are being distributed, and measures have been taken to clean the
colonies. The Scheduled Tribes Development Department and the Forest Department
have jointly taken steps to buy the produce of the Adivasis living deep inside
the forest.
The ST Development Department -distributed the free rations supplied by the Food and Civil
Supplies Department to the ST families in the state. 61,000 ST families with
senior citizens have been given special food kits for additional nutrition. The
free grocery kits that are being distributed by Supplyco were first distributed
to the Scheduled Tribes, reaching 1,14,270 ST families by April 22, out of a
total of 1,44,944 families. People in some ST colonies also made their own
masks as part of the anti-Covid-19 efforts.
The services of the police and the fire
force are being utilised to deliver medicines to patients with serious
illnesses.
As announced earlier, two months’ social
welfare pensions for the 54 lakh beneficiaries are being distributed.
 
5) Workers
Kerala has a large number of welfare
fund boards for workers of various sectors, set up as a result of the powerful
working class movement in the state. The welfare fund boards have announced
financial assistance to the workers, with amounts ranging from Rs. 750 to Rs.
5000. In some cases salaries are being paid in advance. Some boards have
announced extra amounts from Rs. 7500 to Rs. 10000 for workers who get infected
by Covid-19, and Rs. 1000 to Rs. 5000 for workers who are living in quarantine
at home or hospital.
The welfare fund boards include those
for agricultural workers, motor transport workers, shops & commercial
establishment workers, construction workers, abkari workers, toddy workers,
head load workers, handloom workers, beedi & cigar workers, dairy farmers,
fish workers, khadi workers, coir workers, cashew workers, plantation estate
workers, document writers, scribes & stamp vendors, tailors, jewellery
workers, bamboo, wild creepers & pandanus leaf workers, unorganised sector workers,
lottery agents & sellers, and artists. Circus artists are also being given
aid. About 1.5 lakh fish workers are to be given Rs. 2000.
All workers in sectors with welfare fund
boards are being provided aid through the boards. Distribution has already
begun. Workers who are not part of any welfare fund board will get Rs. 1000
each.
The government has also made it clear to
employers that workers should not be dismissed or their wages cut during the
lockdown. The government is intervening in cases where this instruction has
been violated.
 
6)    Expatriates
Given the huge number of Keralites
working abroad (2.1 million according to the Kerala Migration Survey 2018), and
the adverse conditions that they are facing in many countries with large
outbreaks of the coronavirus, the Kerala government has been flooded with
appeals to help them out as well.
The Department of Non-Resident Keralites
Affairs (NORKA) has begun help desks in all emirates of the UAE (which has the
largest number of Keralites), Qatar, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, UK,
Indonesia, Bangladesh, and Mozambique. The help desks are aimed at bringing the
issues of expatriate Malayalis to the attention of the respective authorities
and to get them to resolve those issues. The primary effort is to ensure
treatment, food and safe accommodation to the expatriate Keralites.
NORKA is bringing together various
organisations of Malayalis and volunteers in different countries to take people
to hospital and to ensure food to those who need it. With their help,
quarantine facilities have been arranged in various places in the UAE.
Help desks are also functional in
Mumbai, Hyderabad, Delhi and Chennai.
Expatriates are also being given online
medical advice, with the services of prominent doctors being made available
from 2 pm to 6 pm.
NORKA Roots (the field agency of NORKA),
and the Kerala Pravasi [Expatriate] Welfare Board will be giving aid to the expatriates,
in the form of a one-time relief. All members and non-members who are confirmed
positive for Covid-19 will be given emergency aid of Rs. 10,000. NORKA Roots is
also arranging for life-saving medicines to be sent to expatriate Malayalis who
need them.
A comprehensive approach, and a strategy
of total mobilisation
The efforts of the LDF government are rooted
in a comprehensive approach to ensure the welfare of all citizens. This is an
approach which recognises the importance of the public healthcare system, as
well as other social and economic determinants of health and well-being. It
recognises that hungry people cannot be healthy; well-being is beyond the reach
of the homeless. The LDF government’s policy measures amid Covid-19 aim to address
all these issues in order to provide relief to the people.
The objective is also to reach everybody
in need, until the last person. The determination to not let anybody be missed
out can be seen in the fact that 1,10,999 volunteers were deployed to identify
those who need assistance – an enormous task which leaves no room for
complacency.
The strategy of the government has been
to mobilise its entire state machinery including LSGs, along with the
collective energies of the state’s powerful mass and class organisations,
collectives and cooperatives, as well as the zeal of the citizens of Kerala for
voluntary action. The role of left organisations has been crucial here – a
large section of the youth volunteers are members of the Democratic Youth
Federation of India (DYFI) and the Students’ Federation of India (SFI). This
strategy of total mobilisation which integrates the work of the state machinery
with the work of the general public – with those mobilised by mass and class
organisations playing a key role – was seen in action earlier in the rescue and
relief efforts during the Kerala Floods 2018, and will continue to be at the
centre of the LDF government’s efforts to steer the state into recovery and
advance.
(The author is a researcher at the India
office of ‘Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research’)