In Odisha’s Sundargarh district, villagers are on a ‘do-or-die’ agitation to check coal pollution

Scroll.in | May 19, 2021

Trucks from the Kulda opencast mine pass through 19 villages, swathing them with fine coal dust.

For over a decade, the villages near the Kulda opencast mine in Odisha’s Hemgiri block in the Sundargarh district have been fighting coal pollution without respite. In a desperate bid to highlight their unrelenting situation, the people of the area are now locked in a “do or die” agitation against the project since January.

In February, Rajendra Naik, a human rights defender from Ratanpur, one of the affected villages located 10 km from the Kulda mines, filed an application in the Odisha High Court, against the central and state government and the Mahanadi Coalfields Limited, a subsidiary of Coal India, which manages the mine. He submitted that the coal transport passing by Ratanpur and 25 villages along a 30 km stretch to Chhattisgarh violated the environmental clearance for the mine in 2002 and in 2018, which stipulated that the coal transported by road, shall be carried out by covered/conveyers with effective control measures.

The Odisha High Court in its order on March 17 directed the collector of Sundargarh district to hold a detailed enquiry involving local villagers and representatives of the government of Odisha and the centre. The collector, Nikhil Pavan Kalyan, held a meeting on March 23 following which he passed an order on March 24 restricting the plying of vehicles from 6 am to 1 pm except on public holidays.

His order called for covering the vehicles, increasing the water sprinkling in the villages for dust suppression, raising the school walls high to prevent dust. The district administration was asked to assess crop damage due to dust and impact on ponds in the area.

Since 2007-’08, the residents of Taparia, Ratanpur and other nearby villages in the Hemgir block of Sundargarh district have suffered incessant dust pollution from the daily 3,000 dumper trucks of coal which pass through their villages.

On January 19, they launched an agitation that is still going on, even though the authorities have tried to suppress it in many ways. Despite the collector’s order in March, the restriction on trucks plying is already being violated, according to local residents. Earlier court directives to control coal pollution have failed due to administrative apathy.

The villagers affected by pollution had opposed the expansion of the mine’s capacity, citing non -compliance with an earlier environmental clearance for a year in 2018, which increased the mine’s capacity from 10 million tonnes per annum to 14 million tonnes per annum. There were many conditions attached to this clearance that included regular medical camps, controlling fugitive emissions along the road with mechanised sweeping and spraying and creating a thick green belt in the downwind direction of the project site.

Despite the residents’ opposition, in January, an expert appraisal committee of the Indian government’s environment ministry recommended the expansion of Kulda mine’s capacity from 14 million tonnes per annum to 19.6 million tonnes per annum.

A news report in January mentioned “the economic blockade at Taparia village by locals who disrupted the movement of coal-laden trucks on Bankibahal-Taparia road”. It said that initially, the protestors were demanding repair of the damaged road but now are adamant about stopping the transportation of coal through their village.

Coal dust pollution
Far from it being an issue of road repair or merely transportation or even an economic blockade, it is a critical issue of coal pollution which the scheduled tribe and scheduled caste communities which live in these villages near the Kulda and Basundhara mines have suffered for over a decade. The coal is transported to various places in Chhattisgarh and the 25 km road stretch between Bankibahal and Tiparia on the Odisha-Chhattisgarh border has dwindled to an unmotorable mess of potholes and stones.

Every day the trucks from the opencast mine at Kulda pass through 19 villages, and swathe the villages with fine coast dust which affects thousands of people, said Naresh Meher, one of the protestors. The road, which is the main bone of contention, is not the only thing at stake for the communities. The intense coal pollution disrupts every single minute of their lives.

It is after a decade-long struggle against pollution and exploring legal avenues that the affected villages embarked on a “do or die” agitation as one of the protestors, Naresh Meher told Mongabay-India. He is among those jailed and harassed for the protests.

Odisha has the second-largest coal reserves (24%) in the country with stocks of almost 80 billion tonnes. On April 2, at the Mahanadi Coalfields Limited annual press conference, PK Sinha, who is the Chairman-cum-Managing Director, said that coal production and despatch of the Mahanadi Coalfields Limited during the financial year 2020-’21 was the highest ever at 148.01 million tonnes and 146 million tonnes respectively.

Earlier in October 2020, it had bagged five Coal India awards, including two corporate awards for Corporate Social Responsibility and Quality and also the first prize for the CSR implementation in Coal India.

Despite these sterling qualities, the company has clearly fallen short of controlling coal pollution. A site inspection and monitoring report of 2019, by the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change shows that concentrations of particulate matters PM10 and PM2.5 are above permissible limits in the area and it was suggested that more sprinkling and control measures needed to be carried out. Also, the company was not monitoring fugitive dust emissions from the mining operations, among several shortcomings.

Moreover, the promised green belt is also nowhere to be found and there is no proper health assessment on the impact of coal pollution, said Meher, from the Janshakti Vikas Sanghatana, a coalition of affected communities from 25 villages in the area. He alleged that the health situation has worsened over the years. He suffered from tuberculosis as do other people in Ratanpur village and two of his uncles passed away due to cancer. His younger brother died after he contracted tuberculosis and then cancer.

Finally, unable to take it any longer, the community formed a group this year mainly to deal with the long pending issues of pollution, livelihoods and health.

Meher said that his father owned seven acres in Ratanpur, which was acquired for the mines, about ten km away. “We have lost land in the mine but there are no jobs for us,” he pointed out. “In Ratanpur village alone, there were some 19 acres of cultivated land which was acquired for mining.”

This area had a dense forest with panthers but since a few years, there has been no sighting, said Sarita Barpanda, a lawyer with the Human Right Law Network who is helping Meher and others in the local region with their legal cases.

Impact on agriculture
The pollution is not only impacting the health of the people but is also affecting the livelihoods of the people. The dust from coal has adverse impacts on the cultivation of paddy and kendu (or tendu leaves used for rolling tobacco in beedis) leaves.

Often they are discoloured and do not fetch good prices in the market, Meher said. But this is not all, as there is an additional problem of slag being dumped on the roads from a sponge iron factory, one km away from Ratanpur, in the name of road repairs. The scheduled castes and tribes in the area do not own much land and they cultivated the nearby forests. Meher said their claims for titles for the forest land under the Forest Rights Act, 2006, have been unsuccessful.

“We have scaled back the level due to Covid-19 but the agitation continues,” Meher said. “Many of us were detained and some including me went to jail. When we started our protest in January in Taparia village, false cases were filed against us and 16 persons were jailed. Then the police enforced prohibitory orders, so we moved to another village – Kandadhoha – to protest.”

There, he alleged that the local transporters and members of a coal mafia, operating in the region, filed cases of attempted murder and dacoity against the protestors following which the police arrested 12 men and 12 women.

After that, the protest soon moved to Ratanpur where they voiced their concerns about poor roads and pollution. On 23 March, the district collector arrived with many police personnel.

Barpanda said: “We spoke to the tehsildar but he supported the Mahanadi Coalfields Limited while saying the company will suffer losses if they do not run the trucks,” she said. “He had no sympathy for the villagers.”

Though the protesters are all geared up to take their latest protest to a meaningful conclusion this is not the first time they have voiced their concerns. The community had filed cases in court to divert the trucks away from their place of habitation but even then, Meher said, the timings were not being adhered to and nothing changed except the police repression.

In 2016, an order by the Odisha High Court had said that the road should be repaired and till then, no vehicle should ply on it. It had reviewed the road from Bankbihal to Taparia and said that two-ton multi-axle vehicles should be stopped till it was repaired.

Prior to that, in 2015, a memorandum of understanding was signed between the Odisha government and the Mahanadi Coalfields Limited for the construction of a four-lane coal corridor from Bankibahal to Bhedabahal (in Sundargarh district where an ultra-mega power plant is proposed), as the existing road is not fit for multi-axle heavy vehicles.

Since that was not done, the heads of 26 gram panchayats filed a writ petition in the Odisha High Court in 2016. On that, the court ordered the formation of a committee that inspected the road from Sundergarh to Bankibahal/Taparia and submitted its report in March 2017.

The report ordered stopping the movement of trucks from Bankibahal to Taparia till the road was widened and repaired. The court ruled that a coal corridor must be built within a period of two months of the order and must be completed by the end of 2018 “on a war footing basis”.

It had also asked the collector to restrict the movements of vehicles and said that one of the conditions should be that multi-axle vehicles would only ply from 11 pm to 6 am. But none of this happened and orders to restrict truck movement has been wilfully disobeyed.

A Mahanadi Coalfields Limited spokesperson said that there is no alternative to this road and it was being repaired by Jindal Power. He claimed that the timings regarding the movement of trucks are being adhered to and the Mahanadi Coalfields Limited was cleaning the ponds and spraying water to control coal dust. He said there was some proposal for a coal corridor but did not have any details.

The spokesperson said the problem the people are facing should be resolved in a few months. Mahanadi Coalfields Limited was also dealing with the pollution, and while there will be some pollution due to coal dust, the company was doing all it can to improve the matter, he said while stressing that the Mahanadi Coalfields Limited holds health camps for the people as well.

In Odisha, funds meant for mining-affected communities are being diverted to urban areas

Scroll | Manish Kumar | May 09, 2021
Those living in mining areas have been seeking assistance for basic amenities for decades.

During the latest budget Session of Odisha’s Legislative Assembly, the Odisha government’s Cabinet in March approved several proposals but the one that raised eyebrows was to use the District Mineral Foundation funds, meant for the mining-affected community in the Sundergarh district, for construction of an international stadium in Rourkela town.

The proposed international stadium has been envisioned to host the Men’s Hockey World Cup 2023. This misuse of the funds is not a one-off incident, but there have been many similar trends over the years. In 2017, in the Jharsuguda district, the district administration sanctioned works related to the power supply to the Jharsuguda airport with an investment of more than Rs 20 crore squeezed from the District Mineral Foundation funds.

In another mining district of Keonjhar, the district administration in 2019-’20 sanctioned works for a handball stadium, and invested around Rs 5,00,000 for a patient facilitation centre for Cuttack-based medical college which is around 200-km away from Keonjhar.

In January 2020, the administration of the Sundergarh district bought 25 cars with the District Mineral Foundation funds for them to be used as patrolling vans by the police in Rourkela city, a non-mining affected area. Earlier, even integrated traffic management was sponsored with the funds. In the same district, the funds were also used to construct the boundary walls of the Circuit House.

The list of instances where the funds were used for works that had nothing to do with the welfare of the mining-affected communities goes on. This, experts warn, is worrisome because this comes at a time when the state’s own people living in the mining-affected areas are crying for attention and seeking help for basic amenities in their areas after living in poor and vulnerable conditions for decades.

This is important because according to the Union Coal and Mines Minister Pralhad Joshi, Odisha has seen the highest collection of Rs 11,984 crore as District Mineral Foundation collections from the miners operating in the state since the inception of funds in 2015.

The Odisha government recently told the state Assembly that the District Mineral Foundation collections in the state are rising in the state. While it was Rs. 395.44 crore in 2015-2019, in 2019-’20 the total annual collections stood at Rs 3,079.20 crore.

Though Odisha has a significant amount of the funds what is probably lacking is the provision of transparency related to their use. For instance, Rule 16 of the Odisha DMF Rules talks about sharing the annual report of the District Mineral Foundation trust on its website but hardly any annual reports have been uploaded online for several years.

Odisha’s DMF Rules mandates the usage of 60% of the funds in priority areas while 40% of them could be used in non-priority areas. The non-priority areas included investments in physical infrastructure, irrigation, energy and watershed development, afforestation and others.

Queries sent to PK Jena, who is the Odisha government’s secretary for the planning and convergence department, regarding the diversion of DMF funds for other purposes remained unanswered.

Pranav Sachdeva, a lawyer with the Supreme Court who has handled many mining cases in the apex court emphasised that Odisha and many states have attempted to dilute the very concept of the funds by diverting it to areas other than the mining-affected areas.

“As mining firms grow, the local community impacted by mining does not get any benefit from the money collected … in fact the local environment is impacted too,” he said. “But the governments often diverts these important resources away from the vulnerable community. They try to use the funds for works where ideally budgetary allocations should have been used. These funds were planned for the upliftment of the affected community for their health, education, livelihood and others and many portions land in urban areas.”

Pollution mess
According to the 2011 Census, about 1.62 million people (50 percent) in the Sundergarh district belong to Scheduled Tribes and many live in rural areas. This area is adjacent to the Chhattisgarh border and known for coal mining and other minerals for decades. But what is consistently ignored is the plight of the communities impacted by mining.

For instance, Naresh Meher, a resident of Ratanpur village in Gopalpur panchayat in Sundergarh district, said that people in his village are living in pathetic conditions due to mining taking place about 10-km away. He said that the levels of air pollution, water pollution and sound pollution have taken a huge toll on his village.

“Around 3,000 trucks cross our village every day,” said Meher, who himself is a tuberculosis patient. “Thick levels of dust often engulf our standing crops while polluted water is discharged from the handpumps. Several of the citizens here live with skin diseases, cancer and other diseases triggered by mining activities.”

But this is not the end of their poor fate as his village is now listed to be taken away for mining.

Social activist Suru Mishra from Sundergarh said that in the Hemgiri block in the district, a stretch of 25 km of road connects the mining centres of Sundergarh with Chhattisgarh and passes through several villages but even then the roads are in extremely bad shape.

“You cannot walk on that road,” Mishra told Mongabay-India. “Only trucks and heavy vehicles run on that road. There are very big potholes and the whole stretch gets waterlogged making it very difficult for the local communities to commute or for kids to use that to go to schools.”

Both, Meher and Mishra, said that these areas and many other mining-affected areas need government attention to improve their standards of lives. They also said that the Hemgiri Community Health Centre is still deprived of a digital X-ray facility and ultrasound facility and other medical facilities but the government has spent several portions of the DMF funds in boosting the District Headquarter Hospital, which is in an urban area.

The provision of District Mineral Foundation funds – to be collected from miners – were introduced in January 2015 by the government of India through an amendment in the country’s mining laws for all districts affected by mining-related operations.

In the Talcher region of the Angul district, the villagers living in areas close to the coal mining and coal washery units are left to suffer from the discharge of untreated water directly into the farmlands of the village. Similarly, in the Bansapal and Joda blocks of the Keonjhar district, the villagers are facing the crisis of polluted groundwater, a result of mining activities. This has also forced many women to walk for miles every day to fetch drinking water.

Funds diverted
Experts working on the issue of mining in Odisha and other states claim that the funds are now easily diverted for other priority areas and urban areas despite it being illegal and mining-affected communities crying for help.

Sankar Prasad Pani, a lawyer with the National Green Tribunal said, “In districts like Keonjhar, the salaries of doctors are now being paid through the funds which should ideally be coming from the state’s budgetary allocations.”

“Collectors find the funds sometimes hard to dispense and thus divert it for numerous urban-centric works,” he said. “But they are not annual budget funds, they can be accumulated and do not lapse. They can be used when needed. The need is to make priority-based plans to aid the mining-affected people.”

Ramesh Agarwal, a leading Indian environmentalist based in Raigarh in Chhattisgarh said, “The rules of funds have been framed in such a way that the district collector gets the power to sanction the funds with the approval of the local District Mineral Foundation committee. In many states, we have seen diversion of the funds to other areas which is not going to affect the mining hit communities.”

A study conducted by the New Delhi-based think tank Centre for Science and Environment on the usage of the District Mineral Foundation funds in different mining districts of Odisha found that despite lower social and health indicators the allocation of the funds on the issue of livelihood and other areas had not been much, say for example in Sundergarh district.

“In Sundergarh, one of Odisha’s top mining districts, a negligible Rs 3 crore has been provided for child development out of the district’s Rs 745 crore sanctions. This is at a time when the under-five mortality rate in rural areas of the district is as high as 67, and nearly 50% of the children below this age are victims of stunted growth,” the report said.

Srestha Banerjee, Programme Head, International Forum for Environment, Sustainability & Technology, who played a key role in producing the Centre for Science and Environment report, said the constitution of the District Mineral Foundation committee in the districts is one of the main problems.

“The District Mineral Foundation Committee in the districts have been formed in such a way that the local politicians including the parliamentarians and legislators exert more power in the decision making on the spending of the funds in their areas,” Banerjee told Mongabay-India. “The mining laws permit the administration to use part of the funds for administration works, but when the mining hit communities need attention for their upliftment and diversion of these funds to urban areas and for other similar works sounds less logical.”

She said that livelihood and income generation of the rural poor population living in the mining-affected areas need to get a priority under the District Mineral Foundation fund allocations. She also demanded that the funds should be spent based on priority areas rather than in a haphazard manner as it is happening presently in many mining districts of Odisha.

Vizag gas leak: A year on, villagers near the plant continue to live in fear

Hindustan Times | Srinivasa Rao Apparasu | May 08, 2021

Though the plant has since been closed following orders from the Andhra Pradesh high court, residents of Venkatapuram and four other villages surrounding the plant said the horror from the tragic incident haunt them to this day.

A year on since Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh woke up to one of its worst environmental disasters – leakage of poisonous gas from a storage tank of LG Polymers Ltd, a South Korean company on the outskirts of the city, killed 12 people while nearly 500 were hospitalised – villagers settled near the plant continue to live in a state of fear.

Though the plant has since been closed following orders from the Andhra Pradesh high court, residents of Venkatapuram and four other villages surrounding the plant said the horror from the tragic incident haunt them to this day.

On May 7 last year, poisonous Styrene gas leaked from one of the tanks at LG Polymers Ltd due to sudden rise in temperature at the bottom of the tank at around 3.30 am. The gas slowly spread over a radius of about 3 km, affecting five villages — Venkatapuram, Venkatadri Nagar, Nandamuri Nagar, Pydimamba Colony and BC & SC Colony.

Srinu Yadav, a transport worker from Venkatapuram, said the incident had created havoc in the lives of several villagers, particularly the poor and the middle class. “Many in these villages, particularly Venkatapuram, where the LG Polymers plant is located, continue to face health issues, like breathing problems, asthma, and gastrointestinal disorders,” Yadav said.
The villagers recall how thanks to the timely alert from locals, the authorities of Greater Visakhapatnam Municipal Corporation and the district administration swung into action and shifted people from the affected areas with the help of police to safer areas.

The Jagan Mohan Reddy government paid ex gratia of ₹1 crore each to the families of the 12 who died in the incident, besides ₹10 lakh for persons who were kept on ventilator for a long time, ₹1 lakh each to 485 people who were hospitalised with serious complications and ₹25,000 each to 99 people who were treated as outpatients. Another 19,893 people were paid ₹25,000 each towards compensation.
“In the next one week, three others from the affected villages died but the authorities attributed their deaths to some other reasons. In the last one year, at least 15 people, including my father-in-law, died due to symptoms that surfaced after the Styrene gas leak. But no forensic studies were done to prove they were related to the gas leak tragedy,” Yadav said.

An eight-member expert committee headed by state special chief secretary (environment and forests) Neerabh Kumar Prasad, which was constituted to probe into the mishap, came up with a series of suggestions, including periodical testing of health conditions of villagers in the area so as to monitor the short-term and long-term impact of the Styrene gas on their health.
“Subsequently, a committee of health experts was appointed to regularly monitor the health of people in the affected villages, but it did not commence its work because of the Covid-19 pandemic,” K Kumara Mangalam, a local trade union leader, said.

He added that the government has washed off its hands by setting up a primary health centre in a local school, but it hardly helped. “Except for an occasional visit by a junior doctor and para-medical staff, nothing much has happened. It doesn’t have any facilities, though the authorities promised to set up a hospital in the area,” Mangalam said.

A study conducted in March this year by local environmentalists under Alluri Sitarama Raju Vignana Kendram on environment, health and safety of people in the villages surrounding LG Polymers, observed that the GVMC authorities were neither monitoring water bodies periodically nor getting an expert study on the water quality.
“Most of the households are depending on the canned water for drinking purposes and spending between ₹300- 600 per month,” said K Eswar, another resident.

An official of the GVMC, however, denied contamination of the drinking water in villages. “Scientists belonging to CSIR-National Environment Engineering Research Institute studied the water samples in and around the area and found that styrene is insoluble in water and would drain away in case of water flow. We are supplying Godavari water to local residents through pipeline,” the official said on condition of anonymity.

The LG Polymers has shut its operations since the tragedy and the Korean management, with special permission from the Ministry of Shipping, shifted 13,000 tonnes of unused Styrene in two ships back to Seoul. On April 6 this year, the company got permission from the high court to move and sell leftover raw material, finished product and packaging material from the plant as it could pose danger to the public health if left unattended.
The court directed that sale process be done in the supervision of a three-member committee appointed by the state government and the company deposit the sales proceeds in an account in the name of Vizag district collector.

The villagers in the area are apprehensive that the LG Polymers might restart their operations once the cases pending in the high court and the National Green Tribunal were settled. “Unless the plant is completely shifted from the area, the fear of recurrence of such incidents will continue to haunt us,” said S Pydi Raju, a resident of Venkatapuram.

When contacted, state industries minister Mekapati Gautam Reddy said the government has not focused on LG Polymers as of now as it was busy tackling the Covid-19 situation. “We shall take appropriate decision after discussing with the industries department authorities later,” he said.

COVID-19 first wave pushed 23 crore Indians into poverty: Azim Premji University

Business Today | May 06, 2021

The report, titled ‘State of Working India Report 2021’ stated that rural India witnessed a 15% increase in poverty and a 20% rise was registered in urban areas after one year of the coronavirus pandemic

The first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic shoved a staggering 230 million (23 crore) Indians below the poverty line, estimated a study by the Azim Premji University.

The report, titled ‘State of Working India Report 2021’ stated that rural India witnessed a 15% increase in poverty and a 20% rise was registered in urban areas after one year of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Coming on a low-income base, this shock meant that the number of individuals who lie below the national minimum wage threshold (Rs 375 per day as recommended by the Anoop Satpathy committee) increased by 230 million during the pandemic,” according to the report.

“This amounts to an increase in the poverty rate by 15 percentage points in rural and nearly 20 percentage points in urban areas. Had the pandemic not occurred, poverty would have declined by 5 percentage points in rural areas and 1.5 percentage points in urban areas between 2019 and 2020, and 50 million would have been lifted above this line,” it added.

The report further highlighted how women lost more employment than men during the COVID-19 pandemic last year, how around half of formal salaried workforce moved into informal work, and how poorer households underwent considerably higher income losses during the lockdown period.

Mobility curbs resulted in income losses because of decreased economic activity, the report noted. “A 10% decline in mobility was associated with a 7.5% decline in income,” it stated, suggesting the situation could get worse if more lockdowns are imposed in the future.

The report proposed that the Centre will need to roll out a relief package worth Rs 8 lakh crore to contain hardships being faced by lower-income groups due to the economic impact of COVID-19.

The report is based on inputs from Consumer Pyramids Household Survey, Azim Premji Foundation, and many other civil society organisations.

The study found that nearly half of formal salaried workers moved into informal work, either as self-employed (30 per cent), casual wage (10 per cent) or informal salaried (9 per cent) workers, between late 2019 and late 2020 and there was a decline in their income level as well.

In April and May, the poorest 20 per cent of households lost their entire income and the richer households suffered losses of less than a quarter of their pre-pandemic incomes, the report said.

To bring relief for the people suffering hardships of COVID-19 impact, the Azim Premji University report, released on Wednesday, recommended measures that would cost the government an additional expenditure of around Rs 8 lakh crore.

“The measures that we have proposed will bring the spending by the government of India to 4.5 per cent of overall GDP between this year and last or about Rs 8 lakh crore. We think that is not even internationally comparable to what other countries have done, but really what India needs to do,” Azim Premji University associate professor of economics Amit Basole said while releasing the report.

According to the report, the public distribution system has a wider reach than Jan Dhan Yojana, and free rations under the PDS should be extended beyond June, at least till the end of 2021.

In Karnataka and Rajasthan, out of those with women-owned Jan Dhan accounts, 60 per cent received one or more transfers, around 30 per cent did not receive any transfers and 10 per cent did not know about the fund status in their account, it added.

The university report recommended a cash transfer of Rs 5,000 for three months to as many vulnerable households as can be reached with the existing digital infrastructure, including but not limited to Jan Dhan accounts.

It has suggested expanding the MGNREGA entitlement to 150 days and revising programme wages upwards to state minimum wages.

This needs to expand the programme budget to at least Rs 1.75 lakh crore, according to the report.

It has also recommended launching a pilot urban employment programme in the worst-hit districts with a focus on women workers, increasing the central contribution in old-age pensions to at least Rs 500, a COVID hardship allowance to 25 lakh Anganwadi and ASHA workers of Rs 30,000 and automatically enrolling all MGNREGA workers who do construction work as registered workers under the building and other construction workers (BoCW) Act.

Covid-hit India needs Rs 8 lakh crore package to support lower income groups: Report

India Today | May 06, 2021

A report has suggested that the government needs to roll out a relief package of Rs 8 lakh crore to contain hardships faced by lower-income groups due to the economic devastation caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The government will need to roll out a relief package worth Rs 8 lakh crore to contain hardships being faced by lower-income groups due to the economic impact of COVID-19, a report by Azim Premji University said on Wednesday.

The report is based on inputs from Consumer Pyramids Household Survey, Azim Premji Foundation, and many other civil society organisations.

As per the calculations based on CMIE-CPHS data, the report said, around 23 crore people are estimated to have fallen below the national minimum wage poverty line due to the impact of COVID-19 on the economy and around 1.5 crore workers remain jobless by the end of 2020, the report titled State of the Work 2021 said.

The study found that nearly half of formal salaried workers moved into informal work, either as self-employed (30 per cent), casual wage (10 per cent) or informal salaried (9 per cent) workers, between late 2019 and late 2020 and there was a decline in their income level as well.

In April and May, the poorest 20 per cent of households lost their entire income and the richer households suffered losses of less than a quarter of their pre-pandemic incomes, the report said.

To bring relief for the people suffering hardships of COVID-19 impact, the Azim Premji University report on Wednesday recommended measures that would cost the government an additional expenditure of around Rs 8 lakh crore.

“The measures that we have proposed will bring the spending by the government of India to 4.5 per cent of overall GDP between this year and last or about Rs 8 lakh crore. We think that is not even internationally comparable to what other countries have done, but really what India needs to do,” Azim Premji University associate professor of economics Amit Basole said while releasing the report.

According to the report, around 30 per cent of people in some states did not get ration as per Pradhan Mantri Gareeb Kalyan Yojana, which needs to be investigated.

“Something like 30 per cent of PDS priority ration cardholder, unfortunately, did not receive the extra grains, at least in these two states (Karnataka and Rajasthan) and this number of 30 per cent we find broadly similar also in few other states that we have done as part of our other COVID livelihood survey,” Basole said.

According to the report, the public distribution system has a wider reach than Jan Dhan Yojana, and free rations under the PDS should be extended beyond June, at least till the end of 2021. In Karnataka and Rajasthan, out of those having women-owned Jan Dhan accounts, 60 per cent received one or more transfers, around 30 per cent did not receive any transfers and 10 per cent did not know about the fund status in their account, it added.

The university report has recommended a cash transfer of Rs 5,000 for three months to as many vulnerable households as can be reached with the existing digital infrastructure, including but not limited to Jan Dhan accounts.

It has suggested expansion of MGNREGA entitlement to 150 days and revising programme wages upwards to state minimum wages.

This needs to expand the programme budget to at least Rs 1.75 lakh crore, according to the report.

It has also recommended launching a pilot urban employment programme in the worst-hit districts with a focus on women workers, increasing the central contribution in old-age pensions to at least Rs 500, a COVID hardship allowance to 25 lakh Anganwadi and ASHA workers of Rs 30,000 and automatically enrolling all MGNREGA workers who do construction work as registered workers under the building and other construction workers (BoCW) Act.

“The survey has been supported crucially by various organisations including Azim Premji Foundation and Azim Premji Philanthropic initiatives, Initiative for What Works to Advance Women and Girls in the Economy, as well as many civil society organisations, have contributed in bringing the information that we have been able to collect,” Basole said.

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