The substantial outlay of the Central government’s Covid-19 relief package and the exodus of migrants from cities are two pieces of a puzzle that don’t sit well together. In a country that annually spends between Rs 2 lakh crore and Rs 2.5 lakh crore on social protection, a relief package of about Rs 1.7 lakh crore is not insignificant by any measure. Yet this announcement failed to comfort migrant workers, who retreated from cities to the safety of their hometowns in droves.

This incongruity betrays a fundamental flaw in how the government understands relief work. At a time when tactical thinking was critically required, the government simply relied on strengthening existing programmes. Take a closer look at its relief measures. They are hardly indistinguishable from existing, generic social protection measures – all built upon existing systems, such as the Public Distribution System, National Social Assistance Programme, by enlarging the size of entitlements. Think of it as curing a patient on the brink of a cardiac arrest with physical exercise.

To understand this better, it is important to distinguish between social protection schemes and relief measures. The former refers to sustained measures to build resilience among the population, so that they are able to withstand personal crises (such as evictions and loss of earning) as well as collective crises (such as riots, famine and epidemics). Relief, on the other hand, is strictly episodic, instituted to mitigate an immediate crisis. Neither should be confused with the other.

If relief has to compensate for the absence of sustained programmes, institutions, infrastructure and delivery mechanisms, it runs the risk of being inadequate and misdirected. The vastness of coverage, the generosity of entitlements and the robustness of institutional and delivery mechanisms of social protection programmes is inversely proportional to the amount of relief needed in times of crisis. But it is directly proportional to the efficacy of the relief measures.

A migrant worker in Delhi sets out for home after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a 21-day lockdown. Credit: Danish Siddiqui/Reuters

Building on a base

Relief, by its very nature, is provisional. It is carried out with a sense of urgency and always lacks adequate time for planning. When there is not enough investment in social infrastructure protection – resulting in low resilience among people to withstand crises – relief begins to appear like social protection. In such circumstances, relief resources struggle to be absorbed and channelled in effective ways, regardless of how generous they are. They have to build from the ground up and address multiple layers of vulnerabilities.

But when social protection is sufficient, relief work can make a vast difference with modest augmentations. In critical times, you aren’t left trying to find people who need relief and discovering ways to deliver it to them since these have already been identified via well-institutionalised mechanisms.

In Kerala, for instance, it was the existence of institutions, robust healthcare systems and mechanisms like the Kudumbashree collective that made it possible to support health workers, provide doorstep delivery of meals and increase microfinance. Similarly, it was the midday meal infrastructure that helped agencies all over the country ensure doorstep delivery of rations.

Way forward

The government’s relief package was not attuned to addressing pressing concerns, such as migrants being unable to access extra rations or the threat of ouster by landlords. These issues were either neglected or drew a post-facto response, such as the unenforceable directive to landlords to not evict tenants or to employers to continue dispensing wages. State agencies constantly missed the beat in anticipating and addressing manifestations of the crisis on the ground.

After all this is over, our inclination will be to treat the pandemic as an episodic crisis and ignore the fractures it has revealed in our social protection system. But we should avoid the trap. The only positive way forward from this will be to realise that the pre-crisis normal was precarious and highly unjust.

Strengthening social protection – both in terms of expanding the number of people it covers and the range of measures it mobilises – to plug diverse risks should be an immediate step. So that when the next crisis hits, relief builds on the robust base consisting of programmes, institutions and infrastructure, instead of compensating for the absence of social protection. So that lives are not endangered, as in recent days. After all, ensuring equal chances of survival for all, unmediated by class, is the least the state owes to those whom poverty got to, much before the threat of the disease did.

(With inputs from Anirban Bhattacharya and Gautam Bhan.)

Kinjal Sampat is a consultant with the Indian Institute of Human Settlements. Views are personal.