Around 800 million people in India have started receiving aid to curb the impact of the coronavirus pandemic in the country.
India’s finance ministry announced a 1.7 trillion rupee (£18.44 billion) economic stimulus package that will include delivering monthly grains and lentil rations to 60% of people in the world’s second-most populous country.
An unprecedented order keeping India’s 1.3 billion people at home for all but essential trips to places like supermarkets or pharmacies is meant to keep virus cases from surging and overwhelming an already strained healthcare system.
Yet the measures that went into effect on Wednesday — the largest of their kind in the world — risk heaping further hardship on the quarter of the population who live below the poverty line and the 1.8 million who are homeless.
Rickshaw drivers, travelling produce sellers, maids, day labourers and other informal workers form the backbone of the Indian economy, comprising around 85% of all employment, according to official data. Many of them buy food with the money they make each day, and have no savings to fall back on.
Untold numbers of them are now out of work and many families have been left struggling to eat.
In the northeastern state of Assam, police started handing out rice in some of the poorest districts, an informal effort they said they hope to ramp up in coming days.
In India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, the government already sent 1,000 rupees (£11) to 2 million informal workers who are registered in a government database and have bank accounts. It was handing out free food rations to those who are not registered, though some in the state capital, Lucknow, said they were not aware of such handouts.
In New Delhi, authorities teamed up with local charities and aid groups to map out locations where the city’s poor tend to congregate, distributing 500 hot meals cooked in government schools, political party headquarters and shelter kitchens.
“These are extraordinary times and proving food to the poor is a mammoth task,” said Vinay K Stephen, who runs a nonprofit group working with the government to feed the capital’s homeless. “But we will do it.”
Economists had urged the government to create a stimulus package to blunt the effects of the lockdown on the poor, many of whom migrated to big cities for work and now find themselves unable to earn a living or go home to their villages after Indian Railways suspended all passenger service for the first time in its 150 years of operating.
The £18 billion package announced, which includes distributing five kilograms of grains and one kilogram of lentil beans every month from government stocks to 800 million people, is in addition to an earlier pledge of £1.67 billion to bolster the healthcare system.