New Delhi, Jun 30 (efe-epa).- The Indian government announced on Tuesday that it was extending its free foodgrain distribution program for the poor people during the Covid-19 crisis until November, aiming to feed as many as 800 million people.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the measure in a televised speech a day before the country enters the second phase of easing lockdown measures without many changes in restrictions, even as the number of infections has continued to rise.
“The government is going to distribute 5 kilograms of wheat or rice to each member of the family free of cost,” Modi said, extending a scheme which was first implemented in April for a period of three months.
He explained that employment was mainly limited to agriculture during the monsoon period – which brings heavy rains to the country between June and September – and other sectors witnessed a slump, an annual phenomenon which could add to people’s woes amid the economic crisis caused by the epidemic.
The prime minister highlighted that a series of religious and social festivals – including one of the most important Hindu festivals Diwali and the North Indian festival of Chhath Puja – also kick off in this season and continue until November.
“The festival season increases needs and expenses. Considering this, it has been decided that the PM Garib Kalyan Anna Yojna (prime minister’s poor welfare grains scheme) will be extended to cover Diwali and Chhath Puja, until November,” he said.
Modi said the program would reach out to 800 million people, almost two-thirds of the Indian population, with a fresh expenditure of 900 billion rupees (around $11.9 billion), taking the total amount of funds spent on the scheme since April to 1.5 trillion rupees (around $20 billion).
The prime minister emphasized that the central government had transferred around 310 billion rupees ($4.1 billion) directly to the bank accounts of around 200 million poor families and also distributed around 180 billion rupees ($2.38 billion) to around 90 million farmers as part of a relief package announced in late March.
In a speech to mark India entering the second face of easing restrictions – dubbed “Unlock 2.0” – Modi warned that social and personal behavior of Indians had become more careless since major restrictions were lifted in June.
“Earlier we were more careful about wearing masks maintaining the two-yard distance, washing hands for 20 seconds many times a day. (…) Today we need to be more alert, the carelessness is a matter of concern,” he said.
The infection curve has continued to rise in India despite a stringent lockdown that lasted for more than two months, and it was the fourth most affected country behind the United States, Brazil and Russia with nearly 567,000 cases on Tuesday, according to data provided by the US-based Johns Hopkins University.
The death toll in the country was set to touch 17,000, while over 334,000 people have recovered from the disease.
However, Modi insisted that India was “relatively better-off” in handling the disease in terms of its low mortality rate and claimed that an early announcement of lockdown in March – when there were just around 500 cases in the country – had saved thousands of lives.
Unlock 2.0 will kick off on Wednesday without significant changes in norms compared to the first phase of reopening and is set to continue until July 31.
An order by the ministry of home affairs published on Monday night said that all activities and services were permitted outside designated “containment zones,” except metro trains, international commercial flights, large events and places of mass gathering such as theaters, cinema halls, gyms and public swimming pool..
Places of worship, hotels, restaurants and shopping malls had already been opened in June, while individual stores had been allowed to function even earlier.
Even though the government had originally planned to open educational institutions in the second phase, it has now decided to keep them closed until July 31, although professional training institutes would be allowed to open after July 15.
The night curfew has been reduced by one hour and would be enforced from 10 pm to 5 am – instead of the earlier opening time of 6 am – across the country. EFE-EPA