India unveils $23bn package to help poor hit by COVID-19 lockdown

Measures to protect the country’s 1.3 billion people from coronavirus leaves poor and daily labourers most vulnerable.

India lockdown
Some economists say the plan may not be enough to support the country, and the lockdown could cost India dearly in terms of economic growth [File: Adnan Abidi/Reuters]

India has announced a $22.6bn economic stimulus plan that provides direct cash transfers and ensures food security measures, offering relief to millions of poor people hit by a nationwide lockdown to withstand the coronavirus pandemic.

The package was announced on Thursday, two days after Prime Minister Narendra Modi ordered a 21-day lockdown to protect the country’s 1.3 billion people from the new coronavirus. That has triggered supply constraints for essential items and panic buying, leaving the poor and daily labourers most vulnerable.

The government aims to distribute 5kg of wheat or rice for each person free of cost every month, with 1kg of pulses for every low-income family, helping to feed about 800 million poor people over the next three months.

It also intends to hand out free cooking gas cylinders to 83 million poor families, a one-time cash transfer of $13.31 to 30 million senior citizens and $6.65 a month to about 200 million poor women for next three months.

“We do not want anyone to remain hungry,” Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman told a news briefing.

The government outlined plans for medical insurance worth 5 million rupees ($66,000) for every front-line health worker, from doctors, nurses and paramedics to those involved in sanitary services.

But some economists said the plan may not be enough to support the country, and the lockdown could cost India dearly in terms of economic growth.

“The fresh announcements related to cash transfers appear to be relatively modest at this stage,” said Aditi Nayar, an economist at the credit rating agency ICRA.

India’s economic growth fell to 4.7 percent in the last quarter of 2019 (October-December), its lowest in more than six years, and is likely to fall to 2.4 percent in January-March, Nayar said.

Sitharaman did not provide details on how the programme will be funded, in a country that always walks a line in terms of its fiscal deficit. The announcements will be effective from April 1, the beginning of India’s new fiscal year 2020-21.

Sources told Reuters news agency the government is likely to increase its 2020-21 planned borrowing of 7.8 trillion rupees ($102bn) and it has asked its central bank to directly buy part of these bonds – a move not undertaken by the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) in decades.

The officials, who did not want to be named, also said the government and the RBI will also announce steps to ease stress for businesses in the coming weeks.

The government is likely to defer taxes for some industries like aviation, hospitality and small companies, which have been hurt the most by the lockdown, officials said.

The RBI is also likely to ease bad-loan classification norms and allow banks to raise their lending ceiling to help companies.

Source: Reuters