Jobless after virus lockdown, India’s poor struggle to eat

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An Indian man walks carrying a cooking gas cylinder in Gauhati, India, Wednesday, March 25, 2020. The world’s largest democracy went under the world’s biggest lockdown Wednesday, with India’s 1.3 billion people ordered to stay home in a bid to stop the coronavirus pandemic from spreading and overwhelming its fragile health care system as it has done elsewhere. The new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms for most people, but for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness or death. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)

NEW DELHI (AP) — Some of India’s legions of poor and others suddenly thrown out of work by a nationwide stay-at-home order began receiving aid on Thursday, as both public and private groups worked to blunt the impact of efforts to curb the coronavirus pandemic.

India’s finance ministry announced a 1.7 trillion ($22 billion) economic stimulus package that will include delivering grains and lentil rations for three months to 800 million people, some 60% of the world’s second-most populous country.

In the meantime, police in one state were giving rations of rice to shanty dwellers, while another state’s government deposited cash into the bank accounts of newly unemployed workers. Aid groups worked to greatly expand the number of meals they could hand out.

The unprecedented order keeping India’s 1.3 billion people at home for all but essential trips to places like markets or pharmacies is meant to keep the virus from surging above the 593 active cases and 13 deaths currently recorded and overwhelming an already strained health care system.

The measures that went into effect 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, itinerant produce peddlers, maids, day laborers and other informal workers form the backbone of the Indian economy, comprising around 85% of all employment, according to official data. Many buy food with the money they make each day and have no savings to fall back on.

Untold numbers are now out of work and many families have been left struggling to eat.

“Our first concern is food, not the virus,” said Suresh Kumar, 60, a bicycle rickshaw driver in New Delhi.

He said he has a family of six who rely on his normal daily earnings of 300 rupees ($4),

“I don’t know how I will manage,” he said.

In the northeastern state of Assam, police handed 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 sent 1,000 rupees ($13) 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 weren’t 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 at government schools, political party offices and shelter kitchens.

Details of the programs, from how well-funded they were to how many people they hope to help, remained scant, however.

“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.”

But many were doubtful.

With passenger rail, bus and airline services suspended, Prabhulal Kumar, 21, was among many Indians headed to their hometowns on foot.

Walking out of New Delhi on Thursday for a village in Uttar Pradesh, some 550 kilometers (345 miles) away, Kumar said he would starve in the capital without work.

“There is no one to help me. I am running out of foodstuff and milk. How are we going to survive here?” he said.

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 return to their villages after Indian Railways suspended all passenger service or the first time in its 150 years of operation.

The $22 billion package announced Thursday, which includes distributing five kilograms (11 pounds) of grains and one kilogram (2.2 pounds) of lentil beans every month from government stocks to 800 million people, is in addition to an earlier pledge of $2 billion to bolster the health care system.

The poor aren’t the only ones hurt by the lockdown. Those with money to spend in shops have met with long lines and confusing regulations.

In the city of Bangalore, people crowded roadside vendors outside a closed wholesale vegetable market. Others stood in line outside grocery stores behind chalked markings to maintain social distance.

At one store in Lucknow, people ignored the new social isolation norms to keep at least one meter (3.3 feet) apart and crammed in to buy food during the state government’s limited window for shopping.

“I know it is risky and (one can) get infected,” said Kamlesh Saxena, a government employee shopping at the store. “But I have no choice.”

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Associated Press writers Biswajeet Banerjee in Lucknow, Dar Yasin in Srinagar, Aijaz Rahi in Bangalore, Altaf Qadri in New Delhi and Wasbir Hussain in Gauhati contributed to this report.

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