New Delhi: Informal workers who live day to day urgently need cash support from their governments to survive the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the head of the United Nations labour agency said on April 25, 2020.

“It’s a simple issue of social protection,” said Guy Ryder, director-general of the International Labour Organization (ILO). “We need to get not tomorrow but today, direct transfers of cash and resources of these people desperately in need.”

More than 60% of the world's employed population is in the informal economy, around two billion people, according to the ILO. The situation in India is no different: Over 90% of India’s total workforce is 'informal', according to the Economic Survey of 2018-19.

To address the problems faced by the poor, particularly the informal workers--many of whom embarked on journeys spanning hundreds of kilometres, by foot, to reach their villages after losing their jobs to the lockdown (read our stories here, here and here)--the government on March 26, 2020, announced a relief package of Rs 1.7 lakh crore under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana.

The scheme promised cash transfers through different programmes such as the National Social Assistance Programme (monthly pensions for senior citizens, widows and differently-abled), Ujjwala scheme (subsidised cooking gas cylinders), Kisan Samman Nidhi scheme (annual payment of Rs 6,000 to farmers), Jan Dhan Accounts (Rs 500 per month to women account holders) and Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS, 100 days’ paid work in rural areas).

However, these schemes are not reaching the people in need, and few have received financial assistance from the government, found a recent three-state survey of over 1,700 people in Bihar, Jharkhand and Madhya Pradesh.

About 55.6% of respondents in Bihar, 73.4% in Jharkhand and 62.3% in Madhya Pradesh had not received any cash transfers or financial support from the state or central governments, the survey found.

The survey by Mobile Vaani, a voice-based interaction platform, was conducted on April 15, 2020, by telephonically interviewing people from 25 districts across the three states. Over 50% of the respondents were farmers and agricultural labourers, around 25% were daily wage or contract labourers, while about 12% were self-employed.

Pointing out the roadblocks in cash transfers reaching those in need, Aditeshwar Seth, co-founder of Gram Vaani, a Delhi-based social enterprise, said, “We clearly see three patterns emerging: of mixed information and awareness on eligibility for schemes; of administrative issues that leave out even eligible people from schemes; and finally, of logistical issues that keep those who received benefits from accessing them”.

About 29.8 million widows, senior citizens and differently-abled who receive pensions under the National Social Assistance Programme were promised an advance pension for three months and an ex-gratia amount of Rs 1,000. However, 60% of the people surveyed reported not having received any kind of pension amounts, across all the three states. Only a quarter of daily-wage labourers and farmers in Bihar reported receiving some kind of pension.

All cardholders under the MGNREGS were promised that workers will get an additional wage of Rs 2,000 annually and funds will be released to clear pending wages. The survey found that over 70% people across all the three states reported not having received any allowance under MGNREGS in the last two weeks of the lockdown. This number was the highest in Bihar, where 77% of people received no allowance.

Even for the people who are able to access this financial support, the amount is insufficient. “These sums (cash transfers) are negligible compared to the skyrocketing prices of vegetables and other essentials,” said Seth from Gram Vaani.

(Tiwari is a principal correspondent with IndiaSpend.)