Indian shopkeepers and customers haggle over the prices of fruits and vegetables in a crowded Mandi (market place), as nationwide lockdown continues over highly contagious novel coronavirus on March 26, 2020 in New Delhi, India. (Photo by Yawar Nazir/Getty Images)

INDIA announced $22.6 billion (£18.9 billion) economic stimulus plan on Thursday (26) providing direct cash transfers and food security measures to give relief to millions of poor people hit by a nationwide lockdown over a coronavirus pandemic.

People queued in some cities for essential items, with trucks stranded at state borders and public transport suspended two days after prime minister Narendra Modi ordered the 21-day lockdown to protect a population of 1.3 billion.

“We do not want anyone to remain hungry, so we will be giving them enough to take care of food grain requirements and protein requirements, in terms of pulses,” Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said.

India has recorded 649 virus infections and 13 deaths.

Thursday’s package would tackle the welfare concerns of the poor and suffering workers, and those who need immediate help, Sitharaman added.

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

It also aims to hand out free cooking gas cylinders to 83 million poor families, in addition to direct cash transfers to 200 million women and the elderly, over a similar period.

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

India’s public health network, notoriously starved of resources, suffers an acute shortage of staff, so that sick people may often receive only hurried medical checks.

Among other financial relief, the government plans to release funds for the Employees’ Provident Fund in some small firms in a measure aimed at covering 48 million workers.

For poor senior citizens, widow and disabled will get an ex-gratia of Rs 1,000.

Also, the daily wage under MNREGA has been increased to Rs 202 a day from Rs 182 to benefit 50 million workers.