By Annie Banerji
NEW DELHI, March 26 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - From cash transfers to cooking gas, India's government on Thursday announced measures to help hundreds of millions of vulnerable women survive a coronavirus lockdown as part of a plan worth nearly $23 billion.
India's government has put in place a strict lockdown to try to stem the spread of the deadly virus among its 1.3 billion people, many of whom have no savings and limited access to healthcare.
Despite the country's economic advances, women are among the most excluded groups in India, with many stuck in low-paid or unpaid domestic work and with limited access to their own money.
Women in India spend nearly six hours a day in unpaid work - or about seven times more than men do, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.
The disproportionate workload makes women suffer from extreme forms of poverty that affects their health, leaving them without opportunities to study or participate in paid labour, according to Oxfam India's 2020 inequality report.
Poor widows, senior citizens and disabled people will receive 1,000 rupees ($13) for the next three months from April 1 through direct cash transfers, which would help 30 million people, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced.
About 200 million women who have bank accounts opened under an existing government financial inclusion initiative will get 500 rupees each over the same period of time, she said.
Separately, India's 6.3 million women's self-help groups - microfinance initiatives that borrow small amounts of money at subsidised interest rates from state-owned banks - will get 2 million rupee collateral-free loans.
This is double the amount they get currently and would benefit 70 million households, she said.
The schemes, which include food security measures, will help about 800 million people - or about two-thirds of India's population, said Sitharaman.
The moves come two days after Prime Minister Narendra Modi ordered a 21-day nationwide lockdown to try to protect India's from the fast-spreading coronavirus, which has infected 649 and killed 13 in the country so far.
Queues of people, wearing masks and some with gloves, could be seen outside small neighbourhood shops across some cities on Thursday as people worried about access to essential goods.
($1 = 75.2500 Indian rupees)
(Reporting by Annie Banerji @anniebanerji, Editing by Claire Cozens; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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