Ramneek Lal, a wage-earner in Bamrauli Katara, a village near Agra, has a six-member family to feed.
After the coronavirus lockdown, the nearest ration shop is his only source of sustenance because he lost employment at a construction site in Agra city last month.
With a clutch of papers in his hands, Ramneek Lal says free ration is only for those whose names are there on the ration card, provided under the National Food Security Act (NFSA).
“I have six members in my family, including children and elders, but the names of only three are there on the card.”
“I have got the identification details, including the Aadhaar card and the bank passbooks of the members whose names are not there on the card, but the shop-owner isn’t willing to give even 1 kg extra grain,” Ramneek Lal said.
“How can I feed six people with the ration meant for three,” he asked, showing the documents as proof.
With there being more than 77 million tonnes of foodgrains in warehouses, which is more than a year’s quota of ration under the NFSA and substantially more than three times what needs to be there as buffer stock, assuming that the annual offtake under the scheme is 55-60 million tonnes, feeding the three extra members of Ramneek Lal’s family shouldn’t be a problem.
However, the pandemic crisis and the Centre’s announcement on allocating 5 kg of extra wheat or rice to all the 810 million beneficiaries under the NFSA has exposed two big holes in the decades-old public distribution system (PDS) in India — something that has kept millions of beneficiaries out of the safety net and ignited calls for universalising the PDS, if not permanently, maybe for three months, till the pandemic crisis is over.
The NFSA is administered through a network of more than 500,000 ration shops in the country. Through those, cheap subsidised food is provided to almost 810 million people.
The annual requirement of foodgrains to run this job, involving people from the farmer who grows the grains to the people who get them, is 54-56 million tonnes, based on the last three years’ average offtake under the PDS.
With Food Corporation of India (FCI) sitting on wheat and rice stocks of around 77.72 million tonnes as of March 10 (the 77.72 million tonnes include 19.24 million tonnes of unmilled paddy), India has more than a year’s quota of ration even before the country starts its annual wheat procurement for the 2020-21 season in full swing. That will add to the inventory.
So as soon as millions of workers across India lost their jobs owing to the lockdown, the Central government announced three months’ free ration, along with 1 kg of free pulses per family, for all the NFSA beneficiaries.
To date all NFSA beneficiaries get 5 kg of wheat or rice per month at a highly subsidised rate of Rs 3 per kg of rice, Rs 2 per kg of wheat, and Rs 1 per kg of coarse cereals.
After the outbreak, under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Package (PMGKP), all will get 10 kg of wheat or rice for the next three months.
“The NFSA Act, 2013, is based on the 2011 census, which means those family members who were added after this census, conducted almost nine years ago, won’t have their names on the ration card. Secondly, as no new census had not been conducted after 2011 while the population has increased manifold during this period, a large chunk of the poor and needy don’t have ration cards and are hence not eligible for free ration,” Dipa Sinha, a teacher at Ambedkar University and a prominent member of the Right to Food Campaign, told Business Standard.
She said for the time being, the government could start distributing extra ration based on the projected population of 2021.
A recently released study by eminent economists Jean Drèze, Reetika Khera, and Meghana Mungikar shows that more than 100 million people are excluded from the public distribution system (PDS) because the Central government insists on using the 2011 figures to calculate state-wise PDS coverage.
At the all-India level, applying the 67 per cent ratio to a projected population of 1.37 billion for 2020, PDS coverage today would be 922 million, instead of around 800 million. This means over 100 million eligible people are outside its ambit, the study showed.
If a state adds more people than what the Central scheme allows, it will have to bear the additional expenditure. Therefore, states refrain from doing so.
The second and an equally important problem, according to some experts, is the inefficiencies at the state level and the handling of the PDS, which means that even though loads of grain might be reaching the state head of Food Corporation of India (FCI), they are not reaching the people they are meant for.
According to the food ministry website, the government has allocated almost 3.5 million tonnes of extra wheat and rice for free distribution over the next three months under the Garib Kalyan Package. Of that, according to a recent tweet by Food Minister Ramvilas Paswan, almost 2.5 million tonnes (around 71.5 per cent) has been issued to the states in the first 15 days and a significant quantity has also been lifted by them.
So, if still the grains aren’t reaching the poor and they are getting less than their eligible quota, the problem lies elsewhere. “Ration-shop owners giving less than the entitlement is a very common problem in most Jharkhand districts. We have received numerous complaints that against 70 kg of wheat or rice an extremely poor family is eligible to get, they have got 50-60 kg,” said Siraj Dutta, one of the most authoritative persons on the state.
As Sinha puts it, states that have a functional and well-oiled PDS with a larger number of people within its ambit, a crisis like the present one can be managed better than in those where the system is rickety and non-functional.