Public Distribution System is much more than PMGKAY- Improve legal entitlements, not mask them as election doles

ration shop

The Right to Food Campaign is against the central government’s actions to misrepresent National Food Security Act 2013 (NFSA) as their own initiative through Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana (PMGKAY), a misrepresentation being used as an election dole. The Prime Minister of India in an election rally in Chhattisgarh on 4th November 2023, announced that the 5 kg free ration allocation to the ration card holder under the Public Distribution System (PDS) to 80 crore people has been extended for the next five years. This announcement is a clear violation of the model code of conduct. The announcement of this policy decision reflects as an unfair means of influencing voters with the use of state machinery.

In April 2020, due to unprecedented economic distress, the central government had announced the PMGKAY to provide an extra 5 kg of free foodgrains to every ration cardholder in addition to the NFSA entitlement of 5 kg foodgrains at subsidised rates (as per Schedule 2 of NFSA 2013). Therefore, since April 2020 ration cardholders were entitled to a 10 kg ration per person (5 kg under NFSA at a subsidized price and 5 kg free under PMGKAY). On 23rd December 2022, the Union government announced that it would discontinue the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana (PMGKAY) from January 1, 2023. Since January, the central government has been referring to the Public Distribution System as the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana to hide the discontinuation of the additional 5 kg ration to every ration card holder.

The government has termed this as a ‘historic’ decision even though realistically it does not compensate for the high prices of many food commodities in any way. The net savings per person as a result of the announcement of the NFSA ration being free will be only around Rs. 11 per month (4 kg of wheat X Rs. 2 and 1 kg of rice X Rs. 3).

Independent field surveys clearly highlight an alarming concerning situation in the country. This cushion was only limited to those who possessed ration cards under the NFSA. Millions of equally vulnerable households continue to be excluded from the public distribution system as the quotas and coverage have not been revised for more than 12 years despite the increase in population. Currently, it is estimated that more than 10 crore of India’s most marginalized citizens are without ration cards. The Supreme Court in an order dated April 20, 2023, in MA 94/2022 in ‘Re Problems and Miseries of Migrant Labourers’, has given significant directions to ensure food security for migrant workers and unorganised sector workers. 28.60 crores migrants/unorganized workers are registered on the eShram portal, of which 20.63 crores are registered on the ration card database. The order directs all State/UT governments to issue ration cards under the NFSA to the 8 crore persons who are registered on the eShram portal but do not possess ration cards. A large number of migrant/unorganized labourers and their families have been deprived of access to subsidized food grains and other schemes under the National Food Security Act, as they do not possess ration cards. No state/union territory governments has initiated any steps to implement the Supreme Court’s order.

The foodgrains allocation to all ration card holders is only limited to cereals (wheat, rice and millets). Essential commodities such as dal, cooking oil, vegetables etc, have still not been included in the food basket and their prices in the market are skyrocketing every month.

In the market, the prices of dal are above Rs. 150 per kilogram and for cooking oil, prices are between Rs. 110-130 per litre. The prices of various vegetables fluctuate every month due to high food price inflation. To put this in perspective, an analysis of the costs of a vegetarian thali meal (excluding curd, fruits and tea) revealed that the costs have jumped up by 42% from 2015 to 2022 (for a family of five persons). Such disproportionate increase in food prices are also leading to poor nutritional conditions largely among women and children due to a lack of dietary diversity.

Therefore, the priority to ensure food and nutritional security of every Indian citizen must focus on the universalisation of the PDS and expansion of the food basket – this includes provision of dal and cooking oil in PDS. Under ICDS and MDM, it is important to increase provisions for women and children as well as inclusion of eggs for additional nutrition. The right to food for every Indian must be enshrined by the constitutional guarantee of NFSA as a legal entitlement and not as a handout or as part of any political promises.

–     Aysha and Gangaram Paikra, Convenors on behalf of the Right to Food Campaign

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