Can India’s PDS system save over 10 million migrants and daily wagers from hunger?
by Saurabh Malik
On March 25, the Indian government hastily imposed a national lockdown leading to restrictions of movement and exposing millions of migrant workers and daily wage laborers to the threat of hunger. As the COVID-19 crisis continues to escalate, so does the threat of a hunger crisis in India. To tackle the massive demand amongst the most affected, the Indian government unveiled a US$22 billion package to provide food rations and cash transfers to about 80 crore people directly impacted by the COVID-19 lockdown.
Government representatives maintain that there is more than enough food to feed the poor in case of a prolonged crisis. Union Food Minister Ram Vilas Paswan claimed that the government has a surplus 435 lakh tonne of food grains, of which 272.19 lakh tonne is rice and 162.79 lakh tonne is wheat. Additionally, government bodies have stated that warehouses were provided with 100 million tonnes of grains/food in comparison to the annual requirement of 50-60 million tonnes.
The Central government introduced new measures through the Prime Minister Garib Kalyan Ann Yojana (PMGKAY) as an immediate pandemic response to the current food security problem. The PMGKAY covers India’s Public Distribution System (PDS), under which more than 80 crores are entitled to 5 kgs of wheat, rice and grains each month. However, the larger problem remains that the National Food Security Act, 2013 (NFSA), which oversees the enormous PDS only covers the population under the National Census in 2011. As a result, this restriction is likely to exclude more than 10 crore people across the country.
To combat the limitations of this restriction, several states have recognised the need to provide free or subsidised food to the marginalised and taken immediate measures to universalise their PDS system to avoid exclusion. States that have decided to universalise their PDS, will allow free grains to be provided to those that do not have ration cards (an essential identity document to avail PDS benefits). Uttar Pradesh (UP) was first to announce free ration for three months to all beneficiaries by removing requirements of ration cards and/or Aadhaar cards. Since the lockdown, the UP government claims to have created a national record by distributing food grains to almost 45% of the 3,55,00,000 card holders. Jharkhand government also decided to universalise its PDS system including beneficiaries with cancelled ration cards, almost a staggering 7,50,000. Additionally, the Jharkhand government is also giving out two months ration allowance. The Central government allocated additional grains to the Bihar government to cover 14 lakh people that fall outside of the ambit of NFSA and ensure all persons in need can receive benefits. Other states temporarily removing these restrictions are Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Telangana.
The Delhi Government expanded its ration scheme to include an additional 3 million migrant population, which makes the total population of those covered under the food security scheme to 11 million. The state claims to have distributed 7.5 kgs of free ration to 7.1 million people and 5 kgs ration for free to one million without ration cards already. The state government started a process of issuing e-coupons to enable migrants and others without ration cards to access the PDS. However, the verification process for the e-coupons is highly complex and inaccessible for the poor as it requires smartphones and Aadhar numbers, which restricts access to those without Aadhar. The state had initially planned to set up community kitchens but decided to cancel such plans and provide food packets at night shelters.
Many states have come up with different plans depending on their ability to meet the food shortage demands. The Punjab government is currently distributing its reserves for six months to meet rising demands, by distributing ration beyond the monthly quota of beneficiaries. Similarly, Maharashtra, Himachal Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh have also announced distribution of three months ration in one-go. Additionally, Haryana will provide free ration to all BPL families and Tamil Nadu will give Rs. 1000 in addition to the ration to all ration cardholders.
Kerala, on the other hand, has been a leader in controlling the pandemic and implementing inclusive distribution systems for the benefit of the vulnerable. The state instituted a community care plan for those with no means by creating 18,828 camps and 1,255 community kitchens. The government has been able to deliver over 2,80,000 food packets, free ration kits and commodities daily with the help of 2,50,000 volunteers reaching almost 3.69 crore families. Since the closing of anganwadis, ASHA workers have reached out to 26,000 children registered under the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS). As Kerala plans to open up its businesses, it has set an excellent example for the rest of the country towards implementation of effective measures for the best interests of its people.
As per PMGKY, an additional 5 kg of wheat or rice per person and 1 kg of pulses per household will be provided free of cost for three months. Experts feel that three months is a short duration for families with limited means who would likely need support for at least 180 days, as the economic consequences of COVID-19 will take a long time to reverse. Further, there is no guidance on the process of grinding wheat to get flour in the current lockdowns.
Unless the state imposes monitoring measures to ensure effective fair and equal distribution, PDS outlets and fair price shops are likely to misappropriate the distribution of the grains for bribes. The Maharashtra Government recently imposed fines and revocation of licenses for those indulging in corrupt practices. Some states like Manipur have reported improper distribution where households were only being given 2 kgs of grains instead of the allocated 5 kgs.
While many state specific plans look good on paper, there is no clarity on the implementation or the logistics of these. As most states only include rice and wheat as ration, lack of other grains in the long run can also lead to large-scale malnourishment.
The biggest challenge continues to be the exclusion of over 100 million migrant workers spread across the country, who fall outside of the ambit of PMGKY or NFSA. As of now, the Central Government has not considered issuance of any specific guidelines that makes provisions for the inclusion of those excluded from the PDS during the COVID-19 pandemic. While many states continue to restrict access to non-ration cardholders, the states that have universalised access have put in place bureaucratic measures like temporary ration cards and e-registration making access an uphill task. Like many western countries that have implemented emergency COVID-19 specific legislation, the Indian government needs to consider execution of provisions that can ensure immediate, effective and equal benefits for all. With a migrant population that itself is larger than most countries, unless we tackle the food security threat at the earliest, we are heading towards a humanitarian crisis much worse than the pandemic.
Saurabh Malik is a public interest lawyer based in Toronto.
Location: Bangalore, Karnataka
Mission: Building Wealth and Resilience of Small Producers, Fisher folks and Vulnerable Communities through Transformative Livelihoods Solutions
CEO: Balakrishnan S, CEO, 9480990870, firstname.lastname@example.org
3. Proposal for Combatting COVID 19
Domain: Humanitarian Aid: Immediate relief - Food rations to Vulnerable Communities
Sub-domain: Food Security Support to the vulnerable families
Geography: Dharavi, Mumbai
Target Segment: Women Fish Vendors and Fisherfolk families
Vrutti is working with women fish vendors across 6 locations in the country, to improve their lives and livelihoods. Put together, our target group is 40,000 strong and is among the most vulnerable and marginal groups in Indian society. We are trying to strengthen the economic agency of women fish vendors in selected coastal cities of India.
The Kolis, or the fisherfolk, of Mumbai, are one of its most vulnerable communities, living on the beaches or on the creek sides. If the menfolk go to sea to catch fish, the women are involved in fish processing and marketing. They lead a life full of uncertainty due to fluctuations in catches, natural calamities, etc. The current lockdown is an entirely new problem, that has completely upset their lives.
The current national lockdown to battle the Coronavirus has adversely affected the marine fishing communities to which the fish vendors also belong. Fish itself has been notified as an essential commodity in the lockdown order of the Govt of India. However, this has not protected the livelihoods in fishing, as anticipated. For one, fish markets—at landing centres, wholesale and retail—are notoriously crowded and chaotic, making “social distancing” almost impossible to implement and raise the spectre of the rapid spread of the virus.
This has meant that many of the local Govt authorities have closed the fish markets. With a large national market and an export market, fish, which is highly perishable, is not easy to sell when long distance transport is considerably restricted and the export markets (mostly US, EU, Japan & China) have suspended orders. So, the demand is also poor. Most importantly, many of the fishing communities have themselves decided to stop fish vending, as it exposes the fish vendors to infection from outside.
With the near total closure of fishing and fish marketing, the community is facing a problem of buying essentials for its daily existence, especially, the poorer households. These households are characterised by fishermen who do not own boats and work for wages on boats, while their wives undertake small scale fish vending. Though there is a case for supporting the entire community.
Providing material support to these families will help them “stay at home” and reduce risk to themselves, their community. Though there are some Govt schemes for providing food, these are yet to start in many areas and may not reach all those in need. There is clearly a need to supplement and complement state initiatives by civil society to ensure that the most vulnerable are supported during this critical period. Hence Vrutti is trying to provide some quick relief to communities we work with in Mumbai and in other cities.
Approach / Delivery Model: Vrutti works currently in supporting the livelihoods of women fish vendors, we shall do our relief work through the Daryavardi Mahila Sangh (DMS). It is a registered trade union, which represents the interests of the 25,000 strong women fish vendors of Mumbai city and suburbs. DMS will be responsible for identifying the most deserving families. The actual distribution will be done with the help the fishermen cooperatives that exist, with infrastructure and personnel to help in distributing the relief.
It is proposed that each family be provided with a “kit” containing dry rations that will help them tide over their problems for this period of distress, this will be a supplementary support.
In Dharavi, the selection of beneficiaries will be done by the Vrutti staff (2 members) and local women leaders, based on local knowledge of the poorest and the limited number of kits available for distribution.
Identification of Target group: The identification of the target group will be done by the staff and leaders of the DMS, who are our partners and are working closely with the women fish vendors and have representatives/leaders to the union from each locality. They are well placed to identify the poorest among the families there.
Sourcing of Food Rations will be with a local Consumer Cooperative and some wholesalers. Identified Supplier will take the responsibility to pack every family food ration kit.
Transportation to the Koliwada will be the responsibility of the supplier. The delivery point will be the local fishermen coop society office. Here, the DMS representative and Vrutti Staff will take responsibility to supply to the beneficiaries. The beneficiaries will be informed by phone and asked to collect their respective kits from the Coop office in an orderly manner following social distancing norms.
The price for the rations on local enquiries in Mumbai by Vrutti staff. These are current prices. May change when we actually buy the materials. If the price varies at the time of purchase, some changes will be made in the quantities or even the number of kits
Duration: The above supply of Food Ration will be completed within a week’s time
Funding Support Required: