Tuesday, September 07, 2021

India's Hunger

 Millions of India’s poor have been excluded from Modi’s flagship food security scheme, the Pradhan Mantri Ghareeb Kalyan Ann Yojana (PMGKAY). Reason: they do not own a ration card.

The ration card is a document issued by various state governments to households eligible to purchase subsidised food grains from the public distribution system under the National Food Security Act (NFSA).

The PMGKAY, which boasts of being the largest food security programme in the world, aims to feed India’s poorest during the pandemic. It provides five kilogrammes (11 pounds) of free rice or wheat and one kilogramme (two pounds) of pulses per person to each family holding a ration card, in addition to regular entitlements that come with the card.

However, Delhi state has exhausted its quota of the number of people who can be issued a ration card. In 2021, 22 out of 29 states in India had less than 5 percent of their quota remaining. That is because the quota is based on the 2011 census, making it a gross underestimate. The next census, scheduled to be completed this year, has been delayed indefinitely due to the pandemic.

“Such is an underestimate of ration card quotas that almost half of Delhi’s population that needs food security in a pandemic is excluded from the primary food security scheme,” Amrita Johri, a member of the Right to Food campaign, told Al Jazeera. “If this is the condition in the national capital, what would be the state in India’s rural areas?”

Meanwhile, in a decade, there has been a substantial increase in the number of people not covered under the NFSA. The NFSA covers 50 percent of India’s urban and 75 percent of the rural population, providing them subsidised food grains under the public distribution system through ration cards. The distribution of cards by state was last determined by India’s Planning Commission, using National Sample Survey (NSS) Household Consumption Survey data for 2011-2012. More than 10 years have elapsed since the publication of that data, with experts such as Dipa Sinha, assistant professor of economics at New Delhi’s Ambedkar University, calling it “policy blindness”.

“The government is aware of this huge gap on paper and on the ground. They don’t want to increase the subsidy on food grains because increasing the subsidy would directly increase India’s fiscal deficit. This despite surplus grains available in India,” Sinha explained. 

Currently, India’s granaries, controlled by the Food Corporation of India, are overflowing with a record 100 million metric tonnes of grains – about three times the norm for buffer stock.

 India’s Supreme Court acknowledged that most migrant workers suffering from hunger and extreme poverty were excluded from the public distribution system since they did not have ration cards. The government in May 2020 announced that it would provide ration to 80 million people who do not have ration cards, but only for the months of May and June. However, even this was not implemented properly. Data shows that government could identify and distribute food grains to only 28 million beneficiaries.  States such as Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat and Uttarakhand distributed less than 3 percent of the food grains sanctioned to them. When a similar situation arose in 2021, the government told the top court that it had instructed states to set up their own schemes according to needs. Some states gave no grain to those without ration cards while some states provided a one-time relief.

In 2016, the Supreme Court ruled that food grains should not be denied in absence of a ration card to those who need it. This year, the top court reiterated its order, adding that the quota should be revised to the current estimates of the population. The court also directed all state governments to provide dry rations to the hungry for as long as the pandemic continues in India.

“However, no such scheme has been devised so far by the state governments,” activist Anjali Bhardwaj told Al Jazeera. She said she has sent legal notices to several states, asking why they failed to comply with the direction of the Supreme Court.  The federal ministry of consumer affairs, food and public distribution said any revision in quota estimates will be possible only after the publication of the next census.

“Most likely, the next census will be published once the pandemic is over. What will these people do during the pandemic? Will they starve?” asked Bhardwaj.

India was ranked 94th in the Global Hunger Index 2020 of 107 countries.

“The government is not accepting that people are starving. There is a general notion that lockdown causes hunger, while all is well after that. There are no jobs, the informal economy is hugely impacted by the pandemic and the government refuses to see it,” Sinha said and added, “The government does not realise that exclusion error is more serious than inclusion error. Often, the poor quality of cereals and grains that are provided under the public distribution system is a fine line between death and life.” 

Bhardwaj commented, “Time and again, the courts have upheld not just a citizen’s right to life but also citizen’s right to live with dignity. What dignity is left when a person is forced to beg for food?”

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