A major focus of the second tranche of the economic stimulus package announced by Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman on Thursday was to provide free foodgrains for the next two months to migrant workers who do not have ration cards. The Centre will spend ₹3,500 crore for this purpose.
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Quoting numbers from State governments, Ms. Sitharaman said there are an estimated 8 crore migrant workers who have been housed in government and privately run relief camps across the country since the lockdown.
However, economists said this intervention was too little, too late, and that the free foodgrain provision should have been universalised to deal with widespread distress.
Apart from measures for migrant workers, the second tranche announced by the government included an extension of credit facilities for urban housing, street vendors and farmers and an interest subvention scheme for small businesses.
The move to provide free foodgrain for migrant workers is an extension of the Pradhan Mantri Gharib Kalyan Yojana , which provided an additional monthly free rice or wheat allocation of 5 kg per person, and 1 kg of pulse per household from April to June to the 80 crore people with ration cards covered by the National Food Security Act (NFSA).
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Over the past month, migrant workers and others without ration cards have struggled without access to this free food.
“For those who are non-card holders, meaning they are neither under the NFSA nor are they holders of any State-level cards, they shall be given [this benefit]...And if the person is remaining without card, he can also get it,” Ms. Sitharaman said.
“We are engaging with the State governments to make sure that they know where these migrants are, they can approach them and give them. Because most of these migrants who have no cards are staying in camps run either by the government or by NGOs, and therefore, based on a rough assessment given to us by all the State governments, we think there are about eight crore migrants for whom benefit will reach through this free food grain supply,” she said, adding that this is an initial assessment, and that numbers may change.
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The Finance Minister added that by August 2020, the ration card portability scheme will allow 67 crore NFSA beneficiaries in 23 connected states to use their cards at any ration shop anywhere in the country, allowing migrant workers to access subsidised food away from their home villages. The scheme would cover all beneficiaries by March 2021, she said.
In fact, the One Nation One Ration Card scheme was originally supposed to cover all States by June 2020. As The Hindu had reported last week, Food Ministry data shows that inter-State transactions under the scheme have been very low , around 200 per month, since the lockdown due to poor awareness and the stalling of biometric authentications due to the pandemic.
“The need of the moment was to universalise the Public Distribution System to provide food to whoever needed it, especially since the grains are available in the Centre’s godowns,” said Prof. Jayati Ghosh, who chairs the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning at Jawaharlal Nehru University.
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“If you were going to give free food to migrants, what stopped you from doing this six weeks ago when the lockdown was announced? Did you not know people without ration cards would lose their livelihood and need support? And why wait six weeks just to give this paltry measure?” Prof. Ghosh asked, pointing out that while regular NFSA beneficiaries were receiving 10 kg of grains — their regular allocation, plus the free grains — migrant workers covered by Thursday’s announcement would only receive 5 kg each.
IIM-Ahmedabad professor and economist Reetika Khera, who had calculated that 10 crore people have been excluded from NFSA coverage due to growth since census 2011, pointed out that the new intervention would not even cover that shortfall.
“There are 50 crore people in the country without ration cards, of which 10 crore are legally entitled to PDS grain under NFSA anyway. Of the rest, there are many people who were managing in normal times, vegetable vendors, gig economy workers, autorickshaw drivers, who are in dire straits now. PDS needed to be extended to all these people at this time,” she said, adding that free double ration needed to be extended for another three months beyond June.
Dr. Khera welcomed the measure to keep MGNREGA work open during the monsoon, known as the “hungry season”, but asked why there were no steps taken to extend MGNREGA employment guarantee to at least 200 days.
For returning migrants who have no means of livelihood back in their home villages, Ms. Sitharaman said State governments had been directed to enrol them under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. She said that 14.6 crore person days of work have been generated under the scheme till May 13, claiming that this was 40-50% higher than work generated in May 2019.
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However, MGNREGA data shows that less than 14 crore person days of work have been provided in both April and May 2020 together, while 64 crore person days of work were provided in April and May 2019. A senior Rural Development official clarified that Ms.Sitharaman meant to refer to e-muster roll data, showing that 50% more persondays of work were offered this May.