The story so far: A scheme to provide free food grain to ration card holders as part of COVID-19 relief comes to an end this month. While the Food Ministry says the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana is no longer needed as the economy is reviving, Right to Food activists insist that vulnerable communities still need the support , arguing that the government has sufficient grain stocks to extend the scheme.
What is PMGKAY?
The Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana scheme was part of the Centre’s initial COVID-19 relief package , back in March 2020 when the first lockdown was announced. It provides for 5 kg of rice or wheat per person per month to be distributed free of cost to the 80 crore beneficiaries of the National Food Security Act. This is over and above the 5 kg already provided to ration card holders at a subsidised rate, thus ensuring a doubling of foodgrain availability to poor people at a time when the pandemic and lockdown was decimating livelihoods.
The scheme was initially meant to run from April to June 2020, but was then extended for another five months from July to November. In these first two phases, 320 lakh tonnes of grain were allotted and about 95% distributed to beneficiaries. Initially, one kg of pulses was also provided under the scheme, which was later restricted to chana dal only, and then discontinued in later phases. After the onset of the second wave of the pandemic, PMGKAY was rolled out for two months again, in May-June 2021, and was then further extended for another five months, from July to November. Another 278 lakh tonnes of grain were allotted for these two phases, and distribution is still ongoing.
Were all poor people covered under the scheme?
The scheme only provided grain for those families who held ration cards. During the first lockdown, the plight of migrant workers who held cards registered in their home villages but were stranded without food or employment in the cities where they worked, came to the limelight. A number of other poor families did not possess ration cards at all for a variety of reasons, including the state quotas on the number of ration cards. In May and June 2020, the Centre allocated 8 lakh tonnes of foodgrain to be distributed by States under the Atma Nirbhar Bharat scheme for stranded migrants and others without ration cards, although only 40% had been distributed even by August. The scheme was not revived during the second lockdown.
The 80 crore cap on NFSA beneficiaries and state ration card quotas are based on 2011 census data. Given the projected increase in population since then, economists have estimated that 10 crore eligible people are being excluded from the NFSA’s safety net. In its June 2021 judgement in a suo moto case on the plight of migrant workers, the Supreme Court directed that the Centre and State should continue providing foodgrains to migrants whether or not they had ration cards.
What are the arguments for and against extension of PMGKAY?
Last week, Food Secretary Sudhanshu Pandey told journalists that there were no plans to extend the scheme beyond November 30. “As the economy is also reviving and the OMSS [or open market sale scheme] is also exceptionally good, there is no proposal from the department for extension,” he said. He has previously noted that States are free to buy rice and wheat under OMSS, and distribute it to migrants and other vulnerable communities.
The Right to Food Campaign wrote to Food Minister Piyush Goyal on Monday, pointing to the SC judgement and noting that the pandemic still exists, unemployment remains at record levels and there is widespread hunger among vulnerable communities. They argued that the government should not only extend PMGKAY for another six months, but also universalise the public distribution system itself, so that anyone in need would receive food support regardless of whether they possessed a ration card or not. They also suggested that pulses and cooking oils be added to the monthly entitlements, given the recent rise in prices of these commodities.
What is the country’s food stock situation?
In the last few years, food grains have been produced at record levels. Government procurement from farmers at minimum support prices has also been on the rise, especially in the aftermath of the farm protests against three agricultural reform laws, as the Centre has been keen to prove that the laws would not affect procurement. In 2020-21, almost 890 lakh tonnes of paddy was procured in comparison to 764 lakh tonnes the previous year. Wheat procurement for 2021-22 was more than 433 lakh tonnes, also overtaking the previous record.
This means that food stocks with the Food Corporation of India are at an all time high. In June and July 2021, stocks of rice and wheat stood above 900 lakh tonnes. By October, stocks stood at 724 lakh tonnes, almost 100 lakh tonnes higher than in the previous year. That is well above the buffer requirement, with stocking norms for the central pool for October standing at only 307 lakh tonnes, including a strategic reserve of 50 lakh tonnes.
The Right to Food Campaign claimed that the amount of grain in FCI godowns would be sufficient to universalise PDS and extend PMGKAY for another six months as well.