Poll timing: On the extension of the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana

The extension of free rice should not have been announced at a rally

November 09, 2023 12:10 am | Updated 12:50 pm IST

The Union government’s move to extend the free foodgrains scheme for the next five years is welcome as it will continue to provide food security to large sections of vulnerable people. Based on National Food Security Act (NFSA) entitlements, the scheme, the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana (PMGKAY), benefits about 80.4 crore people, under the categories of Antyodaya Anna Yojana (poorest of the poor) and priority households. They will continue to receive five kg of rice or wheat or coarse grains a person every month. The provision of free foodgrains was introduced at the all-India level during the COVID-19 pandemic, though in vogue in States such as Tamil Nadu. At the time, the entitlements of NFSA beneficiaries were doubled and the nomenclature of PMGKAY was affixed. Between April 2020 and December 2022, 1,015 lakh tonnes were distributed at a subsidy of ₹3.45 lakh crore. At the end of 2022, the Centre announced free grains under the normal entitlements to States and Union Territories for a year while discontinuing the enhanced entitlement.

On the flip side, the way in which the latest move is sought to be implemented raises questions. At an election rally last week in Durg, Chhattisgarh, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made the announcement, which should be viewed as a violation of the model code of conduct as Mr. Modi used his official position to talk about the extension of the scheme (due to lapse at the end of next month). There was no urgency on his part to have made the announcement then, and in an election rally, especially when there was sufficient time to do so even after the declaration of results, scheduled for December 3. The purpose seems to have been to impress voters, and reap political dividends. There is a view linking the PMGKAY’s previous avatar to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s victory in the 2022 Assembly election in Uttar Pradesh. Even the Congress, which criticised the announcement as an “indication of the continuing economic distress and growing inequalities,” did not find anything amiss. The scheme is meant for the entire country and not just the five States facing elections — they account for roughly 17% of the total beneficiaries. On the fiscal front, the extension may not cause serious problems as the food subsidy bill is about 7.5% of the revenue receipts of the Union government. On an average, the economic cost of rice and wheat grew by 5.7% annually over the last seven years. Also, the extension will cost about ₹15,000 crore more each year, which is manageable. However, governments, Centre and States, should ensure the elimination of leakages in the Public Distribution System so that the benefits of the extension go to the deserving.

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