Grain aplenty and the crisis of hunger

Paper: II

Mains: General Studies- II: Governance, Constitution, Polity, Social Justice and International relations.

Context:

With the economic crisis continuing on the one hand and the health system crumbling under the burden of rising COVID-19 cases on the other, it is clear that it will take a long time for things to get back to “normal”.

Background:

  • In the light of the COVID-19 pandemic and the measures in place to contain its spread, many have lost their livelihoods and unemployment is high. Given the fact that India was already facing an economic slowdown along with high levels of inequality, the pandemic has added to India’s woes.
  • This situation would have a direct impact on the food security of the poor and migrant labourers.

Key Details:

  • Among other interventions to revive demand in the economy and create employment, it is absolutely essential that food support is made available to all.

Steps taken by the Government of India:

  • The central government announced, as part of the Rs. 1.70-lakh crore relief package under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana (PMGKY), that it would provide 5kg of foodgrains and 1 kg of pulses for free to all those who are beneficiaries under the National Food Security Act (NFSA) for three months.
  • Later, the scheme was expanded to cover an additional eight crore individuals for two months to ensure that migrants are also included.
  • The government proposes the expansion of the One Nation One Ration Card (ONOC) scheme across the country by March 2021. ONOC is already operational in 20 States.
  • Under ONOC, a beneficiary can receive ration entitlements as under the NFSA from any fair price shop in the country using her/his Aadhaar number and biometric authentication. The scheme enables transactions under the Public Distribution System to be brought on to one digital platform.
  • Portability across States is an important and valid concern that can help ensure that migrant workers can access their entitlements. This becomes all the more important in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic to access their quota of food grains through ONOC portability.

Issues and Concerns:

  • The response from the government has been inadequate and claims that the current foodgrain allotment to states is only 10% more than what they normally get under the NFSA.
  • The ONOC scheme, being based on biometric authentication using electronic point of sale (ePoS) machines, is subject to some concerns. It can result in the exclusion of some of the most marginalised because of multiple reasons including network issues and authentication failure.
  • ONOC cannot be a solution to the immediate crisis of hunger that continues in the aftermath of the lockdown.
  • The integrated management of the PDS (IM-PDS) portal, which gives real-time data on transactions under ONOC, shows very little subscription under the scheme.
  • There is a possibility of the government getting rid of grains through the Open Market Sale Scheme (OMSS) so that the fiscal consequences can be contained.

Way forward:

  • Given the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic, it is very likely that it might take more time for normal economic activity to resume; there is an urgent need for the food support mechanism announced as part of the PMGKY and Atmanirbhar package to be extended for a longer period. The distribution of free foodgrains can be extended until September.
  • There seem to be sufficient stocks to undertake a universalised PDS giving 10kg of foodgrains per person per month for another four months. It can be safely assumed that the rich will automatically self-select themselves out of the system.