Calls for free ration grow as migrants fight hunger
New Delhi: The Union government has allowed charities and states to buy extra stocks of federally held foodgrains at a reserve but cheaper-than-market price as several migrant workers battle a food crisis.
The federally run Food Corporation of India has reserved a price of ₹20 and ₹22 per kg of wheat and rice for stock sale outside the public distribution system (PDS), while the regular market prices ranges between ₹32-₹40 a kg and ₹40-45 a kg for common varieties of wheat and rice.
Sales outside the PDS network were earlier available to only registered bulk purchasers and states through online bidding under a federal provision called the ‘open-market-sales scheme’. Now states as well as NGOs can buy grains and offer them for free or at no profit-no-loss basis to the poor, especially those outside the PDS system. For instance, charities can use the grains to run community kitchens during the lockdown.
Activists are, however, campaigning for universal free ration for everyone who needs it, pointing to growing distress for several internal migrants, especially in cities, who are virtually outside the country’s public (grains) distribution network.
Several migrant workers were stranded after a 21-day countrywide lockdown was imposed from March 25, and has been extended till May 3, to stop the spread of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19).
Subsidised grains are only available to beneficiaries who have eligible ration cards. “Most migrants in cities either don’t have it or have it with their families back in their home states,” said Deepa Sinha, who teaches in Delhi’s Ambedkar University.
Under the Pradhan Mantri Gharib Kalyan Yojana, a relief package announced by finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman on March 26, eligible beneficiaries under the National Food Security Act would get 5kg of free grains per person, beyond their usual monthly ration quota of a similar quantity. Two-thirds of the population is officially covered under the scheme.
India’s state-held food stocks stood at nearly 75 million tonnes on April 1, while the requirement of emergency stocks, which vary seasonally, is an average 22 million tonnes. The FCI has shipped out a record 3.74 Million Metric Tonnes of food grains stocks from the surplus states during the current lockdown period at an average of 170000 Metric Tonnes a day, an official said. This is more than double the normal average movement of stocks.
“Yet, millions don’t have a ration card. How would it feel if the weakest members of a family starve despite the household’s granary being full?” asked economist Jean Drèze, a long-time advocate of right to food, pointing to surplus food stocks. Drèze has urged for universalizing access to cheap grains. Surveys by Drèze shows Jharkhand had 700,000 pending ration card applications.
A survey by the National Council of Applied Economic Research conducted during April 3-6 showed about 29.3% households were affected by shortages in supplies of food. Income cuts were most severe for daily wage workers, it added.
Behind the crisis, there is a public-expenditure burden that few want to be saddled with. The federally run FCI’s new reserves will naturally increase food budgets, so states are focusing on withdrawing regular and the additional free quota of 5kg ration per beneficiary, a federal official overseeing supplies said, asking not to be named.
Some states, however, announced in-kind and cash support. Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, two states with large migrant populations, have said they would provide instant ration cards and Rs 1,000 per labourer.
Many large states have not factored in extra supplies for undocumented labourers. “Our government has told the Centre that since for April and May regular foodgrain quota is being distributed to beneficiaries, we will distribute additional free foodgrains of two months, totaling 10kg, in May,” Jharkhand public distribution director Sanjay Kumar said.
A senior food department official from Karnataka, HR Vijay Kumar, said the state had distributed the total foodgrains due for April and May in April from its own quota. In May, the state would be distributing foodgrains due for May and June from the federal quota.
“In some states, migrant workers are being forced to live in shelters that have no civic amenities. We have asked the finance ministry to pay at least Rs 5,000 to each labourer’s family immediately,” said K. Saji Narayanan, president of the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, a labour union.
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi on Thursday tweeted asking the government to provide for emergency ration cards.
Helplines run by political parties have been also flooded with calls from labourers in distress. “Taking care of migrant workers is the responsibility of each state. We not only need to take the responsibility for providing them food and shelter, but also need to show them empathy,” said P. Muralidhar Rao, general secretary of the BJP.
A labour ministry official said small enterprises had sent several proposals to ameliorate distress among workers, such as utilising surpluses from the Employees’ State Insurance Corporation (ESIC). The ESIC’s revenue income stood at Rs 27, 312 crore on April 2019 while its expenses for the last financial year stood at Rs 11,085 crore. This surplus could be used for temporary benefits to the small and medium enterprise workers, one proposal said.