Arshad Shaikh studies the recent decision by the Government of India (GoI) to withdraw the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana (PMGKAY) and offer free ration for a year as compensation. Far from being a ‘political masterstroke’ as described by media spin masters, the move is a great betrayal of the indigent and deprives them of their “right to food” under the guise of being fiscally prudent and market-friendly. The government’s justification for this unkind cut needs to be compared with the arguments by ‘rights activists’. Nevertheless, it is important to keep the interests of the needy and underprivileged uppermost.

It is the job of spin-doctors or experts in “public-perception management” to twist the various blunders and erroneous policies of those in power by terming them with such platitudes as a political masterstroke, surgical strike, historic move, etc. Recently, the Union Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food, and Public Distribution decided to provide free foodgrains for all eligible households for the year 2023 under the National Food Security Act – 2013 (NFSA). However, it appears that this largesse doled out as an act of supreme benevolence was meant to buffer the impact of the GoI discontinuing the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana (PMGKAY). 

This ‘one step forward, two steps backward’ policy has been described as a shrewd political move and an act of ingenuity, even though it is a regressive step in terms of social justice as it slashes the foodgrain entitlement by half.  The PGMKAY provided the needy with an extra 5 kg of foodgrains over and above their NFSA quota of 5 kg.

This was initiated by the government in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown in April 2020 and covered nearly 80 crore Indians. The PMGKAY was first launched only for three months until June 2020 but the scheme was extended several times. Finally, the scheme ended on December 3, 2022. It is estimated that in the 30-plus months under PMGKAY, the GoI has spent $47 billion (or `3.91 lakh crore). By stopping the scheme, the government aims at saving at least two lakh crore).

Under the NFSA, the GoI provides 5 kg of foodgrains per person per month to nearly 81.35 crore Indians at extremely subsidised rates (`3/kg rice, `2/kg wheat, and `1/kg coarse grains). It is estimated that the NFSA covers 75% of the rural population and up to 50% of the urban population.

The justification of the government to cancel PMGKAY shows its true colours when it comes to supporting the impoverished. As rights activists point out, the move will result in a huge rise in the expenditure for the beneficiaries of the PMGKAY and this decision cannot be termed as ‘historic’ by any stretch of the imagination. The needs of the poor should be at upmost in the priorities of our policymakers. Unfortunately, they have become the battleground for politics to reap electoral dividends.

THE PREOCCUPATION WITH COST CUTTING

The hallmark of self-confessed market-friendly regimes is to cut down on subsidies and benefits that help the underprivileged. Union food and trade minister Piyush Goyal said that free food under NFSA will “remove the financial burden of the poor and the poorest of the poor” and indicated the “sensitivity of the prime minister towards the beneficiaries of welfare schemes.”

As pointed out above, the government’s bill for subsidised food under NFSA was `2 lakh crore a year. PMGAY effectively doubled that bill to around `4 lakh crore. Thus, junking PMGKAY will offer a saving of nearly `2 lakh crore to the GoI. However, more than that, the move will help in stabilising the foodgrain stock situation. Running NFSA requires around 520 lakh tonnes of foodgrain.

PMGKAY added 480 lakh tonnes to that requirement. However, the war in Ukraine and certain domestic challenges like fertilizer shortage and inclement weather resulted in lower rice and wheat harvests leading to high foodgrain inflation. Wheat stocks dropped so precipitously that the government had to impose a ban on its exports to ensure local food security.

Experts point out that by closing PMGKAY, the government will potentially save at least $20 billion in 2023. It will allow the Centre to spend on one food scheme (NFSA) instead of multiple food programmes. It will also enable the government to sell 2 to 3 million tonnes in the open market to stabilise prices. Table A shows the pre and post PMGKAY allocations.

SN#TABLE A Since 2013 – NFSA provided
 Households coveredCoveringCost
175 % rural   50% urban  5 kg of Rice or Wheat or Coarse grains (per person)@ `3 per kg for rice @ `2 per kg for wheat @ `1 per kg for coarse grains  
 PMGKAY since April 2020 till December 2022
275 % rural   50% urban  5 kg of Rice or Wheat plus 1 kg of dal (per person)  All free
Thus from April 2020 almost 81 crore Indians could get 11 kg of grain at a maximum spend of `15 per month per person. From January 2023, SN# 2 stands cancelled and SN# 1 is available but free of cost.

HURTING THE POOR

Experts say that the poorest of the poor will feel the impact of the withdrawal of the pandemic-era subsidy if they buy the extra 6 kg of grain in the open market that they earlier got free through the PMGKAY. If we calculate the cost incurred by a poor family of five, assuming the cost of rice and wheat to be `30 to `35 in the market, then that five-member family will have to spend `750 to `900 per month to fulfil the existing level of ration entitlement.

The Opposition has termed the decision to “slash rations by half” as a “regressive decision” that was taken without consulting the states and Parliament. Congress General Secretary, Jairam Ramesh accused the government of forcing an extra expense of `9000 every year on the poor at a time of record unemployment, high inflation and stagnant salaries. He pointed out that the Hunger Watch Survey found that 80% of Indians were facing “food insecurity” and India ranked 107 of 121 countries in the Global Hunger Index 2022. His party has demanded the inclusion of 10 crore Indians who were missing out on a ration card because of the delay in the 2021 census.

THE RIGHT TO FOOD

The right to food is part of implementing International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).

The UN Special Rapporteur of the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights (OHCHR) says, “States are required to refrain from any discrimination in access to food as well as to means and entitlements for its procurement, on the grounds of race, colour, sex, language, age, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. States are also restricted from taking deliberate measures which result in the deterioration of the current level of fulfilment of the right to food.”

In the Chameli Singh & Others v. State of Uttar Pradesh, 1996 (2) SCC549, the Supreme Court of India ruled, “Right to life guaranteed in any civilized society implies the right to food, water, decent environment, education, medical care and shelter. These are basic human rights known to any civilized society.”

The Qur’ān describes the dwellers of Paradise as those who fed the destitute, the orphan and the captive for the sake of the love of God. The Prophet ﷺ said, “The best of you are those who feed others.” Implementing the NFSA with zero leakage should be the number one priority of our policymakers and the executive. It is both a constitutional duty as well as a moral obligation.

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