India’s COVID-19 free food rations: Government’s ‘compassionate’ gesture blighted by inefficiencies

By Pearly Neo

- Last updated on GMT

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has announced an extension of free food ration distributions for the nation’s poor till November, but recent government data has also revealed that distributions till date have been ineffective in several major states. ©Getty Images
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has announced an extension of free food ration distributions for the nation’s poor till November, but recent government data has also revealed that distributions till date have been ineffective in several major states. ©Getty Images

Related tags India COVID-19

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has announced an extension of free food ration distributions for the nation’s poor till November, but recent government data has also revealed that distributions till date have been ineffective in several major states.

The country first initiated food ration distributions from April to June after the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak hit. This was implemented under the country’s National Food Security Act (NFSA) and entitled poor households and local migrant workers to 5kg of grains (rice and wheat) and 1kg of pulses monthly.

The first round ended at the end of June, whereupon Modi announced that the scheme would be extended for a further five months till November 2020, stressing that this was a ‘timely and compassionate decision’​ by the government.

“Today, if the government is able to provide free ration to the needy and poor, then credit for it goes to [the] hard working farmers of our country [and the] honest taxpayers of our country. It is your hard work and dedication, due to which the nation is able to do it,”​ said Modi in a televised address to the nation.

“You have filled the stocks of the nation, therefore, there is food in the kitchen of poor and workers. You paid the tax honestly, you fulfilled your duty. That is why the poor of the country is successfully coping with such a big crisis.”

The effect of Modi’s grateful words were however overshadowed by data from the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution a few days later revealing that a lot of the free ration had failed to be distributed to beneficiaries, even in key agricultural states such as Telangana and Odisha where the majority of farmers are situated.

Of the 36 states and Union Territories (UTs) in India, two distributed zero grains (Goa, Telangana), 11 distributed less than 1% of allocated grains (Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Jharkhand, Ladakh, Maharashtra, Meghalaya, Odisha, Sikkim, Tamil Nadu, and Tripura) across April and May 2020, whereas in June 2020 six more (Bihar, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Sikkim, and Ladakh) also distributed zero grains.

Disturbingly, most of these states and UTs were shown to have already received their full quota of grains for distribution but failed to give these out – such as Bihar which received 86,450 MTs but distributed just 1.84 MTs in May and zero in June - raising questions as to where these rations have gone to.

Even the Ministry has acknowledged that there is an obvious problem that has occurred here after grain has been released to the states.

“Some states are not distributing foodgrain to the poor. [We] have no problem in providing foodgrain to states, so when it is being given free, I don’t understand the problem in distribution. We are taking this issue seriously,”​ said Union Minister of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution Ram Vilas Paswan in a press conference.

Local migrant workers lose out

India’s agricultural industry is heavily dependent on local migrant workers, many of which were forced into a mass exodus on perilous journeys back to their hometowns when COVID-19 hit.

These workers are considered to be amongst the main target beneficiaries of the 80 million beneficiaries that the food ration scheme is supposed to help, but till date many are still going hungry or facing starvation.

Several of the states above have claimed that the ineffective distribution has been caused by the beneficiaries, especially migrant workers, not being available to receive their rations.

“There are six or seven states such as Goa and Telangana which have informed that the food ration distribution scheme cannot be implemented in their states as migrant workers have moved out [due to the lockdown],”​ said Food Secretary Sudhanshu Pandey.

But the problems go down much deeper: According to charitable anti-poverty organisation Oxfam, one of the main issues here is a complicated, corrupted process.

“In the state of Bihar, for the returnee migrants, their names first have to be recorded and then shared with food dealers which is a long drawn out process, [whereas in] Chattisgarh their names first have to be recorded by an elected village council member and verified and then only the new ration cards will be issued,”​ Oxfam India Director Ranu Bhogal told Telegraph​.

“It goes without saying that the processes are not only cumbersome but riddled with corruption and it is not a matter of surprise that many deserving people have been excluded from accessing the free rations that the government has released”.

As for local food supply to keep up with this charitable gesture, the Indian Food Ministry has repeatedly emphasised that there is more than enough grain in the country’s coffers to sustain this five-month extension.

“The Food Corporation of India has a total stock of 81.7mn MTs of food grains available as of June 29 2020. Under the NFSA and other welfare schemes, about 5.5mn MTs of food grains are required a month,”​ said the Ministry in a statement.

That said, no mention has been made of whether using up the supply at this rapid rate is of any risk to long-term supply, particularly with India facing its most severe locust attack‘in a ​generation’. The full force of this infestation is expected to hit soon when the planting season commences this month.

Some 200 million acres of crops projected to be under risk and with swarms thick enough to ‘blur out the sky’ in some states, political analyst Anirudh Garg even queried via Twitter: “Will anything be left for 2021?”

Politics and trade

Bihar is home to a large number of such local migrant workers, and the state is going to elections later this year leading opposition leaders and analysts to surmise that the food ration programme’s five month extension is more of a political move to regain the support of some five million migrant workers that were forced into the mass exodus back home under terrible conditions.

Many died along the way from exhaustion or just plain starvation, and complaints waged against the ruling government’s handling of the COVID-19 outbreak and lockdown have been particularly prevalent in Bihar.

“With Bihar elections around the corner, the poor are in favour again,”​ wrote analyst Badri Raina in TheWire​.

“[Results depend on whether] the poor, [after] being courted by the prime minister, will swallow the ignominy they have suffered for brutal months of neglect and travail.

“And then the likely logistics of the Bihar elections to come: how fairly and intelligently may the Election Commission be able to organise the poll, given the COVID-19 factor; and to what extent may disarray in that organisation vitiate both the casting of votes and the resultant outcome.”

At the same time, Modi’s purposeful omission of any mention whatsoever of current ties between India and China also drew widespread criticism.

"Our biggest expectation was that the PM will gather the courage and the will to look at China in the eye and reply to the enemy. Take the enemy head-on and make a very strong statement against what China is doing. But the PM once again shied away,"​ said India National Congress spokesperson Supriya Shrinate.

India has introduced a complete boycott over China products after a deadly border skirmish that killed over 20 Indian soldiers – such as to ban 59 applications like Tik Tok and WeChat – but general opinion is that the impact of this is miniscule for China.

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