New Delhi: Providing free foodgrain to India’s poor has been the mainstay of the Narendra Modi government’s Covid-19 relief package for the vulnerable sections of Indian society and has seen multiple extensions as the pandemic continued its devastating spread across India.
Yet this scheme has seen significant changes when it comes to allocation of pulses, considered to be an important source of protein intake.
From a pulse of your choice to only chana dal to the current scheme of ‘no daal’, this scheme has seen a progressive deterioration in its offerings to India’s poor. A shortage of pulses and rising prices has forced the Modi government to significantly scale down its offerings.
The Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana (PMGKAY) was launched in March last year wherein 5 kg of rice or wheat, per person per month was given free of cost to all ration card beneficiaries until 30 June. In addition, to ensure “adequate availability of protein”, one kg of pulses was promised per family keeping in mind the regional preferences.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi subsequently extended this scheme to November 2020 but with one significant change — the choice of pulses was taken away from beneficiaries. Instead, the government said it will provide one kg of chana dal to households, citing administrative ease in distribution and also taking into account the abundance of chana in the central food stock. The scheme was to benefit over 19 crore households in all.
This change in the contours of the scheme wasn’t exactly good news for the southern and north-eastern states.
Many of them had opted for pulses like moong, tur (arhar), urad and masoor in the April-June 2020 window. Only a few states like Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand had chosen chana dal during this period.
However, with the Modi government’s decision to only provide chana dal between July and November 2020, all states had to settle for this dal irrespective of dietary preferences.
When the Modi government relaunched the scheme in April this year amid the second Covid wave, it completely did away with the provision of pulses to the households. Beneficiaries were now only entitled to 5 kg of free foodgrain.
Dwindling government stocks
The move came as the buffer stock of major pulses such as tur and chana with the government dwindled severely in 2021 in comparison to last year, making it difficult for it to include pulses in its food aid scheme.
The central buffer stock ideally contains 20-23 lakh tonnes of pulses. However, only 12.45 lakh tonnes of stock was left as on 30 April, according to documents of the Department of Consumer Affairs accessed by ThePrint.
Two factors are responsible for the lower buffer stocks. With the market prices of pulses exceeding the minimum support prices (MSPs), the National Agricultural Cooperative Marketing Federation of India (NAFED) wasn’t able to procure pulses in the kharif and rabi season in sufficient quantities.
Additionally, amid the distribution of a large quantity of pulses under PMGKAY, NAFED was faced with a depleting carryover stock in the current fiscal.
The low level of stock prompted the government to free up imports of certain pulses in May this year wherein tur, moong and urad dal could be imported by any party till 31 October.
The Modi government also implemented a stock limit on pulses under the Essential Commodities Act, with immediate effect from 2 July, till 31 October. Under this order, stock limits have been prescribed for all pulses except moong, varying up to different amounts for different stakeholders to increase the availability of pulses in the market and cool off its prices as the country heads towards the festival season.
Cost factor and fiscal burden
The price of pulses has played an important factor in the composition of the free foodgrain offering. Chana is one of the cheapest in terms of procurement costs, which made it the preferred choice and helped in bringing down overall costs under the scheme.
In the April-June 2020 period, 5.65 lakh metric tonnes (LMT) of pulses were allocated free of cost to states, with the Modi government spending around Rs 5,000 crore, according to the Centre’s reply to a question raised in Parliament.
This worked out to around Rs 885 crore per LMT. But the fiscal hit in the July-November 2020 period was lower per LMT. In this period, 8.82 LMT whole chana was allocated free to states, costing the Centre Rs 6,999.24 crore, or around Rs 793 crore per LMT.
The most recent update to the scheme, which excluded dal completely, was launched at a time when prices of various food items such as edible oil, egg, fish, chicken and pulses have been touching new highs in domestic markets.
Tur was 15-20 per cent above the MSP at Rs 7,000-7,200 per quintal, urad was trading 30-35 per cent higher than the MSP at Rs 8,000 per quintal, and moong was selling at Rs 7,600-7,800 per quintal, 5 per cent over the MSP.
Offering pulses at these elevated price levels would have meant a substantially higher fiscal burden than the current Rs 93,000 crore computed.
Nutrition challenge in Indian households
The removal of pulses from the government’s scheme, however, creates a challenge from the point of view of nutrition, given that they are an important source of protein for poor households.
A 2020 International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) study had found that pulses, and not meat, fish or eggs, were key sources of protein in rural India due to cost factors.
“The dietary challenges that face Indian households are substantial; several studies show that diets are poor and that nutritious diets are unaffordable for a majority of Indians. Any addition of pulses to Indian diets through their inclusion in the PDS will be useful,” said Purnima Menon, senior research fellow, IFPRI.
Studies at IFPRI show that the improvements in consumption require substantial additional subsidies, and not just small amounts, she said.
A research paper published in December 2020 based on diet patterns of Uttar Pradesh’s poor had pointed out that a nutritious diet was unaffordable for 75 per cent of households given current income levels, consumption patterns, and food prices, pushing the need for substantial government intervention.
(Edited by Amit Upadhyaya)