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Labharthis can help Modi win UP. If that happens, PDS coverage is unlikely to shrink in India

Since UP did not procure enough food grains to meet its requirement of NFSA and PMGKAY, it depended on much-maligned farmers of Punjab and Haryana.

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A key voter base in the ongoing assembly election in Uttar Pradesh are the ‘labharthis’—those who are provided food grains through the Public Distribution System. Punjab and Haryana played a major role in providing the required quantity of food grains to UP during the Covid-19 pandemic.

An evaluation of PDS by NCAER (2014), before the implementation of National Food Security Act in UP, had shown that 33 per cent of food grains meant for below poverty line and 35 per cent for above poverty line families had leaked. There is no recent evaluation of leakage but the tenor of debate in poll-bound UP shows that leakages may have come down.

UP is one of the poorest states in India. As per the last consumption expenditure survey (2011-12, Tendulkar), the poverty ratio in UP was 29.4 per cent. When the National Food Security Act (NFSA) was enacted by the UPA II government in 2013-14, the Planning Commission decided that 80 per cent of rural population and 64 per cent of urban population of UP can be covered under NFSA.

Accordingly, 13.41 crore persons in UP are included in the priority category while the number of Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY) beneficiaries is 1.3 crore (40.8 lakh families).

The normal allocation of rice and wheat to UP in 2019-20 was 37.80 lakh tonnes and 55.48 lakh tonnes, respectively. The state government lifted 96 per cent of the allocated quantity.

Under NFSA, the ration card holders paid only Rs 2 per kg for wheat and Rs 3 per kg for rice. The AAY families were eligible to receive 35 kg food grains per month while priority households received food grains at the rate of 5 kg per person per month.

At the peak of the first wave of Covid-19, the Union government announced Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana (PMGKAY) under which food grains were to be given free of cost — 5 kg per person per month. In addition, pulses were distributed at 1 kg per household per month, free of cost. This allotment was from April to June 2020 (Phase I). Then, from July to November 2020, 1 kg whole chana was provided free to each family (Phase II). Allocation of chana or pulses was not made after November 2020. When the country was hit by the delta wave of Covid-19 in April 2021, the Union government made another allocation from May to June 2021 (Phase III). It was continued in July-November 2021 (Phase IV). The Omicron variant hit the country in January 2022 and therefore, the PMGKAY was extended for another four months from December 2021 to March 2022 (Phase V).

At the all India level, allocation under PMGKAY in 2021-22 is 448.56 lakh tonnes of food grain while the normal allocation under NFSA is 600 lakh tonnes. The Union government must be credited for making good use of excessive food grains procured under MSP operations. During the Covid-19 pandemic, crores of workers lost their jobs and incomes, especially those in the unorganised sector. However, the additional allocations provided food grains to only those families who were already covered under NFSA and owned ration cards.

The Right to Food activists and independent commentators have given several suggestions for expanding PDS but the government has not accepted any of this advice.

In 2020-21, UP was allotted 36.09 lakh tonnes of rice and 21.93 lakh tonnes of wheat under PMGKAY. Thus, in addition to normal NFSA allocation of 89.59 lakh tonnes, an additional allocation of 58 lakh tonnes was made in 2020-21. Unlike normal allocation under NFSA, the allocation under PMGKAY was to be distributed free to ration card holders.

In 2021-22, under PMGKAY, UP received an allocation of 32.38 lakh tonnes of rice and 48.57 lakh tonnes of wheat. Thus the total additional allocation is 80.95 lakh tonnes which is only slightly less than the normal allocation of 89.59 lakh tonnes. It means that ration card holders received almost double the quantity they would have received if these additional allocations under PMGKAY were not made.

This is being projected as a great success of the Narendra Modi government in preventing deaths due to starvation during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Also read: There’s a new addition to BJP’s identity politics in UP. It’s called beneficiaries

Procurement and offtake in UP

In recent years, the performance of UP in procurement of wheat and rice has improved and the state has been largely able to meet its requirement out of the stocks locally procured. UP is not a decentralised procurement state and the food grains procured by state agencies are handed over to FCI and depending on the allocation to a district, the FCI provides the required quantity. However, in 2020-21 and 2021-22, due to additional allocations under PMGKAY, UP had to depend on other states to meet its requirement.

Who met the shortfall?

Since UP did not procure enough food grains to meet its requirement of NFSA and PMGKAY, it depended on much-maligned farmers of Punjab and Haryana for meeting its requirement of PMGKAY.

Graphic by Ramandeep Kaur | ThePrint
Graphic by Ramandeep Kaur | ThePrint

In 2020-21, 1,942 rakes of food grains (about 48.55 lakh tonnes) were moved to UP from Punjab and Haryana. In 2021-22, 1,795 rakes (44.87 lakh tonnes) have moved from April 2021 to January 2022.

Also read: Can’t learn, can’t work, can’t even cross river: Life in 3 of India’s 4 poorest districts, all in UP

What to expect in the run up to 2024 elections?

After the enactment of NFSA, authentication at point of sale (PoS) machines through Aadhaar was introduced. Even though there is no large-scale empirical study to determine leakages from PDS, anecdotal evidence suggests that the delivery of food grains under PDS seems to have improved in UP. As a result, during the election campaign, even the opposition parties have not questioned or contested the claims of the government that food grains were delivered to ‘labharthis’.

If the PDS is able to enable victory in another crucial election, the Modi government is unlikely to consider the suggestions of reputed economists to limit coverage under PDS to the poorest 30 per cent of population.

Hussain, a former Union Agriculture Secretary is Visiting Senior Fellow, Indian Council for International Economic Relations. Mohapatra was Union Secretary, Ministry of Fertiliser and Rural Development. Views are personal.

(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)

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