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Starvation deaths, as 33% poor devoid of food security: Demand to universalize PDS

Counterview Desk
Top civil rights network, Right to Food Campaign, has appealed to the Minister of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution, Ram Vilas Paswan, to urgently make the availability of rations under the Public Distribution System (PDS) universal in such a manner that any person/household that approaches a fair price shop (FPS) can get a package of grains, pulses and cooking oil to avoid widespread hunger and starvation.
Insisting on the universalize PDS “to avoid further hunger and starvation”, the letter says that the relief measures announced by the Government of India under the Pradhan Mantri Gareeb Kalyan Yojana (PMGKY) are “hugely inadequate” and it is a matter of “utmost concern” that the free rations that have been announced are only for those who already have ration cards under the National Food Security Act (NFSA), thereby excluding a large number of people.

Text:

On behalf of the Right to Food Campaign we appeal to you to urgently make the availability of rations under the Public Distribution System (PDS) universal in such a manner that any person/household that approaches a fair price shop (FPS) can get a package of grains, pulses and cooking oil to avoid widespread hunger and starvation. The national lockdown that was imposed has resulted in loss of livelihoods to millions of poor and working people across the country.
The Campaign received reports of widespread hunger from urban and rural areas across the country, and also starvation deaths in Bihar, Hyderabad, Jharkhand, Karnataka, and Uttar Pradesh. Supply chains were broken and access to markets has also become more difficult. Despite administrative measures, food inflation and spiralling prices of even essential items are with us to stay.
The relief measures announced by the Government of India under the Pradhan Mantri Gareeb Kalyan Yojana (PMGKY) are hugely inadequate in responding to the need. Of utmost concern is the fact that the free rations that have been announced are only for those who already have ration cards under the National Food Security Act (NFSA), thereby excluding a large number of people.
The NFSA covers only 67% of the population (on average 75% in rural areas and 50% in urban areas). Even this is based on the population figures from the 2011 Census (1.24 billion) resulting in a coverage of 83 crore people. With population increase it is estimated that as of 2020, population in India would be around 1.38 billion.
Therefore, even by the NFSA mandated coverage at least 92 crore people, i.e. an additional 9 crore persons would need to be included. It has to be further kept in mind that based on Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS) data it is estimated that 81.7% of people in the country earn less than 18,000 per month (68% earn less than Rs. 12,000 per month), which is even less than the minimum wage recommended by 7th Pay Commission. In the current context of increased unemployment post the lockdown the situation would be worse.
We wish to further reiterate that a very large section of those who do not have ration cards include some of the most vulnerable sections of society, such as migrants, homeless people, old persons, DNT tribes, young children and so on. As we have been pointing out time and again, it is only a universal system along with additional measures which will be able to reach the most vulnerable.
In the last few years, in every state, thousands of people who have been trying to get a ration card have been told that the ‘quotas’ for the state are exhausted. We therefore urge you to make the PDS entitlements for six months at least universal in coverage in the sense that no person who approaches a ration shop for free grains should be denied the same for lack of ration cards. 
We have reports of widespread hunger from across India, starvation deaths from Bihar, Hyderabad, Jharkhand, Karnataka, UP
Universal schemes tend to have lower leakages and minimal exclusions. Universal PDS in states such as Tamil Nadu has resulted in the rich self-selecting themselves out of the system because the opportunity cost of standing in the line and the relatively inferior quality of grain are not worth their taking the benefits. If everyone has access to the free rations, the possibility of selling the same grain in black is also reduced.
The following are some of the points we would like to bring to your notice in this regard:
  1. The relief that has been announced of additional 5 kgs of free grains and inclusion of pulses has not yet reached most states due to the lockdown having caused the breakdown in the transportation system and the delay is not acceptable, given the acute distress people are facing. 
  2. Some states have announced their own measures, such as additional 2.5kgs of grain in Delhi for ration card holders, free grain for Antyodaya ration cardholders in Uttar Pradesh, 5 kg of free wheat, 1 kg of rice, 1 kg dal, 0.5 kg oil and salt in Rajasthan for non-NFSA households and West Bengal is giving 5 kg of free foodgrains to all NFSA ration cardholders and 19% of population with these ration cards. These need to be seen as an add on, and the central allocation of additional 5kg per head must still reach people. 
  3. In some states, such as Delhi, it has been announced that those who do not have NFSA ration cards will also be given rations. However, the online application system put in place for this is cumbersome and not workable. In Rajasthan the non-NFSA beneficiaries are being subjected to a survey, which is so slow and the different district administrations have come up with ridiculously small numbers. Based on this experience, we reiterate that what we need now is a mechanism where no person is rejected and is given ration without needing to apply for fresh cards. Ration shopkeepers can put marks with indelible ink on people’s hands to prevent people from taking ration more than once. 
  4. State governments that are expanding their PDS coverage and quantity must be encouraged and given additional allocations from the central pool for free or at NFSA prices so that they can immediately ensure that these entitlements reach people. 
We demand that the Ministry of Food and Public Distribution, act upon our demands, which are as follows:
  • Expand the PDS to cover every individual, irrespective of whether they have a ration card, with 10kg of grain, 1.5kg pulses and 800gms cooking oil per month per person for at least six months. There are 77 million tonnes of foodgrain stocks in the FCI godowns (including the unmilled paddy) – thrice the buffer stock norms. Once the procurement of the Rabi crop is completed, it is expected that another 35-40 million tonnes will be added. As per the PIB release, about 2.5 million tonnes have been released after the lockdown, to meet the requirements of the relief measures. It is therefore imminently possible and also urgently required to universalise the PDS.
  • Ensure cooked food and running of community kitchens/feeding centres in urban areas to address the needs of migrant, unorganised sector workers, and the homeless and destitute populations. 
  • Provisioning of dry rations to all intrastate and interstate migrant workers who are very food insecure.
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Click HERE for the list of organizations, individuals who have endorsed the statement

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