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Did the Government Exercise Restraint in its Disclosures Regarding the PMGKAY scheme?

The PMGKAY Scheme: Government disclosures and ground realities unveiled. Saksham Agarwal reports for The Probe.

By Saksham Agrawal
New Update

Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana (PMGKAY) | Representative image | Photo courtesy: The Probe

On January 1 this year, the Union Government introduced a new comprehensive food security scheme known as the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana (PMGKAY). The objective of this scheme is to provide free foodgrains to beneficiaries of the Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY) and Primary Household (PHH), with an estimated reach of over 80 crore individuals. Additionally, the government announced its plan to allocate over two lakh crores rupees in 2023 as food subsidy under the National Food Security Act (NFSA) and other welfare programs, aiming to alleviate the financial burden faced by the poor and the marginalised sections of society.

“During the Covid-19 pandemic, we ensured that no one goes to bed hungry with a scheme to supply free foodgrain to over 80 crore persons for over 28 months. Continuing our commitment to ensure food and nutritional security, we are implementing from January 1 2023, a scheme to supply free foodgrain to all Antyodaya and priority households for the next one year under Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana,” said finance minister Nirmala Sitaraman in the Parliament. However, what the government failed to disclose was that it was actually reducing ration entitlements for approximately 80 crore people by 50 percent. Here’s how!

Raj Shekhar, the National Coordinator of the Right To Food Campaign speaks to The Probe’s Saksham Agarwal on PMGKAY

Under the National Food Security Act (NFSA), all ration cardholders were entitled to 5 kgs of food grain per person. The NFSA had set a price cap for rice at rupees 3 per kg and for wheat at rupees 2 per kg. Thus, prior to the pandemic, economically disadvantaged individuals with ration cards could get 5 kgs of subsidised foodgrain. However, in response to the financial struggles faced by the poor during Covid-19, the government introduced the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana. This initiative aimed to provide an additional 5 kgs of free foodgrains to every ration cardholder, on top of their existing entitlement of 5 kgs of subsidised foodgrains under the NFSA.

"In December 2022, the government decided to discontinue the (PMGKAY). Then, in January, with much fanfare, the government announced the launch of a new integrated food security scheme called the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana. Under this program, the government would provide 5 kgs of free foodgrain to ration cardholders. However, previously, these same ration cardholders would receive 5 kgs of foodgrain at a subsidised rate, in addition to an extra 5 kgs of free foodgrain through the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana. Consequently, the government essentially removed the provision of subsidised foodgrain, resulting in a reduction from a total of 10 kgs to only 5 kgs of foodgrain for all individuals who used to benefit from both schemes. Instead of transparently informing the public about the discontinuation of subsidised rations, the government announced that it was introducing a new scheme offering 5 kgs of foodgrain. This has caused a lot of confusion amongst the people across the country," explains Raj Shekhar, the National Coordinator of the Right To Food Campaign - an informal network of individuals and organisations dedicated to realising the right to food in India.

The Probe interviewed various individuals on-site to assess the current situation regarding the quantity of foodgrain being received by people with ration cards. To our astonishment, the ground reality turned out to be quite surprising.

During our visit to a ration shop in Trilokpuri, we were informed that the shop does not operate regularly. The premises were in a state of disarray, with scattered foodgrains and evidence of rat infestation. Residents informed us that the shop was finally undergoing some renovation work.

Ration shop in Delhi

A ration shop in Trilokpuri with rat holes and foodgrains strewn all around | Photo courtesy: The Probe 

During our visit to JJ Colony, we spoke with Mahima Sahani, a resident who shared her experience with the ration she receives. Mahima expressed dissatisfaction with the quality of ration, stating, "We receive rice and wheat under our ration card, but the ratio of rice to wheat is imbalanced. The quality of the ration is poor, often infested with insects and worms. There have been many instances when we received the ration late, and there are even months when we don't receive any ration at all."

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In Sector 18, Noida, we met Mohammed Abu Zar, a daily wage worker at a tailor shop. Zar shared his struggles with the ration system, highlighting both the quality and availability issues. According to Zar, despite being entitled to 5 kgs of free foodgrain, the dealer retains a portion of it and the quality of the ration is a constant worry. 

"Sometimes, the ration quality is so bad that the wheat is contaminated with dirt. There are also instances where we don't receive ration at all as the shops remain closed. They only open for four days, and only those fortunate enough to visit within that timeframe receive ration. After four days, they claim the ration is depleted, leaving the rest of us without any. Additionally, the dealer even deducts a portion from our entitled ration. We don't know what he does with it, but we don't receive our full entitlement," complains Zar.

Krishna, a nearby shopkeeper, informed us that a ration shop owner had demanded 3000 rupees for making a new ration card. Vijender Kumar, who works at a fair price shop in Kusumpur Pahari, lamented that the quantity of ration received from the government has significantly decreased this year.

"When you cook the rice, even if you add a small amount of water, the rice shrinks. If you eat the wheat roti, you will lose your appetite for any more rotis in your life. That's the quality we're dealing with. The roti tastes bitter, and it must be consumed immediately after cooking. If you wait even for 5 to 10 minutes, it becomes nearly impossible to swallow. Instead of providing sugar, they offer rice; in place of rice, they claim you can take wheat; and in place of wheat, they substitute something else. Ultimately, you won't receive what the government claims you have the right to receive. The ground situation is utterly distressing," rues Sanjay, a resident of Kusumpur Pahari.

Zar, a ration cardholder

Mohammed Abu Zar, a daily wage worker at a tailor shop in Sector 18, Noida tells us that the ration dealer retains a portion of the ration and the quality of foodgrain is a constant worry | Photo courtesy: The Probe 

While the government's decision to reduce the ration allocation appears to be a significant issue, we discovered numerous other challenges on the ground. These include ration shops not opening, providing poor quality ration, shopkeepers demanding bribes for issuing ration cards, misappropriation of public ration supplies amongst others. Raj Shekar states that one of the most critical yet overlooked problems is the exclusion of numerous individuals from the National Food Security Act (NFSA) due to the government's inability to update the list.

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“The ration card issuance is based on the NFSA list, which, in turn, relies on the 2011 census. However, we are currently in 2023, and according to regulations, a census should be conducted every 10 years. Unfortunately, the census could not be carried out in 2021, resulting in the inability to prepare a new NFSA list because of which more than 10 crore families are now excluded from the food security safety net. This stands as one of the most severe crises in our country and is a key factor contributing to the prevailing food insecurity in India," asserts Raj Shekhar.

Raj Shekhar adds, "The delay in distributing ration across the country is due to the implementation of biometric authentication, which is being carried out through Aadhar cards. In the name of transparency, Aadhar cards are being used in a manner that facilitates exclusion by the government".

Speaking to The Probe, Shanta Kumar, former Chief Minister of Himachal Pradesh and former Union Minister of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution explains the inception of the Antyodaya Anna Yojana 22 years ago, during Atal Bihari Vajpayee's tenure as Prime Minister. "When I served as the food minister, we recognised the necessity of providing subsidised food to the impoverished population in our country. This realisation stemmed from a report that revealed that India had 30 crore people living in poverty, with approximately 15 crore individuals going to bed hungry every night. I presented the report to Prime Minister Vajpayee ji and expressed our surplus food reserves but the prevailing hunger in the country. Deeply moved, Vajpayee ji instructed me to formulate a scheme, which led to the establishment of the Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY). Under this scheme, we ensured that the poorest individuals in the country would receive 35 kilograms of foodgrain at subsidised rates. Although subsequent governments altered the names of the scheme, this scheme helped the poor of the country."

Sanjay, a ration cardholder
Sanjay, a resident of Kusumpur Pahari speaks about the poor quality of ration | Photo courtesy: The Probe

In 2014-15, Kumar chaired a committee focused on the restructuring of the Food Corporation of India (FCI). He narrates, "The committee concluded that agriculture in India is not a profitable business for farmers. Therefore, we recommended providing income support to farmers, as practised in various other parts of the world. Additionally, we proposed that subsidised food under the National Food Security Act (NFSA) should be exclusively allocated to the poor rather than being distributed as freebies to a large segment of the population. In fact, our recommendation was that those eligible for subsidised food under the NFSA should not exceed 40 per cent of the total population. Even today, there are approximately 19 crore impoverished Indians who go to bed hungry. This situation can only be improved when the government focuses on lifting these 19 crore individuals out of poverty."

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Taramani Sahu, a human rights activist, recounts an incident that occurred in her village in Jharkhand in 2017, which involved the tragic starvation death of a child. She states, "The 11-year-old girl named Santoshi Kumari belonged to a dalit family, and they were denied ration due to the lack of an Aadhar card. So, we raised the issue and submitted a complaint letter to the District Collector. Surprisingly, after submitting the complaint letter, the family's ration card was cancelled. I questioned the District Collector about this decision, seeking an explanation. At that point, we were urging the government to take necessary steps to provide a ration card to this marginalised family. Unfortunately, by then, the girl passed away due to starvation. Their home had no food. The child's mother shared that on the day of her daughter's passing, she suffered from severe stomach pain and had a fever. The child kept pleading with her mother to get some rice. The mother informed me that she only had five rupees with her, which wouldn't suffice to buy food. Distressed by her daughter's condition, she made a cup of tea with salt and gave it to the young girl. Tragically, within half an hour of consuming the tea, the girl passed away."

Taramani notes that despite the death of Santoshi Kumari, not much has changed in Jharkhand. She provides a recent example from the same village, where a poor family had five members falsely declared as deceased, resulting in the cancellation of their ration cards. Today, the family lacks access to ration and faces extreme marginalisation. “Not just this family, I keep coming across numerous instances of families being in utter poverty because they don’t have a ration card. Those that have one, doesn’t get adequate ration and there are also cases where people who do receive ration face “ration-cuts” at the dealer level,” says Taramani. 

The truth about how much food grain the ration card holder will now receive under PMGKAY may just be one of the many problems affecting the poor and marginalised people of the country. On the ground, they face numerous other issues that paint a bleak picture of the food security situation in India. Moreover, the exclusion of millions of families from the NFSA worsens the current situation and should serve as a wake-up call to the government.

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