With the Covid crisis continuing with no immediate end in sight, the declaration by prime minister Narendra Modi about the extension of the free ration, which has been running for the last three months, till end of November, will give a heavy sigh of relief for the millions staring at the prospect of deprivation. The scheme which came into force from April soon after lockdown declaration, was to supply five kilos of rice or wheat to 80 crore people, and a kilo of pulses to every family. The government decision now is to extend the scheme – that cost an addition Rs 90,000 Crore - by five months ending in November, in view of the beginning of festival season across the country in July. The prime minister reminded that is a collective and prime responsibility of the country that no one should be starving during the lockdown period.
It was close on the heels of the declaration of lockdown from 25 March that the Modi government declared a relief package of 1.75 lakh crore rupees under the Prime Minister Garib Kalyan Yojana. All those who were covered by the ambit of the National Food Security Act became its beneficiaries. But then complaints were raised that several crores of people including inter-state labourers were left out of its ambit. Following this, two months into the lockdown, 8 crore more people were brought into this net under the Atmanirbhar scheme. Through this, states stood to gain by 10 per cent extra food grains. States where the central assistance was not adequate had already sought other means to address the problems of the natives there. It was during this period of hand-to-mouth support that the prime minister's declaration came with the second phase of lockdown lifting that the ration benefits would continue for another five months. He also informed that the system of 'one nation, one ration' would be rolled out in the entire country soon. Congress president Sonia Gandhi had written to the prime minister last week demanding that the free ration should be continued for another three months, i.e. till September. At a video conference held by Central food supplies minister Ram Vilas Paswan on 18 June, the same demand was raised by ten of the states represented there. Now, it is beating them all that the prime minister made this declaration. Political observers are pointing out that this move is made with the upcoming state assembly election in Bihar in mind. And they also cite as evidence of the political motive, the fact that Modi during his address did mention all the festivals in different parts of the country from July on, but excluding the Muslim festivals from the list and mentioning Bihar Chhath Puja in particular. Whatever that be, it is certainly a gain for 80 crore people of India to receive free ration for the next five months. In Kerala 5.92 lakh holder of the yellow card and 31.5 lakh pink-card holders will receive this benefit.
The public distribution system (PDS) of the country did receive huge acceptance during the Covid lockdown. Even the upper middle class, who generally keep away from availing ration goods, became beneficiaries of government doles. Figures tell that about 85 per cent of the people across the country used the facility, with Kerala registering a 90 percent rate of availing for the last three months. It is not only that other avenues are shut, but also the insistence of governments on quality in goods and service which made this ration distribution a huge success. Unlike other countries, India still see PDS a source of relief. And the prime minister's statement should delight every one that the free ration is a huge event given the fact that India has a population double that of the European Union, two and half times that of US and 12 times that of Britain. With the hardships of the US and Italy right under our eyes, the Covid times have taught the world the significance of PDS and government services. Even then, during this very Covid crisis, the BJP government is busy selling off the remaining public sector undertakings and service sectors to private monopolies. The warm reception accorded to the current ration benefits should open their eyes. They should show the realism to maintain the service sector, which so large a section of the population bank on, even in post-Covid era. Even if the Food Security Act and the one nation one ration scheme kick in, as indicated by figures, there are still crores of people who get swept away from it. Over 2.5 million people in Kerala, who belong to the BPL (Below Poverty Line) category holding the blue card, are not eligible for the scheme, because they do not come under the central law. There are also similar millions who are outside the digital boundary of the one ration card. So the question is: will this Covid era experience teach the central government to introduce a fool-proof PDS that fills the bellies of these starving poor out of the stockpiles of food grains in the country's granaries? If yes, it will be not only them, but the entire country will be saved.