The Union Government has adapted quickly building a new welfare module to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. A substantive relief package announced under Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana (PMGKY) was the start of this module. However, there are unintended consequences of the much-required lockdown, which have to be concurrently addressed. The food security challenge facing migrant workers is one such challenge.
The current Public Distribution System (PDS) structure comes from the National Food Security Act, 2013. The Act covers 81 crore citizens, identified by respective States/Union Territories to obtain subsidised rice, wheat and coarse cereals at highly subsidised prices of Rs 3/2/1 per kg, respectively. PDS benefits are availed locally at over five lakh fair price shops all over the country. These are linked to the beneficiary’s ration cards. The benefits under the Act were augmented in the PMGKY relief package by an allocation of an additional five kg food grains per person and one kg pulses per family, free of cost for the next three months.
Improving PDS outreach
According to the Economic Survey of 2016-17, there are approximately 100 million migrant workers in India. Migrants don’t have geographical access to their local fair price shops and also their ration cards, presumably left behind with their families. The government had taken cognisance of this anomaly even before pandemic hit. Over 12 states were already in the pilot phase of ‘One Nation One Card’ scheme which would allow migrants to avail this benefit wherever they ordinarily reside for their work. This pilot is scheduled to be scaled across the country by June 2020. However, present circumstances call for an immediate rollout of access to benefits envisaged under this scheme with proactive support from States/ UTs.
As opposed to the market price for wheat and rice, which ranges between Rs 32 to Rs 45 respectively, the Union government has allowed NGOs and State governments to buy extra stocks from FCI at Rs 20 and Rs 22, for the same. Earlier, any sale outside the PDS network was available only to bulk purchasers and states through online bidding. Allowing for this additional procurement will ensure States and NGOs are able to distribute it to beneficiaries (which would include migrants) for free or at a highly subsidised rate.
State government efforts
Along with the Union government’s efforts, there have been substantive efforts by many States/UTs to cover a larger net of citizens for PDS benefits. At the States’ level, delinking the need of ration cards for availing PDS benefits and reaching out to specific marginalised beneficiaries has been one key component of this strategy. Delhi has bolstered PDS benefits by 50 percent and has decided to extend these benefits to non-ration cardholders along with the usual beneficiaries benefiting over seven million people.
Uttar Pradesh is providing 20 kg of wheat and 10 kg of rice per household to a list of beneficiaries which include 16.5 million construction workers and daily wage labourers. The state has also recently announced universalisation of PDS. This universalisation strategy for the interim period is being resorted to by the states of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Rajasthan and Telangana as well. Telangana has doubled the monthly supply of rice for beneficiaries in the unorganised sector who are being identified based on a comprehensive survey done last year. Further, there has been a directed effort to reach out to migrants in the state for availing food safety benefits. Kerala, which is being lauded for its control of the pandemic, has also taken a substantive ground-level effort to reach out to migrants. Given that identification of beneficiaries under PDS is the State government’s prerogative, these models may be emulated across states to reach out to migrants.
What more needs to be done
Beyond these measures, there is a need to build an immediate framework at the state level for reaching out to distressed migrants. First, the State governments must aggressively build capacity for self-identification of migrants for augmenting the beneficiary list under PDS. They must set up an immediate institutional mechanism that migrants can apply to for accessing PDS benefits. Given the extraordinary circumstances, in the immediate term, States may even err on the side of over inclusion.
Second, PDS benefits can be temporarily de-linked from ration cards while relying on other ID documents such as Aadhaar cards to give out benefits. Third, there should be a continuation of calibrated cash transfers. This will ensure that migrants can access the market where PDS fair price shops aren’t available. For instance, the Bihar government has enabled downloading of a weblink for registration by workers only outside the state. This was followed by transferring money to 10.11 lakh workers. Fourth, public spaces such as government schools, anganwadis and volunteered private spaces may be allocated to NGOs to set up ration distribution centres to maximise scale.
Fifth, large scale community kitchens should be set up with the help of philanthropic organisations. Here, care needs to be taken while distributing food to the distressed, by maintaining adequate safeguards and following norms of hygiene, social distancing, wearing masks etc. Finally, a mass awareness campaign must be imminently envisaged to reach out to migrants regarding any measures that the State and Union Governments have envisioned for their relief.
The Iranian American Novelist Dina Nayeri once wrote, “It is the obligation of every person born in a safer room to open the door when someone in danger knocks.” For the marginalised migrants, the “safer room” today is the welfare net of the state. New doors need to be built and kept open to ensure their accessibility and availability to food in these difficult times.
(Dr Yogesh Suri and Satwik Mishra are associated with the NITI Aayog. Views are personal)
Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the authors' own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.