100 million Indians excluded from the PDS because of reliance on 2011 census

The government’s decision to put the Census on indefinite hold has many harsh consequences, among them the exclusion of at least 100 million eligible people from the PDS net

Free ration being distributed under Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana in UP's Dasna town in Ghaziabad district. (Photo: Getty Images)
Free ration being distributed under Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana in UP's Dasna town in Ghaziabad district. (Photo: Getty Images)

Jaideep Hardikar

On 2 September, Union finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman tweeted a video in which she is seen pulling up a district collector in Telangana. She apparently found it galling that a fair price shop in the state did not have any photos of Prime Minister Narendra Modi on display, when, as her Twitter rant goes: ‘Under PMGKAY (Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana), [the] entire cost [of] 5kg food grains given free is borne by [the] Modi government. Under NFSA, more than 80 per cent of the cost of food grains is borne by the Modi government.’ Given this, she combatively asks, ‘Is there any objection to poster/ banner of PM Modi being displayed at ration shops?’

Even if you look away from the impropriety of her outburst, made worse by the fact that this wasn’t even a state her party rules, it is hard to ignore her government’s apparent incomprehension of a burning issue that concerns millions of Indians, a problem now left unattended for over two years.

Before we get to that point, let’s just remember that subsidised rations under the National Food Security Act (NFSA), which took effect in 2013, under the UPA government, is a legal entitlement, a right—not a welfare dole. It is financed by the taxpayers of the country.

Far from doing anyone any favours, the Narendra Modi government is, in fact, guilty of egregious omission, an issue first flagged by economists Jean Drèze and Reetika Khera in 2020 and later reinforced by the Supreme Court while passing orders on a suo motu petition concerning migrant labourers. Said act of omission has led to the exclusion of millions of poor Indians from the public distribution system (PDS) in the pandemic and post-pandemic years.

Two years ago, Drèze and Khera pointed out (in a report) that the Centre’s current estimates of ration card beneficiaries under the NFSA were still based on the 2011 Census estimates of base population, which obviously ignores the rise in our population in the decade since. While the Census 2021 exercise has been put on hold indefinitely— repeatedly citing the Covid-19 pandemic, when all other contact activities are on in full swing—an under-reported side-effect of the postponement is that millions desperately in need of subsidised staples are being denied it. This, at a time of high unemployment and simultaneous high inflation.

Drèze and Khera have argued that while 800 million people were eligible for dry subsidised rations in 2013, based on Census 2011 data, that figure ought to have gone up to 922 million, in step with the estimated rise in population. It hasn’t.

The NFSA dashboard tells us that India currently has about 195 million households with ration cards, and the total number of beneficiaries is nearly 794 million in 737 districts of 36 states and Union territories, lower than the number of beneficiaries we intended to target even in 2013. Within that, the poorest of the poor, entitled to the Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY) are 23.4 million, the remaining being priority households.

The NFSA entitled 75 per cent of rural and 50 per cent urban populations (or about two-thirds of the total population) to receive subsidised food grains under the targeted public distribution system (TPDS); some experts maintain that India needs universal PDS. At the all-India level, applying the 67 per cent ratio to a projected population of 1,372 million for 2020, PDS coverage should be 922 million, instead of around 800 million. The Modi government has paid no attention to this exclusion.

That aside, the Centre has been asking the states to ‘clean up’ their lists to exclude ‘undeserving’ persons and include deserving ones. Since 2013, the food ministry has annulled some 47 million ghost or duplicate ration cards (accounting for 170 million ‘undeserving’ beneficiaries) across states, replacing them with ‘persons who deserve to get subsidised rations’ as part of its right-targeting of beneficiaries. Some states have linked exclusion to other odd reasons, such as the municipal tax or electricity amounts households pay. The lack of transparency in this exercise leaves ample room for suspicion about the Centre’s intentions.

100 million Indians excluded from the PDS because of reliance on 2011 census
100 million Indians excluded from the PDS because of reliance on 2011 census

The estimates on exclusion have also been reinforced by a report titled ‘Promises and Reality’, put together by eminent citizens under the umbrella of Wada Na Todo Abhiyaan. The report, which came out in May this year, also points out legal anomalies in using the 2011 Census as base population to derive the number of beneficiaries under the NFSA. This was recently underlined even by the Supreme Court, in an order disposing of a suo motu petition pertaining to the problems and miseries of migrant labourers. The apex court directed the Centre to rectify the error and update the ration cards quota, in view of the population increase since 2011, so that the NFSA net covers more needy people. The Supreme Court also reiterated the rights dimension of this entitlement—as it has in a number of cases earlier, the Court observed that the ‘Right to Food’ is a fundamental right, under Article 21 of the Constitution.

If these numbers were updated, states too would have had to issue new ration cards over time, but as the NFSA dashboard suggests, the number of eligible beneficiaries remains frozen in every state.

Take Jharkhand, for example. It is among India’s poorest states, and the NFSA was to be a key policy instrument to reduce hunger and food deprivation. But the state stopped issuing new ration cards years ago to avoid exceeding the numbers provided for by the Centre, leading to pendency of fresh ration card applications. Maharashtra does still approve new ration cards—even if reluctantly and after delays—but the fair price shops usually cut the quota of old beneficiaries to accommodate new ones, so that the total ration they distribute remains unchanged. There are some notable exceptions too: states that supplement the food basket at some cost to themselves.

For the poor, heavily dependent on subsidised rations, the consequences of this exclusion are manifold. As this writer found out while interacting with a few fair price shop dealers, the rush for the monthly ration quota has gone up since the pandemic. More people come by for their quota. Some new beneficiaries, who may not yet have seeded their cards on the online portal, don’t get their quota. Result: they have to shell out more to buy groceries from private retailers, at prices they can’t afford.

During the tumultuous two years of the Covid-19 pandemic, particularly the lockdown phase, millions of migrant labourers were forced to walk long distances to their village homes. In the cities where they earned a precarious living, there would be no paid work or income and consequently no money for food or shelter. Most of these rural migrants, in their millions, had ration cards in their native homes; the states where they worked struggled to distribute dry rations to them during the lockdown.

To return to the PMGKAY of Sitharaman’s Twitter rant, the Modi government is said to be actively considering whether to extend the scheme. Abolishing it, they will fear, might backfire politically, but continuing it has some fiscal consequences too. It was floated, incidentally, in April 2020 to provide free food to migrants and the extremely poor who have ration cards under the AAY.

After several years of fairly stable food prices, this might be the Modi government’s biggest test yet on the food/ price security front. The political economy of food is highly sensitive: a wrong decision will hurt those banking on rations and the political blowback might singe the ruling party too. On the other hand, making the fiscal room to support food security budgets is not without its challenges. Even more soberingly, despite highly subsidised staples distributed through the PDS, nutrition outcomes among the poor, particularly women and children, are a concern.

For a nation wanting to be a superpower, it does not bode well.

(Jaideep Hardikar is a Nagpur-based journalist and author of Ramrao: The Story of India’s Farm Crisis)

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