It was very thoughtful on the part of the national government to provide free food grains to over 80 crore people under the poor and low income group in the country during the Covid pandemic season leading to long lockdown periods in 2020-21. The facility was extended twice, the last being on January 1, 2023, for a period of one year. The last extension had probably more to do with the elections in four states — Nagaland, Karnataka, Mizoram and Chhattisgarh — than the need for providing free food grains to feed nearly 60 percent of the country’s population at a cost of around Rs. 15,000 crore, annually. Now, the prime minister says his government’s free ration (food grains) scheme would be extended for five more years that is up to 2028, again for over 80 crore people.
The announcement made at an election rally at Durg in Chhattisgarh sounds absurd. It challenges the government’s own annual economic growth claims and the annual on-paper decline of the registered number of the country’s multi-dimensionally poor. Under the free food grains scheme, India’s population of the poor is expected to remain static at over 80 crore till the end of 2028. The number contradicts the government’s own report in July, this year, which said nearly 13.5 crore people, or close to 10 percent of India’s population, escaped poverty in the five years to March 2021. “Improvements in nutrition, years of schooling, sanitation and cooking fuel played a significant role in bringing down poverty,” said Suman Bery, vice-chairman of the government think-tank NITI Aayog which released the report.
Further, the report elaborated that rural areas saw the strongest fall in poverty. The study used the United Nations’ Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI), based on 12 indicators such as malnutrition, education and sanitation. According to the report, the percentage of the population living in poverty fell to 15 percent in 2019-21 from 25 percent in 2015-16. “The country registered a significant decline of 9.89 percentage points in multi-dimensionally poor from 24.85 percent in 2015-16 to 14.96 percent in 2019-21. The rural areas witnessed the fastest decline in poverty, from 32.59 percent to 19.28 percent,” it said.
Providing multidimensional poverty estimates for the 36 States and Union Territories and 707 Administrative Districts, the report stated that the fastest reduction in the proportion of multidimensional poor was observed in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, and Rajasthan. Quizzically, India was ranked 111th out of 125 countries in the Global Hunger Index-2023, which was strongly rejected by the government as erroneous and having malafide intent. Did the Global Hunger Index bank on India’s poverty figure from the country’s free food grains scheme?
The two questions that naturally arise are: what is the source of the country’s estimate of 80-plus crore poor people who can’t afford even extremely cheap rations provided by the government and what makes the government feel that the number of such people will remain static until 2028. The answer may lie in the pressure of fighting elections for Lok Sabha and in Sikkim and possibly Jammu & Kashmir, before June, next year. Incidentally, four Indian states such as Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Telangana have all geared up for election this year. The Mizoram election was held on November 7. Politically, the time is rather tricky for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), leading the national government, to stop the free food grains scheme beyond this calendar year. This is despite the fact that free rations did not fill in ballot boxes for BJP in recent times. But, its exit may make BJP quite unpopular. Recently, the party suffered a big setback in Karnataka. BJP currently holds power in only 10 out of India’s 28 states.
Obviously, free food grains for more than 80 crore people since 2020 have not been particularly helping BJP win elections. Such food grains are distributed through ration shops which come under state governments. The poor and illiterate are little concerned about who foots the bill for free food grains at ration shops. The states take the credit for supplying the free ration. The system has badly corrupted the state machinery involved in procurement and distribution of food grains. The BJP itself has alleged ‘massive corruption’ in the Congress government’s free ration kit scheme in Rajasthan. Poll-bound Rajasthan’s deputy leader of opposition in the state assembly, Satish Poonia of BJP, recently alleged that corruption has been “institutionalised” in the Ashok Gehlot-led state government. He said the free ration kit scheme is a “well-planned conspiracy” to promote corruption.
In West Bengal, the Enforcement Directorate, which is investigating massive corruption in the rationing system, has so far estimated the corruption level at nearly Rs.1,000 crore in the last 10 years. The ED has already arrested the state’s former food minister, Jyotipriya Mallick (now forest minister), along with his ‘close’ associate Bakibur Rehman, a big rice mill owner. It has listed more than 300 ‘bogus’ ration shops in the state. Ration articles are reportedly collected from the central government agencies for those bogus ration shops before they are sold in the open market. West Bengal has well over 21,000 registered ration shops. The corruption starts at the procurement levels and continues through the dealership systems, the issuing of ration cards and distribution of rations to cardholders.
Few know the level of corruption in larger states such as Uttar Pradesh, having registered ration shops of over 73,000, Maharashtra (50,0000 plus), Bihar (44,000 plus), Andhra Pradesh (43,000 plus), Tamil Nadu (32,000 plus), Odisha (28,000 plus), Rajasthan (22,000 plus), Karnataka (20,000 plus) and Madhya Pradesh (20,000 plus). In Tamil Nadu, 90 percent of the rural population use ration shops, whereas in West Bengal only 35 percent of the rural populace do so. About 94 percent of the Tamil Nadu ration shops are run by cooperative societies. In West Bengal, private dealers are the main connection between the government department and the beneficiaries. Through dealer points (ration shops), beneficiaries draw ration as per their entitlements depending upon the category of the ration card and schemes. Dealers work on a license issued by the competent authority based on several factors such as number of cards attached with the existing dealers, geography and accessibility of the area under service, etc. The department, dealers, procurers and suppliers are hand-in-gloves in the system.
The free food grains distribution system is believed to be further promoting corruption among the system handlers at multiple levels. The corruption level is so deep rooted that it is not possible for the national government to singlehandedly tackle the situation without the help of state governments. The British-promoted rationing system started in the wake of the Bengal famine in the 1940s. It expanded nationwide in the mid-1950s and 1960s with the help of US food assistance under Public Law 480 to tackle food emergencies across the country. Although the green revolution slowly improved the situation with India emerging as an important food grains exporter, the rationing system continued to expand to ensure food security for the poor. Unfortunately, the government paid little attention to its proper execution. Almost every agency and its political touts involved in the system indulged in corruption to pocket thousands of crores of rupees for themselves at the cost of the poor man’s stomach. The government would have done well to revamp the entire rationing system and properly identify the beneficiaries before continuing with the free food grains supply system to cover such a large number of the country’s population for another five years. (IPA Service)