By Nantoo Banerjee
It is a pity that the government could not think of a better “new year gift for the country’s poor” than continuing to feed 81.35 crore Indians with free food grains for another year till December 31, 2023, under a 10-year-old National Food Security Act (NFSA), at a cost of over Rs.200,000 crore. In the process, the government admits that India’s poverty level continues to increase with the growth of its population. The union government enacted NFSA in July, 2013, giving legal entitlement to 67 percent of the population — 75 percent in rural areas and 50 per cent in urban areas — to receive highly subsidised food grains.
India’s population was 128.13 crore then. The free ration scheme was started by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in April 2020 under ‘Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana (PMGKAY) to help the country’s 67 percent poor population whose livelihoods were shuttered by a national lockdown to contain the spread of coronavirus. It was certainly a very thoughtful move on the government’s part at that point of time. There were four phases of lockdowns (between 25 March 2020 and 31 May 2020), and two unlock periods (1 June–31 July 2020) in India. By 2021, life nearly turned normal.
However, giving-away anything for free is easy. It generally makes recipients highly happy. But, freebees carry a risk factor. Their withdrawal could make the donor quite unpopular among the gift recipients. The free food grains scheme was extended through the entire 2021 and 2022 probably because a number of India’s states, including West Bengal, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Assam, Puducherry, Uttar Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat, went for legislative assembly elections. The extension of PMGKAY through 2023 may have also made sense for the Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled national government as nine more states are due for assembly elections during this year.
One will not be surprised if the scheme is even run through the next year, when the national election is due along with seven state assembly polls. The PMJKAY seems to have assumed a new purpose: that is to deny the opposition parties of taking advantage of a possible withdrawal syndrome among poor voters who will be deprived of free rations. In the process, the real issue leading to the enactment of NFSA appears to have gotten lost. Meanwhile, the government doles in support of the country’s so-called poor, represented by a static percentage (67 percent) of the population that’s growing every day, every month and every year, have overtaken its intention to eradicate poverty.
When NFSA was enacted in July 2013, less than a year before the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the country’s population was 128 crore. And, at 67 percent, it covered some 85 crore population. Interestingly, the act did not help the Congress party win the 2014 national election. Now, India’s population is nearly 141.4 crore. That raises the number of the poor under the NFSA definition to 94.47 crore and not 81.35 crore as computed by the PMGKAY implementing authority. Under NFSA, food grains were to be made available at highly subsidised prices of Rs. 3/2/1 per kg for rice, wheat and coarse grains respectively for an initial period of three years from the date of commencement of the Act (July 13, 2013). Thereafter, prices were to be fixed by the union government from time to time. The government decided to continue with the above-mentioned subsidised prices under NFSA despite inflation and rising high open market prices of food grains. Sadly, NFSA has always been used as a political tool by the ruling parties in both the union and state governments. It operates more like an election agenda to reward the poor. Poverty eradication received less priority from the government.
This explains why so many so-called poverty eradication schemes have failed to make a dent on the number of the poor under NFSA over the years. The schemes include the National Food for Work Programme; Swarnajayanti Gram Swarozgar Yojana; Sampoorna Grameen Rozgar Yojana; Indira Awaas Yojana for Rural Housing; Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act; Pradhan Mantri Gramodaya Yojana; Rural Employment Generation Programme; Prime Minister’s Rozgar Yojana; Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana; Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana – Urban (PMAY-U); Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana – Gramin (PMAY-G) and Pradhan Mantri Sahaj Bijli Har Ghar Yojana.
While PMAY-U is a flagship union government mission implemented by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, PMAY-G was introduced to boost the “Housing for All” scheme by the end of 2022. The main aim of the PMAY-G scheme is to provide brick-built houses with some of the basic amenities. The scheme has already missed the execution deadline. It continues through the current year. In fact, none of the schemes achieved their prescribed lofty goals. High rates of rural and urban unemployment continue. The Consumer Pyramid Household Survey of the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy showed the employment rate among Indian youth (15-24 years) at 10.4 percent in 2021-22 compared to 10.9 percent during the lockdown-hit 2020-21. The average unemployment rate in India at eight percent may be a grossly understatement. The quality of jobs presently offered in the government and other institutions is poor — mostly fixed salaried contract service.
NFSA may have succeeded in giving a kind of “food security” to the country’s rural and urban poor, but the real issue of providing jobs and livelihood to the bottom section of the society to tackle the high poverty rate remains a big challenge. Among the principal causes of unemployment in India are: the caste system, pervading virtually every aspect of life including the provision of certain categories of jobs; inadequate economic growth; rising population, especially among the poor; seasonal agricultural occupation; significant decline in the growth of the cottage and small industry sector affecting small investors and artisans; low rates of savings and investment; poor economic planning leading to imbalanced supply and demand of labour; and lack of job specialisation.
India totally lacks in providing a universal education system to its pupils with uniform curriculum and modern work skills. According to a study, nearly 33 percent of India’s educated youth are unemployed due to a lack of future skills. Addressing these issues are much tougher than providing free or highly subsidised food grains to an overwhelming number of India’s population (67 percent) helping politicisation of poverty. Interestingly, the government’s new education policy, based on “four pillars which are access, equity, quality and accountability,” does not address those burning issues leading to joblessness and poverty. (IPA Service)