Home / Opinion / Views /  A star achievement of our 75 years of independence

At a time when central banks all over the world are into a round robin of interest rates hikes, in a context of impending recession in several major world economies, an unending war, and uncertainty about energy availability and pricing going into the northern hemisphere winter, the only cheering news was India’s further extension for three months upto the end of December 2022 of free food under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana (PMGKAY).

We have been celebrating the Azadi Amrit Mahotsav for some weeks, with listings of the several milestones that stand out over the last 75 years of Independent India. To my mind, the biggest of them all was the Food Security Act, which encoded in law the right to defined amounts of subsidized food for 75% of the rural population and 50% of the urban population. The magnitude of this food guarantee in a country the size of India became possible only because it cohered with a long-standing price support incentive to farmers to grow our major foodgrain cereals, rice and wheat. The policy caused excessive ‘cerealization’ of the country’s cropping pattern, and damaged farmlands in northern states like Punjab by promoting rice cultivation where it is not a traditional crop, but has come to stay. The policy’s large buffer stocks of grain also enabled the Food Security Act.

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The Act enjoys support right across the political spectrum. It built up slowly over the years, with the efforts of right-to-food activists all over the country, eventually channelled through the National Advisory Council of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government.

At the time, I remember being critical of the excessive emphasis on channelling food security through the household, when countless studies had shown that food distribution within the household was unequal and unfair. I was more in favour of directly targeting vulnerable groups cutting across households, through mid-day meals in schools and direct feeding of pre-school children and pregnant and lactating mothers through the Integrated Child Development Scheme. These provisions for vulnerable populations were also included in the Food Security Act, but they were of their nature discretionary add-ons and it is not clear how well they actually functioned in practice, as contrasted with the basic household provision.

At the time, it seemed unimaginable that there could ever be a time when institutions like schools and pre-school anganwadis would ever actually be closed down, as they were during the pandemic lockdowns. Who would ever have thought that food security for children could only be ensured through the households to which they belonged, rather than through the institutions where they assembled and could be directly reached.

Today household-based food security is locked into the law. And then came the PMGKAY, starting from April 2020, with a further add-on in the form of a free food supplement, equal in magnitude to the subsidized rations under the Food Security Act. Remember that the rations themselves had been built up from caloric sufficiency calculations. When that provision was actually doubled, and the doubled add-on was free, it gave the recipient households a plentitude of foodgrain going well beyond sufficiency. It enabled them to feed household members migrating back from urban areas, and feed children denied school meals.

The PMGKAY was criticized in some quarters for not providing other supplementary needs like cooking oil and salt, but because the grain was so plentiful, it was traded actively for these supplementary needs. It was because a fair amount of the additional ration found its way into the market that even households not on the Food Security Act’s rolls (resulting from absence of documentary support) nevertheless benefited from the reduced market price of grain.

The key role played by the PMGKAY in blunting the pandemic’s harsh edge for the country’s poor was rightly singled out for praise by Kristalina Georgieva, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, on her recent visit to Delhi.

The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee supplements the Food Security Act in providing work sites on demand for the rural population. It was less effective during the pandemic because any assembly of workers carried its own risks, but is now playing a role in shoring up rural household incomes at a time when small-scale enterprises are still dormant, and unskilled employment is yet to pick up. So yes, it is an important supplement to the Food Security Act, but mediated through money and accompanied by varying delays between work and wage receipts. The food ration is inflation indexed. The MGNREGA wage is not.

Going forward, what will happen to the PMGKAY beyond December 2022? It cannot continue indefinitely in its present form, but maybe instead of a sudden halt, it could initially be halved (for all), before being tapered out.

Nutritional sufficiency is another matter. There has been a distressing reduction in rural access to freely foraged high-protein foods like fish, on account of inland water bodies being contracted out to suppliers of urban markets. The water bodies themselves have disappeared in large numbers. Restoration of those should be an urgent element of the climate action programme.

Indira Rajaraman is an economist.

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