The Odisha government has launched a drive to restore the entitlements of the “poorest of the poor” households that were deleted last year from the Antyodaya food scheme.

In March 2015, the Modi government had issued a notification to states to wind up Antyodaya Anna Yojana, a scheme that aims to provide subsidised foodgrain to the most vulnerable households. The Centre instructed states to phase out the Antyodaya category from the public distribution system, and told them that no beneficiaries may be added under the scheme anymore. It had to backtrack in October, however, when the move came under widespread criticism.

On the ground, these turnarounds created confusion. Lakhs of vulnerable households were excluded from their legal entitlements to subsidised food rations as states, including Odisha, Rajasthan and Delhi, went ahead with revising the lists of ration beneficiaries.

After that misstep, Odisha is now trying to restore the entitlements of the beneficiaries through fresh surveys at the block and ward level. Almost 5 lakh households, nearly 40% of the total, had lost their Antyodaya status after the central government’s first order last year. In the last month, Odisha has succeeded in including 61,000 families again in the programme.

Re-enrolment drive

“Odisha was in the process of issuing new ration cards under the National Food Security Act when the central government order created the impression that even the poorest households cannot continue to retain their Antyodaya status in food security schemes,” said Raj Kishor Mishra, who is the state's advisor to the Supreme Court in the Right to Food case. “By the time the Centre issued a second order withdrawing the first notification, the number of Antyodaya households [in Odisha] had fallen from 12.5 lakh households to 7.8 lakh in November.”

Mishra said the households that fell through the scheme’s safety net were particularly high in the tribal districts that are afflicted with extreme poverty and starvation deaths. In Bolangir, the number of Antyodaya households was cut from 52,880 to 31,981, in Kalahandi from 54,136 to 40,909, and in Koraput from 64,199 to 37,059.

Madhusudan Padhi, principal secretary (food supplies and consumer welfare department), said the state government is trying to restore the Antyodaya status of the beneficiaries. “There has been a considerable reduction of Antyodaya beneficiaries. Over the next two to three months, we aim to re-enrol 3 lakh families in the programme through village-level drives.”

His department issued letters to all district collectors on February 27 to accept petitions from the excluded families and from additional households. It asked the collectors to make efforts to re-include households based on field verification of lists of beneficiaries from 2014.

Last mile beneficiaries

The Antyodaya Anna Yojana was launched in December 2000 by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government to provide 35 kilos of foodgrain at nominal rates to the poorest category of households. Some states provide the foodgrain free of cost.

As per the directions of the Supreme Court in the Right to Food case (People’s Union for Civil Liberties vs Union of India), the Antyodaya category covers particularly vulnerable tribal households, elderly couples living in distress, households without shelter, households headed by disabled persons, or widows who cannot afford to buy foodgrains in the market.

The Modi government’s notification of March 2015 to phase out Antyodaya was opposed by the Right to Food campaign as an undermining of the safeguards for the vulnerable, and as a violation of the National Food Security law. The order was withdrawn in October 2015.

Like in Odisha, households were deleted from the Antyodaya scheme in Rajasthan and Delhi too. In Rajasthan, the number fell from 9.3 lakh families at the end of 2014 to 4.9 lakh in 2015, and in Delhi, from 1.58 lakh Antyodaya households to 77,886 households.