Political analysts have almost unanimously said that freebies were a major factor for the Trinamool Congress’s huge win in the 2016 Assembly elections in West Bengal. Cheap rice for almost everyone, cycles and shoes for school-going children, money for crop damage – all of these added to their votes.

Clearly enthused by this, the state’s Food and Civil Supplies Minister, Jyotipriya Mullick, has announced that a Ramzan package of chick peas, flour and sugar will be available at a subsidised rate through the public distribution system till June 24. Just in case he was accused of minority appeasement, Mullick followed it up with one more announcement: that there would be a similar package for Durga Puja later this year.

The Ramzan and Durga Puja packages are not the first of their kind. Special food packages have been announced time and again – for festivals or after disasters. The problem with these packages is that they are for short periods of time. Before ration card holders become aware of them, the schemes end. As a result, very few ration card holders actually pick up these special rations. Instead, the rations find their way into the black market with ration shop dealers acting in collusion with some Food Department officials.

Before the National Food Security Act was implemented, rice and wheat rations for Above Poverty Line families were provided in an equally ad hoc and irregular manner, and most of these food grains used to find their way to the black market as the consumer had no idea about the quantity or when rations would be given.

When ration dealers benefit

The ration dealer always reaps extra profits when quantities are broken up into many different categories and prices are not in round numbers. When this happens, consumers get confused and are easily cheated.

While the system has been simplified considerably after the implementation of the National Food Security Act, West Bengal still has five categories of ration cards and ration packages are priced oddly. For instance, in Jangal Mahal, wheat flour packets weighing 750 gm are priced at Rs 2.62 in ration shops. At a time, when it is difficult to find 50 paise or even Re 1 coins, how will customers or ration shop dealers return 38 paise as change?

What succeeds best is a rationing system with just one or two categories of cards and easily remembered and rounded-off prices and quantities.

In his Ramzan package statement, Mullick also said that “the government would continue with Rs 2 per kg rice for all during this period [emphasis added].”

Is this his way of saying that the Rs 2 rice scheme can be withdrawn later?

Under the National Food Security Act, the Centre gives the state government rice at Rs 3 per kg for 6.01 crore people. The state provides a further subsidy of Re 1 per kg and sells the rice for Rs 2 per kg. In addition to this, the state government has two cheap rice schemes under the Rajya Khadya Suraksha Yojana – RKSY 1 and RKSY 2 – which cover an additional 1.7 crore people.

While the entitlements of beneficiaries under the National Food Security Act are legally guaranteed, the extra Re 1 subsidy and the state’s RKSY schemes are part of Bengal’s pre-election largesse. There is no legal assurance to back these up. In fact, there are already reports of pre-election related rations being discontinued (for instance in Ward No 21 of Barasat city in North 24 Parganas.)

After the Trinamool Congress first seized power in the state in 2011, the Food and Supplies Department website of the West Bengal government for many days carried the slogan: Food For All. This was their principal promise to the people.

Streamline rations

If this is indeed what the Mamata Banerjee government wants, it should move away from the adhocism of Ramzan and Durga Puja packages and Rajya Khadya Suraksha Yojanas. The government should instead pass a State Food Security Act that guarantees rice at Rs 2 per kg for all citizens.

Also, if the government is seriously concerned about malnutrition and its impact on people’s health, it should provide subsidised cooking oil and pulses in addition to cheap food grains to improve diets with proteins and fats. This has already been ordered by the Supreme Court for drought-hit areas in the Swaraj Abhiyan case.

The state government should also start taking measures to help farmers produce food. It should ensure that distress sale amongst farmers stops by arranging for doorstep procurement of food grains, pulses and oil seeds at remunerative prices. Without such measures, food production is becoming a loss-making enterprise. Distress migration from our villages to other states and frustration amongst unemployed are becoming major problems.

The chief minister and her food and civil supplies minister should remember that the elections are over as is the time for short-term, populist, vote-catching packages. Instead, the government should back up its cheap rice schemes with a Food Security Act, which will ensure food grains, pulses and cooking oil at subsidised prices for all. It should also invest in agriculture and give legal guarantees of procurement at remunerative prices to farmers to ensure food production.