Here is a sampling of recent headlines from India: “Manipur to go under complete lockdown for 14 days.” “Kashmir imposes lockdown in nine of 10 districts. Will Kerala go into complete lockdown again?” “West Bengal orders two-day lockdown every week.” “Madhya Pradesh government orders 10-day lockdown in Bhopal.”
Although the country is ostensibly in unlock mode, relative to the complete bar on movement that was in place for much of April and May, large swathes of India continue to go back into lockdown in the hopes of preventing further spread of Covid-19, with well over 1 million total cases so far.
Anticipating the likelihood of further sporadic shutdowns, and the fact that the economy will be struggling to operate at full capacity as a result, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in June that the free food-grain scheme aimed at helping poor households handle the lockdown would be extended until November.
While that announcement was welcome, the return of lockdowns across the country – and the holes in relief packages – means that the extended scheme does not cover tens of millions of India’s neediest.
The government recognised this mid-way through the national lockdown. As a result, it announced that under the Atmanirbhar Bharat scheme, rations would also be provided to the millions of people who are not included in the Public Distribution System, whether because of errors or because their ration cards were issued by a different state from the one in which they are living.
That was an important intervention, though many states failed to actually implement it.
Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, for example, collected nearly all the grain allocated to them but distributed just 2%. Some states pointed to implementation problems in offering food grain to those not on the system, though others – like Rajasthan, which updated its approach based on feedback from the ground – were not held back by such institutional weaknesses.
For those states that hadn’t distributed the grain, the Centre has given them until August 31 to make up for lost time. But there has been no move to extend this scheme, and the states that had successfully distributed the grain have had to stop.
As a result, phone surveys of migrants found that in April, “half of the respondents reported recent food insecurity (eating less than normal). In more recent rounds of surveys in June and July, this share increased to two-thirds”.
What is worse, the government does not seem fully aware of what it has done. Information and Broadcasting Minister Prakash Javadekar, speaking after a Cabinet meeting on July 8, told the press that “migrant labourers” who were “included at a later stage... will also continue to get” rations. Yet the Food Ministry later contradicted him.
Experts and activists have long called for the government, in a moment like this, to put aside fears that food will leak and instead offer rations to all those who present themselves at Public Distribution Scheme shops.
With all parts of India unlikely to be lockdown-free any time soon and with the economy continuing to crater, this is the time for the Centre to announce that it will be extending the Atmanirbhar Bharat foodgrain scheme to those not on PDS lists at least for as long as the other foodgrain scheme is on, until the end of November.