Have you ever closely watched ants foraging for food in the kitchen with remarkable ingenuity, teamwork and dedication? They meticulously gather food – crumbs and grains of sugar – to re-distribute to the entire colony. In addition, they store excess morsels to tide over future shortages. Bees are equally industrious. Why can’t humans learn from insects?

In theory, the National Food Security Act, passed in 2013, was designed on similar principles – to systematically procure and store seasonal harvests from farmers and guarantee re-distribution to households each month.

However, the final version of the law did not ensure universal coverage of all Indians nor did it guarantee a minimum support price to farmers for their crops. Instead, the legal guarantee extended to only 5 kg of foodgrains at subsidised prices to 75% of Indians in rural areas and 50% in urban areas.

Vast exclusions

In March 2020, to withstand the fury of the pandemic, the government announced the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana to provide an additional 5 kg of free foodgrain to the same 800 million Indians who already benefit from the food law. It has been extended till Diwali and is undoubtedly welcome. But it exacerbates rather than mitigates inequality. Millions of families without National Food Security Act ration cards have been left completely high and dry.

Typically, urban migrants do not carry or possess ration cards, which fuelled their desperation to leave the cities in which they were working when lockdown was announced last year. Even as India’s population is projected to grow to 1.3 billion in 2021, NFSA ration card lists have not been updated for the last decade.

Millions have not been included, especially children under the age of ten. Simple calculations show that currently 45% of India’s population is excluded from the National Food Security Act.

Estimated Population Excluded from NFSA Rations

Antyodaya Anna Yojana beneficiaries for poorest Indians Priority beneficiaries

Total National Food Security Act beneficiaries* Projected population (2021)** Population without NFSA ration cards (2021) Population without NFSA ration cards (%)
Bihar 11680 75588 87269 123083 35814 29
Haryana 998 11252 12252 29483 17231 58
Himachal Pradesh 727 2103 2744 7394 4650 63
Punjab 352 14727 14963 30339 15376 51
Uttarakhand 674 5376 5964 11399 5435 48
Chhattisgarh 1992 18278 2,02,73 29493 9220 31
Jharkhand 3635 22489 26153 38471 12318 32
Odisha 3812 28620 32328 45696 13368 29
Uttar Pradesh 13025 135088 147776 230907 83131 36
West Bengal 5487 54688 6,01,75 98125 37950 39
Goa 45 500 545 1559 1014 65
Gujarat 3670 31120 34802 69788 34986 50
Madhya Pradesh 5881 41129 47010 84516 37506 44
Maharashtra 10712 57168 67667 124437 56770 46
Rajasthan 2386 42044 44572 79281 34709 44
Andhra Pradesh 2475 24284 26758 5,27,87 26028 49
Telangana 1540 1,76,29 1,91,69 3,77,25 18556 49
Karnataka 4620 35643 40784 66845 26061 39
Kerala 2216 13156 15390 35489 20099 57
Tamil Nadu 6689 29594 36432 76402 39969 52
Arunachal Pradesh 150 694 844 1533 689 45
Assam 2808 22309 25117 35043 9926 28
Manipur 1767 1684 1860 3165 1305 41
Meghalaya 291 1854 2145 3288 1143 35
Mizoram 71 608 683 1216 533 44
Nagaland 158 910 1098 2192 1093 50
Sikkim 58 316 374 677 303 45
Tripura 475 1996 2469 4071 1602 39
Andaman and Nicobar Islands 13 47 60 400 340 85
Chandigarh 663 283 286 1208 922 76
Dadra and Nagar Haveli 20 182 202 608 406 67
Daman and Diu 4 183 68 469 401 86
Delhi 281 7042 7321 20571 13250 64
Jammu and Kashmir with Ladakh 900 5646 6635 13705 7070 52
Lakshadweep 4 18 22 67 45 67
Puducherry 83 550 631 1571 940 60
Total (All India)   110024   682859   792883   1363004   614666     45
Source: Author calculations. Note: *NFSA beneficiaries based on the government’s National Food Security portal. **Projected 2021 population is based on ‘Population Projections for India and the States 2011-2036 based on Census 2011, Report of the Technical Group on Population Projections’ of the National Commission of Population in the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, released in July 2020.

Currently, half the population in Gujarat, 49% in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, 48% in Uttarakhand, 39% in West Bengal and 36% in Uttar Pradesh have completely been left out of National Food Security Act lists. These families will neither benefit from the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana bonanza nor the hyped “One Nation One Ration” scheme.

Further, of the 800 million Indians currently eligible, only 793 million have actually been enrolled on the government’s portal. That is why, on June 2, the Central government urged states to give National Food Security Act ration cards to the most vulnerable people. Fourteen states have already completed 100% coverage of their quota. Simultaneously, exclusions due to schemes being linked to the Aadhaar biometric identity programme continue to be rampant.

The series of starvation deaths in the last five years are also testimony to the extent of exclusion faced by the most marginalised families. The majority of these deaths have occurred in Dalit, Adivasi and Muslim households. None of these deaths are likely to have occurred if the families had ration cards.

Pandemic of hunger

To make matters worse, this year, 97% of Indian families have suffered a decline in their income. Unemployment is at the highest level in three decades. The Indian economy contracted by 7.3% in 2020-’21. Two hundred and thirty million Indians are estimated to have fallen into poverty. Several surveys indicate that due to the pandemic not only are Indians earning less, they are also eating less and skipping meals.

In such a cataclysmic period, rather than exporting foodgrain, shouldn’t it be imperative on the government to first address hunger within India?

Especially in times of mass impoverishment, providing universal public goods is considered to be an effective strategy to prevent exclusion. That is because the wealthier households in the programmes, with their greater political clout, are able to ensure better accountability and quality of services. On the other hand, targeted systems are invariably more vulnerable to elite capture to the exclusion of poor households.

The near-universal public distribution system in Tamil Nadu, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh and other states has proved to be highly effective. However, state government budgets remain severely constrained. To expand coverage, they need to procure foodgrain from Food Corporation of India reserves at near-market rates, rather than subsidised prices.

Despite the nationwide farmer protests against the new farm laws, this has also been a year of record harvests. India’s foodgrains production in 2020-’21 crop year, is expected to be an unprecedented 305 million tonnes. This is after four consecutive bumper harvests. In May, Food Corporation of India granaries were overflowing with a record 100 million tonnes of foodgrain. There is more than enough grain to not only support the extended Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana, but also to universalise the Public Distribution System for all Indians, except income taxpayers.

Source: Based on FCI data on stocks in Central Pool for the years 2005-2021 *Converted Paddy is Custom Milled Rice that can be derived with an out-turn ratio of 67% from unmilled paddy as the norm specified in the FCI monthly Foodgrain Bulletins. The data on paddy procured has not been made available on the FCI website before 2013.

Earlier this month, the Delhi government, in compliance with Supreme Court orders, began distribution of foodgrains in schools to families without ration cards. But nearly every day, stocks have fallen short as large crowds have gathered to receive food.

Social crises are periods of rapid change that typically expand the “Overton window” of acceptable public policies. Previously unthinkable radical options suddenly become not only acceptable, but also necessary for survival.

For instance, after severe criticism, the Central government has finally assumed responsibility for the procurement of majority vaccines. Similarly, the time has come for the Centre to guarantee subsidised foodgrains to nearly every Indian.

The human population has been brought to its knees by a microscopic virus. So, now may also be the best time to humbly learn from social insects – to equitably feed all Indians.

Swati Narayan is a Postdoctoral Associate at the National Institute of Advanced Studies.