The Right to Food Campaign on Friday urged the Narendra Modi government to universalise the Public Distribution System to avoid hunger and starvation amid the coronavirus-induced lockdown of the country.

In a letter to Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution Minister Ram Vilas Paswan, the activists said that the Public Distribution System should be universalised in such a manner that any person who approaches a fair price shop gets a package of grains, pulses and cooking oil to avoid shortages. “The national lockdown that was imposed has resulted in loss of livelihoods to millions of poor and working people across the country,” they said. “Supply chains were broken and access to markets has also become more difficult.”

The Right to Food Campaign said Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s announcement of Rs 1.70 lakh crore relief package to provide direct cash transfers and ensure food security for certain sections of the society is “hugely inadequate” in responding to the need, adding that free grains and pulses have not reached most states yet.

“Of utmost concern is the fact that the free rations that have been announced are only for the 65% of population who already have ration cards under the National Food Security Act, thereby excluding a large number of people,” they added.

The activists pointed out that a large section of the vulnerable groups of the country do not have ration cards to avail the benefits of the relief measures. “As we have been pointing out time and again, it is only a universal system along with additional measures which will be able to reach the most vulnerable,” the statement said. “In the last few years, in every state, thousands of people who have been trying to get a ration card have been told that the ‘quotas’ for the state are exhausted.”

They urged the Centre to make provision of rations universal. “We therefore urge you to make the PDS entitlements for six months at least universal in coverage in the sense that no person who approaches a ration shop for free grains should be denied the same for lack of ration,” the statement said.

They said universal schemes also tend to have less leakages and minimal exclusions. “Universal PDS in states such as Tamil Nadu has resulted in the rich self-selecting themselves out of the system because the opportunity cost of standing in the line and the relatively inferior quality of grain are not worth their taking the benefits,” the statement added. “If everyone has access to the free rations, the possibility of selling the same grain in black is also reduced.”

In Delhi, the network said, the online application system put in place for free grains is “cumbersome and not workable”. They said the government must immediately ensure that the entitlements reach those in distress. “Based on this experience, we reiterate that what we need now is a mechanism where no person is rejected and is given ration without needing to apply for fresh cards,” the statement said. “Ration shopkeepers can put marks with indelible ink on people’s hands to prevent people from taking ration more than once.”

The activists further pointed out that India has 77 million tonnes of foodgrain stocks – thrice the buffer stock norms, adding that this will increase after procurement of Rabi crop is completed.
“As per the PIB release, only about 2 million tonnes have been released so far to the states to meet the requirements of the relief measures,” the network said. “It is therefore imminently possible to expand the PDS to cover every individual with 10 kg of grain. To this dal and cooking oil must also be added so that people can at least cook a basic meal. Urban areas would continue to require community kitchens/feeding centres to address the needs of the homeless and destitute populations.”

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