How Centre’s Free Ration Plan Helped 80 Cr People, Blunted Pandemic’s Bite

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Within 48 hours of announcing the three-week nationwide lockdown in March 2020, the union government rolled out the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana (PM-GKY) with priority to the welfare of the poor and their livelihood and Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana (PMGKAY) was a part of it that provided food security to at least 80 crore people during the pandemic.

The Covid-induced three-week complete lockdown, which was announced on March 24, 2020, had brought India to a standstill. This also meant no moving out for work. This could have been worse for the households being run by daily wagers, elderly people and the differently abled. The lockdown had posed several challenges before the common man but it could have been more challenging for the daily wagers and migrant workers with the everyday struggle for livelihood and survival. To reduce the burden on them, the union government extended a helping hand.

On March 26, 2020, the Centre announced a relief package, valued at Rs 2.76 lakh crore, under the PMGKY. The idea behind this was to protect the poor and to help them fight the battle against the novel coronavirus. The government reached out to the underprivileged with food and money to ensure they did not face difficulties in buying essential supplies and meeting essential needs.

Under the PMGKY package, free foodgrains for 80 crore people, free cooking gas for 8 crore families, and direct cash transfer to over 40 crore farmers, women, the elderly, the poor, and the needy were provided.

PM-GKAY, a part of PMGKY, almost doubled the quantity of monthly foodgrains being distributed normally to around 80 crore beneficiaries in the country covered under the National Food Security Act (NFSA). An additional quantity of 5 kg foodgrains per person per month, free of cost, over and above the normal NFSA entitlement of their Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY) or Priority Householders (PHH) ration cards, was provided.

This was for all the beneficiaries covered under the Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS).

The scheme was initially for three months until June 2020 but was extended for another five months, to November 2020. Later, during the second wave of the coronavirus infection, the scheme was again introduced for two months in May 2021. While it was supposed to end by June 2021, it was extended until November 2021 – for five months – and later to March 2022. Currently, it is in the fifth phase having a total allocation of 759.22 lakh tonnes. The scheme is now scheduled to end on March 31.

As per the government, this is the world’s largest food distribution programme with an outlay of “Rs 2.68 lakh crore reaching out to 80 crore beneficiaries for 19 months”. In Uttar Pradesh alone, about 14.72 crore NFSA beneficiaries are covered under the scheme.

While the number may look big, a large number of migrants were not able to get the benefit of the food distribution programme as they were non-cardholders – neither beneficiaries of the NFSA nor had a ration card in the state they were stationed in. For such migrants, as part of the government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic, finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman on May 14, 2020, announced free foodgrains for two months. This scheme, under the Aatmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyaan, was for at least eight crore migrant workers, amounting to an expenditure of Rs 3,500 crore by the Centre.

Thursday midnight marks the second year of the lockdown announcement and, since then, India has battled three waves of the virus. The country’s total tally of Covid-19 cases has now reached 4.30 crore while the vaccination coverage has exceeded 182.23 crore. More than 5.16 lakh people have died due to the infection.

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