Governance

Old data kept those in need away from PDS amid COVID-19 lockdown: Report

More than 100 organisations carrying our food relief efforts need financial support, faced challenges in feeding the poor

 
By Rajeev Khanna
Last Updated: Monday 29 June 2020
Migrant workers — who largely remain excluded from the PDS — were covered by more than 63 per cent of the relief efforts. Photo: Vikas Choudhary

Outdated data and other lacunae kept many from benefitting from the public distribution system (PDS) during the countrywide lockdown to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19), a recent report claimed.

Large exclusion errors left out eligible people and those in need of subsidised food grains, according to the report on findings of a May 7-14 survey of more than 100 organisations targeting food scarcity.

 

According to the report:

More than 75 per cent respondents reported daily wage workers were part of the populations they provide food to.

“It is thus evident that the demand (or rather the scarcity) of food is closely tied to the large negative income shock they faced during the lockdown.”

The report described the efforts of the organisations, surveyed by Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad researchers, and challenges they faced feeding the poor. The survey covered Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Delhi (National Capital Region), Gujarat, Haryana, Jammu and Kashmir, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Kerala, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Punjab, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and West Bengal.

Organisations and individuals called PDS provisions insufficient. Almost half the respondents said only a few could access their ration entitlements.

About a fifth said there were large shortages of essentials and supplies were late; more than 14 per cent respondents flagged the poor quality of PDS shop supplies.

Some food items were reported to be inedible. There were also reports of marginalised communities being given incorrect quantities from ration shops, researchers said.

PDS eligibility 

All states needed to formulate eligibility criteria for ration cards and identify those who meet them, with the implementation of the National Food Security Act (NFSA) in 2013. But these criteria were opaque and remained unclear, according to the report.

“In the move from the targeted PDS to NFSA, several states relied on data from previous surveys, including the Socio-economic Caste Census, 2011 and the 2011 Census to identify eligible households,” the report said.

Some 100 million individuals were excluded, researchers said, quoting estimates by economists Jean Dreze and Reetika Khera.

Newly married women and children born after the survey period, in particular, were excluded. Family members living separately were also possibly affected.

It was pointed out that migrant workers — who largely remain excluded from the PDS as they do not have valid ration cards — were covered by more than 63 per cent relief efforts. A majority of them were from Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal.

The Union government asked states and Union territories to begin national portability transactions in June 2020 to implement ‘One Nation One Ration Card’ by March 2021.

“States, however, may not be prepared to implement this immediately without a digitised beneficiary database and provisions for identity verification,” the report said.

Stranded migrant workers can take advantage of the scheme only if their applications for ration cards were processed and approved promptly, according to the report.

Lack of clarity 

This unpreparedness of the PDS drove the organisations and groups surveyed to step up efforts. Immediate assistance — monetary aid, supplies and other administrative support — from governments was essential, respondents said.

In the absence of adequate support and collaboration from government and local administrative bodies, many initiatives were forced to stop food relief. Among those who planned to stop within a month, 45 per cent said they expected the government to intervene.

Around 803 million beneficiaries under NFSA were to be provided with an additional five kilogramme grain and one kg pulses free of cost for April, May and June, the report said, citing a March 26 announcement by the Centre.

While this was a welcome move, the scheme aimed to benefit only those who had valid ration cards. Apart from this, some states (Delhi, Uttar Pradesh etc) announced food relief packages that covered those outside of the PDS.

“The lack of clarity in these schemes, however, may prohibit intended beneficiaries from accessing (them),” the report said.

Survey respondents also stressed on the need to universalise ration to improve accessibility and address shortages and quality issues.

Financial help 

Respondents urgently sought funds from governments, corporations and private organisations as they developed networks and unique outreach strategies. They also requested that buffer stocks with the Food Corporation of India be released.

Large pockets across the country did not receive any support yet, potentially turning them into hunger hotspots, non-profits said.

“The lockdown and associated issues such as hunger and loss of income have disproportionately affected groups of people and exacerbated pre-existing concerns of vulnerabilities and social exclusion,” the report said.

Almost a quarter of the respondents surveyed operated in areas from which they received distress calls related to hunger, indicating civil society bodies were responding to calls for action and the public had fallen back on them to take the initiative.

Several organisations said they were involved in activities ranging from childcare and education to microfinance and sustainable development prior to the lockdown.

When the situation called for their active participation in hunger relief efforts, however, they changed track.

More than 56 per cent of the surveyed respondents said they had a prior history of working with the households they served. Such initiatives, thus, appeared to be building on existing networks to expand outreach.

The report team was led by Ankur Sarin along with research associates Bianca Shah, Ishu Gupta, Karan Singhal, Shraddha Upadhyay and intern Vaidehi Parameswaran. It included responses from individuals and organisations that facilitated the distribution of food and raw materials to those who face acute shortages in different parts of the country.

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