Covid-19 crisis: Tweaked PDS, expanded MGNREGA, DBT key to ensuring food security

food security through PDS during covid-19 pandemic
More money in the hands of the vulnerable sections of the society is the key to ensuring food security amid the second wave of Covid-19.

By Amarnath Tripathi and Sucheta Sardar

Food security in the times of Covid-19 pandemic: Earlier this year, when almost the entire Europe was under the grip of the second wave of Covid-19, life was limping back to normalcy in India. Daily new cases in India fell to around 15,000 from the peak of about 1,00,000 witnessed in September 2020. Despite warnings from experts, the authorities were caught unawares by the second wave that hit the country with much more severity compared with the first wave. In a month, daily new cases crossed the 3.5 lakh cases mark. India saw an unprecedented health emergency because of a shortage in oxygen supply, hospitals beds, and medicines.

To control the surge of coronavirus cases, states brought in restrictions on movement by imposing either night/weekend curfews or lockdowns. Though all economic activities have not been shut down completely, migrant labourers started returning home again, fearing uncertainty. This will cause a major fall in both individual incomes and monthly household food consumption expenditure (MHFCE). Due to income losses in 2020-21, MHFCE fell by about 25% for many families, according to the National Institute of Agricultural Economics and Policy Research.

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Unemployment and food security crisis

Like in the previous year, unemployment rate has already started climbing – soared to 8% in April from 6.5% in March, according to data released by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy. The Union government extended the provision of 5 kilograms of free ration to millions of poor for the next two months under its Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana. Likewise, the Delhi government announced financial assistance of Rs 5,000 to each construction worker, auto-rickshaw and taxi drivers. However, such temporary initiatives will not make a significant difference in food insecurity.

Malnutrition status had already worsened in many states before the beginning of the Covid-19 outbreak. As per National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5) conducted in 2019, the number of stunting children had gone up in 13 states and children suffering from wasting had increased in 12 states out of 22 states and Union territories surveyed. The situation may deteriorate in future as food insecurity escalated in 2020-21 due to employment and income losses.

A survey conducted by Azim Premji University across 12 states in India found that 90% of surveyed households had suffered a fall in the food intake during the lockdown, compared with the pre-pandemic levels. Condition of 20% of these households did not improve even six months after the withdrawal of the lockdown. Overall, 60% of the respondents were in partial or no recovery stage six months after the lockdown was withdrawn. These losses were not reversed fully when the second wave hit the country. About 20% of the workers who lost their jobs during the lockdown last year were still unemployed in December 2020 as per the latest employment data.

Those who have returned to jobs are either getting reduced salaries or getting employed in the informal sector. Under these circumstances, the food insecurity that emerged here is likely to transform from temporary food insecurity to chronic food insecurity. The latter one has more serious consequences than the former. Chronic food insecurity causes poor physical and cognitive development which causes low productivity and hence low economic growth and rise in poverty. Consequently, the rise in poverty contributes to an increase in food insecurity and thus, an economy is caught into a vicious cycle of food insecurity. To prevent India from plunging into such a cycle, immediate action is required.

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Steps needed to ensure food security

Present food crisis originated in the production side as no decline in food production has been observed since last year. However, the food supply has been disrupted in India due to movement restrictions, which has led to an increase in food prices, reducing access to food. In India, the public distribution system (PDS) provides subsidised food to vulnerable people with a coverage of 60% of the country’s population. However, it failed to provide subsidized rations to migrant labourers during the lockdown imposed last year. This was because people are entitled to obtain subsidised foodgrains from designated fair price shops (located in their place of residence) only.

Right after realising this, the government boosted the implementation of the One Nation, One Ration Card (ONORC) scheme. This scheme, allowing beneficiaries to obtain subsidised foodgrains in any part of the country, was launched on a pilot basis in 2019. At present, 17 states have successfully implemented ONORC scheme. However, divisibility in entitlements is still not allowed. Therefore, it remains incapable to help the labourers who do not migrate with family or different individuals of the same household located in different parts of the country. Divisibility in entitlements will allow them to buy some portions of total PDS rations allocated to the household.

Millets in PDS mix

The inclusion of millets to the grains supplied under PDS would be another important initiative, which needs to be amplified. The National Food Security Act 2013 has allowed the inclusion of millets in PDS. Despite this, it has not picked up the pace except in a few states like Karnataka and Odisha. This initiative will provide threefold benefits.

One, millets are a rich source of both macro and micronutrients. Hence, making them available through the PDS will help address the problem of micronutrient deficiency among vulnerable sections of the population. Two, 40-50 million tonnes of rice and 30-40 million tonnes of wheat are generally procured each year in India to support distribution to foodgrain under PDS, whereas hardly one million tonnes of millets are procured.

If millets get included to foodgrain supplied under PDS, procurement of these staples will increase, which will further boost the income of farmers. Millets are generally grown in rainfed regions where out-migration due to distress is often seen, hence an increase in procurement of millets will provide income support to families of reverse migrants. Three, millets are climate-resilient crops that also require less water.

If the government starts procuring millets. It will encourage farmers to shift away from rice-wheat cropping patterns to millets. This will moreover help reduce the vulnerability of Indian agriculture to climate change and conserve water which is fast depleting in the country.

Along with the above PDS reforms, direct cash benefit transfer to the people, an extension of MGNREGA entitlement of 100 days employment and enhancing market vigilance to prevent black-marketing and hoarding would also help ensure food security. Direct cash benefit transfer will provide income support and help increase access to food by enhancing purchasing power. Paying capacity of the vulnerable people is low due to income and employment losses triggered by the pandemic.

If the number of days of employment is increased for MGNREGA from 100 days to 150 or 200 days, it will help supplement the family income of poor and vulnerable households. Another serious problem that has been observed across the country is an abrupt surge in prices of fruits and vegetables mainly due to black-marketing and hoarding. This causes a fall in consumption of these high-value food items that provide micronutrients. Therefore, enhancing vigil on black-marketing and hoarding will inhibit artificial price rise in fruits and vegetables.

(The authors teach economics at the School of Business Studies, Sharda University, Greater Noida.)