The brief 17 minute address of the Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the nation on June 30 announcing free rations for 80 crores of people till November this year under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana is certain to go down as the boldest move ever taken by any Government in modern history of India to admit and address the issues of hunger and mass poverty. Under this scheme, 5kg of rice or wheat per family and one kg of Pulse per month would be provided to an estimated 80 crores of people of the country’s estimated population of about 138 crores in 2020, that is , well over half of the people will get free rations. During implementation of the scheme this figure might as well reach 60% of the population. By any reckoning, this will be the largest food security scheme ever in the world . The catalyst for the decision is Pandemic and its adverse economic fall out which this decision has now recognized though it has been apparent from the very beginning of the announcement of Lock down on March 23 when businesses and small enterprises started closing their shops and factories.
This closure led to “migrant workers crisis” as the workers engaged in these businesses and their families lost their jobs and livelihoods and thus forced to return to their homes across the country by any means – very often on foot and many perished on the way . Roughly about 20 crores of people lost their jobs and livelihoods in the wake of the coronavirus Pandamic which is the main reason for slowdown of the economy estimated to shrink by about 5% in this year, the first time in post 1947 India.
Sad to say that famines ravaged India in modern period- from mid 18th century with cruel regularity . The British Rule began with 1770 famine in Bengal and ended with Bengal famine in 1943 – both caused by governance failure; and in between famines in other provinces such as Madras, Bombay ,United and Central Provinces were so recurring that the Famine Commission appointed in 1900 could not find any durable resolution to this crisis. And it continued well after Independence as the 1967 Bihar famine caused the state to seriously consider measures to raise productivity of agriculture and farmers incomes. To cut the long story short, the enactment of the National Food Security Act 2013 and the Targeted Public Distribution system designed to cover 75% of the rural and 50% of the urban population – roughly 2/3 of the population recognized for the first time the citizens “Right to food” and indirectly the fact of continuing mass hunger and extreme poverty. However poor implementation in field made it appear more like an intent and not a real answer to mass hunger.
In this background the decision of the Modi Government has far reaching implications as pointed out below:
First, its proper implementation would compel states to cooperate with the Center and go by the guidelines the centre might issue to monitor and evaluate the progress of the implementation. Second, this decision will entail strong and sustained efforts to procure foodgrains by the Food corporation of India with the active involvement of the state Governments and backed up by the Minimum Support Price Policy. It will thus give a big push to agriculture. Third, the other bold decision of the centre is “one India and one Ration card” scheme introduced recently to enable the migrant workers and their families to get food from the public distribution systems in any place of the country where they might be working at the moment. This would really benefit the migrant workers only when coordinated efforts of the states and the centre were made to make it a success. This may be a step to “one voter ID card for all elections to all legislative constituencies” regardless of the inclusion of a voter’s name in electoral rolls in the state of origin.
This will empower the migrant workers by making them “electors”, protect their legitimate rights as citizens and from harassments they face in some states for being ” outsiders” and even required to prove their “Indian citizenship”. Further, the migrant workers will be able to organise themselves into workers cooperatives or Self Help Groups and to gain access to the co-op banks and host of other schemes designed to provide them and their families some social security support. As of now the overwhelming majority of the migrant workers are engaged in the informal economy leading” a hand to mouth existence” with no hope for a better life .
The free rations is the first step to give them and the poor across the country some meaning to “the Right to life ” they enjoy under the Article 21 of the Constitution, give them some hope for a better future. For this alone this decision will be remembered as path breaking and in the true spirit of the Directive Principles of State Policy of the Constitution.