The case of the missing pulses: How Urad Dhal disappeared from Chennai ration shops

Its inclusion in PDS supplies had made the nutritious and protein-rich Urad Dhal easily accessible to the urban poor. Its withdrawal over the last year has meant a forced change of food habits among many. Is the National Food Security Act to blame?

Amidst all the political and other developments in the state, one thing that went largely unnoticed was the withdrawal of urad dhal from the Public Distribution System. While there has been no official gazette notification to this effect, it appears that the particular pulse has for a long time not been available for distribution.

Conversations with beneficiaries bring out the situation on the ground and the impact. Beneficiaries across Chennai have raised their voices on the non availability of not only urad dhal, but also sometimes sugar and other items as well.

In this context, it is important to understand the Public Distribution System (PDS). Dr Anuradha of M S Swaminathan Research Foundation, who has done extensive research on the PDS, says “While PDS is available to all the citizens, there is only about 60 – 70% coverage which is need-based. There are different mechanisms that are adopted for distribution, and the shortage that people complain of is because distribution is done on first-come-first-served basis, instead of need-based.

The PDS system in Tamil Nadu

In Tamil Nadu, dhal (pulses), palm oil, spices and fortified wheat are completely state-subsidised. In fact, urad dhal was first brought under the PDS net when its price shot up and was at an all time peak; its inclusion in PDS supplies was thus commended as an useful intervention.

This led to a change in consumption pattern of pulses in rural Tamil Nadu as well, says Dr Anuradha. With free rice being already available, addition of urad dhal made the preparation of idli batter easier , which led to a change in the breakfast pattern of several households.

Meanwhile, Tamil Nadu, one of the few states which was resistant to implementing the National Food Security Act (NFSA), was forced to fall in line from November 1, 2016. The state government really had no choice, as the Centre made it clear that in the event of non-implementation, about 1.26 lakh tons of rice meant for Above Poverty Line households would be provided to the state at Rs 22.5 per kg, instead of Rs 8.3 per kg.

NFSA implementation in Tamil Nadu

There was a reason for Tamil Nadu’s initial unwillingness to implement the NFSA. The state government implements universal PDS which means rice was distributed free of cost to all the card holders irrespective of their economic background, while the Centre’s guidelines restrict it to priority households. Moreover, the quantity of rice distributed per person is higher in TN PDS.

If the state were to follow the NFSA, it would mean that PDS coverage would have to be withdrawn from some and rice quantities reduced. This was perceived as an unpopular measure, in a state where distribution of rice and other freebies has become part and parcel of administration.

When the State Government finally gave in to the Centre’s pressure it decided to combine the essential provisions of the Act with the traditional practices of the state, says Dr Anuradha.

This meant that while the minimum entitlement would still stand at 12 kg per card per month, the ceiling on the quantity of rice to be provided would be removed. If a card has only one beneficiary, it will fetch 12 kg. If there are two beneficiaries, such a card will get 16 kg and for three, 20 kg. In respect of those cards having four or more beneficiaries, the entitlement of five kg per person (NFSA) will operate.

Consequently, for the existing card holders, a total of eight lakh additional tonnes of rice would be required annually, taking the total PDS requirement to 44 lakh tonnes, an additional outlay of at least Rs. 1,193 crore, in a state that has not seen any major investment or revenue increase in the past few years.

In early 2017 the price of urad dhal also came back to normal levels.  The TN Government seems to have used this opportunity to withdraw dhal from the PDS, a move that would surely help ease the financial burden on the state.

While the Government had its own rationale for the roll back, the consumers do feel the pinch  in their monthly budget, especially among the lower economic strata where the impact is felt the most. Urad dhal is a rich source of protein and an essential food to combat malnutrition. As that was withdrawn, card holders had to change their food habits.

“We are slowly replacing idly and dosa with upma as we cannot afford to buy Urad dhal which sells at Rs 100 per kilo in the retail market. In PDS shops, we used to get a kilo for Rs 30,” says Senthamarai P, a resident of Chetpet.

Meanwhile, a section of the cardholders seem happy that Toor dhal has been added into the commodity list in PDS shops. Till about a year ago, PDS shops in Tamil Nadu used to supply both Urad dhal and Toor dhal, but that had been stopped. Toor dhal was withdrawn first and then Urad.

“For two months now, ration shops have been supplying Toor (sambar) dhal again at Rs 30 per kilo. We request the civil supplies department to also add Urad dhal, so that the lower middle class and poor people also has access to that,” says S Soundari, a Ramapuram resident.

[Laasya Shekhar, Senior Reporter at Citizen Matters Chennai, also contributed to the story]

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