COVID-19 lockdown: Is universalising PDS the need of the hour?

In an emergency like the present, the state should ensure that the poor -- estimated to be around 20 lakh in Bengaluru -- have access to its public distribution system. Interestingly, the Food and Civil Supplies Department says there are only 16 lakh ration cards in the city. This, while there is enough to feed all for 15 months, say experts.

All hopes are pinned on the over 1000-plus fair price shops of the public distribution system (PDS) in the city to deliver on the central and state government’s promise of extra ration during the lockdown. There are over 16 lakh active ration cards in Bengaluru, according to the Food and Civil Supplies Department website.

The state government announced the doubling of rations for the next three months for existing card holders while the central government announced extra 5 kg of wheat or rice per person per month and an extra 1 kg of pulses under the PDS.

“Under PDS, 10 kg of rice and 4 kg of wheat would be provided to all the ration card holders in the first week of April and 1 kg of toor dhal would be provided in May (as promised by Nirmala Seetharaman),” said a note drawn up after a March 31 meeting called by Food and Civil Supplies. Besides the additional chief secretary of the government, It was also attended by the labour department secretary and two nodal officers of the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike.

But according to an activist present at this meeting, none of the concerns relating to the functioning of PDS was addressed.

For instance, although the state cabinet ordered that below poverty line (BPL) ration cards are not required for the poor to collect the food grain they are entitled to, Raghavendra, a social worker with Action Aid, said it was not so at the ground level. Mobile OTP verification method is still the preferred method for distribution, he noted.

“They believe the PDS works perfectly. If biometric verification like Aadhaar is not there, they will use mobile OTPs, but they don’t understand that technology has not reached all these people. There may be other issues as well, like they may have changed phone numbers or not have ration cards or identification at all,” said Raghavendra.

Vinay Sreenivasa said, “While cooked meals and food packets are required for the homeless and migrant workers, dry ration kits are in demand for the labouring poor. Slum residents or those unorganised workers who have kitchens in their homes – such as construction workers living in tin-shed-like temporary shelters – would prefer to make and consume fresh food. They should be given doorstep delivery of ration.”

Identification, ideally, should not be a problem, explains Rajendran Narayanan, faculty at the Azim Premji University, Bengaluru, who is part of the Stranded Workers Action Network. Since March 17, this group of volunteers attended to over 9000 calls from across the country and have helped provide cash and ration to stranded workers by pairing them up with local organisations through their network. “Biometric identification is anyway touch-based, and would spread the virus. They can simply note down the details on paper,” said he.

Rajendran, however, believes there should be universal distribution of rations.

Migrants from other states usually live in small shanties near construction sites. When they call the hunger helpline, they don’t get through due to either call volume or if it is a small group. Instead of doorstep delivery, they are advised to go to the nearest Indira Canteen but most don’t even know what ward or locality they are in, Rajendran pointed out.

Rajendran explained, “There are 75 million tonnes of food grains in the Food Corporation of India’s godowns and this exceeds the buffer stock situation, meaning, everyone can be fed without any problems for the next 15 months. The National Food Security ACT (NFSA) anyway covers 67% of the country. Hike that to 80-85% and decentralise the distribution as much as possible. The beauty of it is that it will be self-selective. You and I, and the other 15% won’t stand in lines for ration.”

As his group is part of the National Right to Food Campaign and National Right to Work Campaign in other states, he has been receiving distress calls from families of migrant workers. “Two days ago, we had a call from a migrant, a mother who hails from Jharkhand. She wept that she couldn’t feed her child and also hadn’t eaten herself. She was unable to go out and buy milk for the child. In another call, a migrant worker from Bihar called but was unable to tell us his locality,” he said.

According to him, the chief problems so far — lack of enough feeding centres and in identifying and supplying ration to affected individuals —  can be easily solved with mass campaigns to create awareness.

“Ration and food distribution should not be restricted only to Indira Canteens and ration shops, as this can limit their reach and also create overcrowding. All schools, anganwadi centers and other such public spaces should be opened up for ration distribution and if all local municipal councillors etc., create a mass campaign with announcements in multiple languages, then everyone can be provided for,” he emphasised.

Besides food, the urban poor and especially migrants, a majority of whom haven’t been paid, also require some cash to buy medicines and recharge their prepaid phones. They also need to be supplied with sanitary and hygiene supplies like soap etc, he said.

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