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Modi government is killing Vajpayee’s food security scheme

By phasing out the Antyodaya scheme, the government could deprive the poorest of poor of adequate food security.
Modi government is killing Vajpayee's food security scheme

Photo Credit: Mansi Thapliyal/Reuters
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The Narendra Modi government has issued an executive order that contravenes the National Food Security law passed by Parliament in 2013 and effectively phases out the Antyodaya food scheme launched by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government in 2000.

Issued on March 20 by the Department of Food and Public Distribution, the order recently came to the attention of Right to Food activists. They allege some of its provisions are illegal and could end up depriving lakhs of poor people of their legal entitlements of subsidised food rations.

“The PDS control order is overreaching the provisions of the National Food Security Act which has been legislated by Parliament,” said Biraj Patnaik, the advisor to the Supreme Court on food security matters. “Some of its sections are illegal and will not stand scrutiny of the Supreme Court.”

“I am particularly agitated about the phasing out of the Antyodaya scheme,” said Jean Drèze, economist and activist. “Firstly, it is illegal since Supreme Court orders make the scheme mandatory for some social groups. The scheme covers 20 million people. It provides a good means to reach the poorest of the poor. By phasing it out, the government is giving a clear message: the poor should help themselves.”

Here are excerpts of the controversial provisions:

Citizens vs Residents

4. (2) The State Government shall issue a ration card only to a citizen ofIndia who is resident of that State and who fulfills the conditions for getting a ration card as may be prescribed by the State Government.

The order limits the distribution of food ration cards to “citizens” of India as against “residents” as provided under the National Food Security Act. The only exception allowed is on “humanitarian” grounds to those who have been granted the status of refugees by the Central government. “This would result in nothing but the harassment of migrant workers especially Bengali-speaking migrants who face discrimination on charges of being Bangladeshis,” said Patnaik.

Making Aadhaar mandatory

4. (9) The form referred to in sub-clause (7) may include requisite details including Aadhaar number, bank account details, and mobile telephone number.

The order makes the Aadhaar number mandatory for those applying for ration cards despite clear orders by the Supreme Court striking down the mandatory use of the 12-digit unique identification number in government schemes.

Freezing coverage

3. (6) For the purpose of allocation of subsidised foodgrains under Targeted Public Distribution System by the Central Government, there shall be no increase in the State-wise number of persons covered under Targeted Public Distribution System till the data from the next population Census, after the commencement of this Order, becomes available.

The order freezes the coverage under the National Food Security Act until the next census by disallowing provisional census data to be used for updating the number of beneficiaries. This means a new born child will have to wait until the next census to become eligible for food subsidies by the central government. If a state government wishes to extend the coverage to new born children, they would have to do so at their own expense.

The end of Antyodaya

3. (3) …Provided that when an Antyodaya household becomes ineligible on account of migration outside the State, improvement in social or economic status, death, etc., no new Antyodaya household shall be identified in that State and the total number of Antyodaya households shall be reduced to that extent.

In what might be politically the most significant change, new cards can no longer be issued under the Antyodaya Anna Yojana, which effectively means the scheme launched by the previous BJP government in December 2000 is being phased out. Inspired by Hindutva ideologue Deen Dayal Upadhyay’s concept of Anytodaya or uplifting the person at the last mile, the Antyodaya scheme began by providing ten million of the poorest and most vulnerable families 35 kilos of foodgrains each at Rs 3 per kilo of rice and Rs 2 per kilo of wheat.

Instead of entitlements per household, the National Food Security law provides individual entitlements of 5 kilos per person at the same prices. Individual entitlements are more rational and equitable since household sizes vary. But the Antyodaya category was retained in the National Food Security as social protection for small-sized poor households, particularly elderly couples and widows, who cannot afford to buy grains in the market. “A survey of ten states in 2013 showed that the scheme is functioning well,” said Drèze. “Households were getting 87% of their entitlements. Some states are using the scheme to provide edible oil and pulses to the poor.”

Said Patnaik, “It is shocking that the NDA government is undoing the legacy programme of the Vajpayee government and one that the then prime minister had nurtured over time because it was meant for the poorest of the poor.”

Phone calls made to the food minister Ram Vilas Paswan were not answered. Attempts to speak with the food secretary and joint secretary failed as their office staff claimed they were busy in meetings. Queries have been emailed to both the officials and the report will be updated in case they respond.

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