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Three more months of free foodgrains for poor: economics & politics of PM-GKAY

Ahead of Assembly elections in Gujarat and Himachal, the scheme to provide 5 kg of grains per person per month to eligible beneficiaries of the National Food Security Act, first announced at the beginning of the pandemic, has received its seventh extension.

In the six phases of the scheme from its inception in early 2020 up to July 2022, the government has allocated 998 lakh metric tonnes (LMT) of foodgrains — including 635.1 LMT of rice and 362.86 LMT of wheat — of which 826 LMT has been lifted by states and Union Territories. (Express photo by Nirmal Harindran)

The government on Wednesday (September 28) announced an extension of the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana (PM-GKAY) for another three months until December 2022. The decision was taken in the meeting of the Union Cabinet chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Union Minister for Information and Broadcasting Anurag Thakur told reporters that the Cabinet had approved the seventh phase of PM-GKAY for three months (October-December 2022).

Thakur said that a total of Rs 3.45 lakh crore had been spent on the six phases of PM-GKAY so far, and another Rs 44,762 crore will be spent on the seventh phase. A total 122 lakh metric tonnes of foodgrains will be distributed to over 80 crore beneficiaries across the country, he said.

What is the PM-GKAY?

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The PM-GKAY is a scheme under which the government provides free foodgrains — 5 kg per person per month — to eligible beneficiaries of the National Food Security Act (NFSA), 2013. This is over and above their monthly entitlement under the NFSA.

The scheme was started as one of the components of the government’s Rs 1.7 lakh crore Covid relief package announced by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman on March 26, 2020 — two days after the country went into national lockdown following the outbreak.

How did the scheme keep getting extended?

Initially, the scheme was only for three months — April to June 2020. However, on July 8, 2020, it was extended for another five months from July to November 2020. After the devastating second wave of the Covid-19 hit the country in March-April 2021, the government restarted the PM-GKAY. The third phase of the scheme was approved for two months — May and June 2021.

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Subsequently, the government extended the scheme for another five months — from July to November 2021. This fourth phase of PM-GKAY was supposed to end in November in view of the ebbing of the second wave of Covid-19, but on November 24, 2021, the government decided to continue it till the end of March 2022. The decision to extend the scheme into a fifth phase was widely seen as a response to the Assembly elections in key states such as Uttar Pradesh and Punjab.

After the elections ended, however, the government announced another extension — on March 26 this year, the Union Cabinet chaired by Modi approved the sixth phase of PM-GKAY, until September.

How much grain has been disbursed so far?

In the six phases of the scheme from its inception in early 2020 up to July 2022, the government has allocated 998 lakh metric tonnes (LMT) of foodgrains — including 635.1 LMT of rice and 362.86 LMT of wheat — of which 826 LMT has been lifted by states and Union Territories.

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It is estimated that the government has spent around Rs 3.4 lakh crore on the implementation of all six phases of the PM-GKAY.

“The Government has spent approximately Rs. 2.60 Lakh Crore so far and another Rs. 80,000 Crore will be spent over the next 6 months till September 2022, taking the total expenditure under PM-GKAY to nearly Rs. 3.40 Lakh Crore,” an official statement issued after the Cabinet meeting of March 26 said.

What are NFSA beneficiaries entitled to?

There are two categories of beneficiary households under the NFSA — the Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY) households, and the Priority Households (PHs). Each AAY household is entitled to 35 kg of foodgrains every month irrespective of the number of members in the household. PHs are entitled to receive foodgrains according to the number of family members. Each member of a PH is entitled to receive 5 kg of foodgrains every month under the NFSA. So, the bigger a PH family, the greater is the quantity of foodgrains it gets.

At what rate are foodgrains provided under the NFSA?

NFSA beneficiaries are entitled to receive foodgrains at highly subsidised rates. Under the food law, rice is provided at Rs 3 per kg, wheat at Rs 2 per kg, and coarse grains at Re 1 per kg.

How many persons are covered under the NFSA?

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The NFSA, enacted by the UPA government in 2013, aims at ensuring “access to adequate quantity of quality food at affordable prices” to 50 per cent of the urban and 75 per cent of the rural population of the country. The overall national coverage of the NFSA is about 67.5 per cent.

Section 9 of the NFSA states that the number of persons to be covered in rural and urban areas of a state shall be calculated on the basis of population estimates as per the Census of which the relevant figures have been published.

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The latest published Census figures are from 2011, and based on that about 81.35 crore people can be covered by the NFSA. However, Food Ministry data show that of the accepted figure of 81.35 crore, 98.05 per cent, or 79.77 crore persons, had been identified until July 2022. Thus, even with the ceiling fixed at 81.35 crore, states can still identify and add about 1.58 crore people under the NFSA.

How is the PM-GKAY different from the NFSA?

The NFSA is a right-based scheme under a law of Parliament, while the PM-GKAY is a scheme announced by the executive as a top-up to the entitlements of beneficiaries covered under the NFSA.

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So, only those people who were already getting subsidised foodgrains can get free foodgrains under the PM-GKAY. The PM-GKAY provides additional benefits to NFSA beneficiaries, but does not cover additional beneficiaries beyond the accepted limit of 81.35 crore persons under the NFSA.

Has the free ration scheme benefited the BJP in the recent polls?

The scheme, which amplified the BJP’s message of welfare politics, is believed to have helped the party in state elections. This understanding is supported by the government’s decision to extend the scheme just ahead of the UP elections.

Across UP, Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and Prime Minister Narendra Modi were appreciated for the free ration scheme. “He has not left us starving during the pandemic”, was the most common refrain.

In Uttarakhand, BJP leaders said it was Prime Minister Modi’s welfare initiatives that helped the party overcome anti-incumbency.

So will the decision to extend the scheme help the BJP in the coming elections to the Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh Assemblies as well?

Ahead of a new round of important elections, welfare measures initiated by the central government are likely to be a talking point. In the assessment of the party, its Chief Ministers in the two states are not highly popular, and its trump card continues to be the PM.

According to party leaders, the BJP cannot afford a situation in which the PM or his party are seen to be against the so-called “freebies”, or “revdi”, as Modi has referred to them. “In the backdrop of the debate on the freebies, initiated by the Prime Minister himself, the BJP has to tread cautiously in its strategy for these elections,” a BJP leader said.

It has been pointed out, however, that the percentage of people covered under the NFSA in states like Gujarat and Himachal is lower than the national ratio. While the national population coverage is 67.5 per cent under NFSA, only 63.40 per cent of Gujarat’s 6.03 crore population is covered. The overall coverage under the food security law in Himachal is even lower — 53.69 per cent of the 68.57 lakh population.

First published on: 28-09-2022 at 05:21:59 pm
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