Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Tuesday extended until the end of November his government’s scheme to provide free food grains to 800 million poor in the country.
In his address to the nation, the prime minister also promised the roll-out of the ‘one nation, one ration card’ scheme, which has been in the works for some years now, to help migrant workers get access to free food grains anywhere in the country.
The Opposition, particularly Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, had demanded that the PM also speak on issues such as China allegedly occupying Indian territory and increasing fuel prices 22 times in the last three months. However, the PM steered clear of these subjects.
In his speech, which, at 17 minutes, was his shortest since March, the PM focused on announcing the extension of the Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana by five months, and also bemoaned the laxity being shown by people in following Covid-19-related precautions such as wearing masks during ‘Unlock 1’. He asked the local authorities to be stricter in enforcing such restrictions.
Modi noted that he was extending the food scheme because the festival season was around the corner when “requirements as well as expenditure increase”. He said the scheme would continue till the end of November, and specifically mentioned the Chhath Puja festival twice. Diwali is on November 14, and Chhath Puja, the biggest festival of Bihar, is on November 20. Bihar is scheduled to go to the polls before that.
Following the PM’s announcement, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said in Kolkata that her government was extending the free food grain schemes until June 2021.
The extension of 5 kg of free food grains to all eligible ration card beneficiaries, estimated to be around 800 million, for the next five months, will require almost 20 million tonnes (mt) of extra grains. This will be over and above the usual PDS (public distribution system) requirement of 53-54 mt under the Food Act.
Under the first phase of the Garib Kalyan Yojana, 12 mt of grains was allocated during April, May and June. In total, sources said, around 32 mt of extra grains had been allocated for distribution through the PDS free of cost this year as part of Covid-19 relief.
The central government is projected to incur an additional expenditure of around Rs 1.4 trillion because of the free food grains distribution in two phases. This will be over and above the 2020-21 food subsidy projection of Rs 2.52 trillion, which also includes Rs 1.36 trillion of additional loans from the National Small Savings Fund.
Critics said the government extending the free grain and pulses distribution schemes for the next five months was a grudging admission that despite all the talk of opening up, economic activity in the country was not going to come back on track very soon, and the distress situation would continue for a while.