The food security and nutritional status of the most vulnerable population groups is likely to deteriorate further due to the pandemic.
By Ashwajit Singh
Covid-19 and the ensuing global economic crisis have demonstrated that the world is unprepared for food security. The UN’s recent report ‘The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2020’ projected that the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) of Zero Hunger by 2030 will not be met. Closer home, while India’s public health challenge is by far the biggest in these times, the food insecurity hurdle has also been looming in the background, threatening to become much bigger.
To counter this, PM Narendra Modi announced the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana (PMGKAY) will be extended till November. Free grain is being distributed to ensure the poorest of the poor are not left hungry. This scheme was touted as a response against the pandemic and was supposed to cost Rs 1.7 lakh crore to the exchequer. Even though it is one of the biggest food security schemes in the world in terms of scale, a closer look needs to be paid to its implementation.
While the government has claimed that many states had requested the Centre for the scheme’s extension, data shows that 11 states have distributed less than 1% of the foodgrains they lifted from the reserves. Almost 8 lakh tonnes of foodgrains had been allocated for distribution under the scheme in March, but the states were able to distribute only 1.07 lakh tonnes of that till May. The delay has been attributed to supply chain disruptions; states like Goa and Telangana have claimed there is no one eligible to receive the foodgrains since migrant workers have moved out.
The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) states that the four pillars of food security are availability, access, stability and utilisation. While the government is ensuring availability, access to foodgrains and utilisation are the areas that need the government’s immediate attention.
Even though there have been vast improvements in the public distribution system, the government needs to keep improving its distribution mechanism and solutions to the existing gaps need to be found soon. The FAO recommends improved information systems and collaborating with the private sector to solve distribution problems. Inter-state collaboration and learning can be a viable solution in India’s case, too.
The food security and nutritional status of the most vulnerable population groups is likely to deteriorate further due to the pandemic. A disruption in accessing foodgrains might also mean that the gains India has had in its fight against malnutrition among vulnerable groups like women and children might be lost. Almost 194.4 million people in India are undernourished, according to the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2019 report by the FAO.
Nutrition-centric programmes like the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) and mid-day meals need to keep going strong even though Anganwadi Centres and schools—the respective nodal agencies for the schemes—might not open soon. States like Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Odisha have responded well even during lockdown times by providing dry ration, under these schemes, from door-to-door. Other states need to replicate this.
Direct cash transfers into the accounts of eligible beneficiaries have worked in states like Rajasthan to reduce stunting, wasting and underweight among children and can be launched at the national level. The lockdown made it difficult for the established government systems to function seamlessly. It was at such a time that the efficacy of cash transfers proved to be more operational.
Another solution is the One Nation, One Ration Card scheme, under which eligible beneficiaries would be able to avail their entitled foodgrains under the National Food Security Act (NFSA) from any Fair Price Shop in the country using the same ration card.
To not just deal with Covid-19, but to ensure its food security in the long-term, India would do well to expand its social protection measures to ensure the vulnerable are included in the food distribution system across all states. Another measure we need to take is to build resilience in the food system to protect it against unforeseen economic and health shocks. A vision is only as good as its implementation and monitoring—robust monitoring systems should also be designed to measure the impact of various initiatives around food security like ICDS and direct cash transfer to ensure that we continue to work towards zero hunger.
The author is MD, IPE Global, a development sector consulting company