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Why is There a Political Slugfest Over Extension of Free Ration Scheme?

Jairam Ramesh has pointed out that the "PMGKAY is nothing but the NFSA that already covered 80 crore Indians".

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India
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Prime Minister Narendra Modi's announcement last week that the Centre would continue to provide free food grains to beneficiaries under the National Food Security Act (NFSA), 2013 for the next five years has drawn sharp reactions from the Opposition parties.

The PM Garib Kalyan Ann Yojana (PMGKAY) scheme – which was launched in April 2020 in the wake of the pandemic – was scheduled to end this December.

However, addressing election rallies in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh over the weekend, Modi said that it was his resolve to extend it to "ensure that no one in the country goes hungry.“

“I have seen poverty…. This is Modi’s resolve. We will extend the scheme for five more years. This is Modi’s guarantee. The poor will continue to get free ration. Every poor mother and sister know that when Modi gives a guarantee, he has made a resolve to fulfill that guarantee.”
Prime Minister in Chhattisgarh on Saturday, 4 November

He repeated the announcement in Madhya Pradesh's Seoni on Sunday, 5 November.

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'Indication of High Level of Economic Distress'

In response to Modi's announcement, the Congress said that the decision to extend the free ration scheme was an indication of the “continuing high level of economic distress and growing inequalities.”

In a statement, senior Congress leader Jairam Ramesh said,

“The PM’s latest announcement is an indication of the continuing high level of economic distress and growing inequalities. For the vast majority of Indians, incomes have not grown in line with the sky-high prices of essential commodities.”

Reminding Modi that the NFSA was passed by Parliament in 2013 during the UPA government, the Congress leader pointed out that the "PMGKAY is nothing but the NFSA that already covered 80 crore Indians".

“The Prime Minister has announced that the PMGKAY will be extended by another five years. It bears to recall that as Gujarat CM, he had consistently opposed the NFSA passed by Parliament in September 2013,” he wrote.

Another Opposition party, the Trinamool Congress (TMC), also wrote to the Election Commission, questioning the timing of the announcement.

“The timing and stage of the announcement – at a BJP poll rally – clearly shows that it is an attempt by the party in power to influence the electorate ahead of the elections and to defeat the idea of a level-playing field,” the party said. Five states, including Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, are slated for state Assembly elections – the results of which will be declared on 3 December, Sunday.

Rajya Sabha MP Kapil Sibal on Monday, 6 November took a swipe at Modi's announcement, saying this was needed even after "10 years of Achche Din".

In a post on X (formerly Twitter), Sibal said, "Global Hunger Index, India ranked 111 out of 125 countries (October 13, 2023). India rejects ranking. Now PM: Extends PMGKA Yojana for another 5 years so that 'people don't go to sleep hungry'. This: After 10 years of 'Acchhe Din'?"

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'Handing Out Ration An Instance of Freebie Culture'

The Centre introduced the PMGKAY in April 2020 to provide an additional 5 kg of free food grains to every ration cardholder, in addition to the entitlement of 5 kg of subsidised foodgrains under the NFSA.

However, in December 2022, the government decided to discontinue the PMGKAY, saying that the economic situation had improved.

In January 2023, to counterbalance the termination of PMGKAY, the government announced free ration to 81.35 crore people under the NFSA for one year. After the termination of PMGKAY, the Congress asked the PM to use the money it would save to strengthen food security for the poorest.

Running the PMGKAY in the current form for the next five years could necessitate a Budget outlay of Rs 11 lakh crore during the period in nominal terms, a government official said on Monday, 6 November.

Aunil Ray, an economist and former director of the AN Sinha Institute, Patna, said the free rations scheme is an instance of the freebie culture in politics.

"Free ration much like free mobile phones/ laptops/ bicycles have nothing to do with long-term development goals. The PM's free rations scheme provides a temporary relief instead of making people self-reliant. These are short-term benefits offered as the government is unable to ensure real development by providing income and employment opportunities to them,” he told The Quint.

"Genuine examples of welfare schemes are free healthcare and education, and the rural job guarantee scheme MGNREGA," he added.

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Topics:  PM Narendra Modi 

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