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With No Clarity on Number of Migrant Workers, Food Grain Distribution in a Mess

The Centre admitted that it did not have any data on migrants, but announced that 80 million workers who do not possess ration cards would receive free good grains and pulses.

New Delhi: On Thursday, the Centre announced that it is extending the timeline of distributing food grains under the Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan (ANBA) to migrant workers. States now have until August 31 to distribute the food grains they have already lifted. 

In May, finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman had announced that under the scheme, 80 million migrant workers who do not possess ration cards will be provided five kilograms of food grain (wheat or rice) and one kilogram of pulses (channa) per month during May and June. A total of 8 lakh metric tonnes (LMT) of food grains and 38,000 metric tonnes (MT) of pulses were to be distributed by the end of June. 

However, as per the Centre’s admission, the scheme hasn’t quite performed as promised as ‘the identification process of genuine beneficiaries took some time’. 

In fact, only 2.32 LMT food grains, or 29% of the 8 LMT that was supposed to be distributed, has actually been distributed by states as on July 9 – almost 10 days after the period in which they were to be distributed ended. States were only able to provide food grains to 22.4 million migrant workers for May and 22.5 million for June, well short of the 80 million target. States have lifted 6.39 LMT of food grains from the Food Corporation of India (FCI). 

Only 10,645 MT of the 38,000 MT of pulses that were to be distributed in May and June have been distributed, while almost 33,000 MT was lifted. 

The Centre has now said that the food grains and pulses that were to be distributed to the migrant worker in May and June can be distributed by August 31. “Distribution period of the balance of already lifted 6.39 LMT food grains with the states/UTs has been extended till 31st August 2020,” the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution (MCAFPD) said in a press release

It is important to note that on June 30, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi extended until November the provision of food grains to 800 million National Food Security Act (NFSA) beneficiaries, that did not include the extension of the ANBA. 

The key problem with the ANBA is identifying beneficiaries, as the Centre has now admitted. Sitharaman said in May that the scheme will cover 80 million migrant workers without clarifying how that figure was arrived at. 

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No clarity on how figure was reached

The clarification came on July 2 via an MCAFPD press release. It said, “Since, no data on actual/estimated number of migrants/stranded migrants across the country was available with the DoFPD, a liberal figure of 8 crore [80 million] migrant persons (10% of total 80 crore [800 million] NFSA population) was estimated.” 

So, the Centre said that at the time the scheme was envisaged, it did not possess data on actual or estimated number of migrant workers in the country. Therefore, it decided to calculate 10% of the population covered by the NFSA (800 million) and arrived at the ‘liberal figure’ of 80 million migrant workers who were to benefit under ANBA and an allocation of 8 LMT of food grains was made for May and June. 

The MCAFPD has not yet officially clarified on the rationale behind using the number of NFSA beneficiaries to estimate the number of migrant workers in the country. But, on the condition of anonymity, a senior official at the ministry said, “It might not be the best method to calculate the number of migrant workers. But what could we do? We didn’t have the data. We needed to make the allocation of food grain. We needed a number. We only had bad options in the absence of real data.” 

Migrant workers hold a bedsheet to protect themselves from the sun in Ghaziabad. Photo: PTI

Perhaps by July 2, the Centre got a sense of the soup it found itself in as food grains had only been distributed to 12% of the ‘estimated’ 80 million migrant workers after the end of the period they were supposed to be distributed in. 

In the July 2 press release, it insisted that the initial 80 million figure was ‘liberal’. “The initial estimate of 8 crore persons was liberal and in response to the situation as projected in the media. In fact, the scale of the problem as got highlighted was such that it required [a] compassionate and generous response from the Government so that no one was left out,” the Centre said. But, in the absence of data, it is virtually impossible to ascertain how many were left out. 

The Centre also hinted that it now believes that the 80 million figure may not have been the real number of migrant workers who needed assistance in May and June. “It needs to be understood that 8 crore [80 million] migrants should not be construed as the real target but an intended target to serve if it had existed. Moreover, it was always a dynamic number with the cross movement, reverse migration to home States/UT, and migration in transit,” the release said. 

‘Perplexed’

Nikhil Dey, co-founder of Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan and who has worked extensively on food security, finds the method adopted by the Centre to arrive at the number of migrant workers perplexing. “I don’t understand. Why don’t they have statistics? And why were these food grains not delivered even after allocations were made? Even though you know that people are in need of food and you have excess stock, you are not delivering,” he said. 

As Dey mentioned, there is no problem as far as availability of food grains is concerned. As per the July 9 press release of the MCAFPD, the FCI has a total of 812 LMT of food grains stocked in its food grains. This excludes food grains that have been procured but haven’t reached the godowns. 

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In fact, the stock of food grains currently held is almost double the buffer stock requirement as on July 1 and the highest stock maintained since 2005

States have lifted 80% of the food grain that had been allocated by the Centre for the ANBA. The final responsibility of distributing the food grains rests with the states. It remains unclear which states have failed to distribute food grains, to what extent and why, as the data has not been made available.