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Lucknow: The Uttar Pradesh government has decided to do away with the distribution of free wheat and rice under the National Food Security Act (NFSA) in a move that is expected to affect the pockets of at least 36 million ration card holders – or 150 million beneficiaries – in the most populous state of the country.
According to the state’s food and civil supplies department officials, ration card holders will now have to pay Rs 2 and Rs 3 per kilogram for wheat and rice, respectively, while taking the ration for July. The ration distribution for the month of July began only on August 25.
The free foodgrain distribution scheme was launched by the state government at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
So far, about 150 million people have benefitted from the scheme in UP. They had been getting free rations twice a month.
Suneel Kumar Singh, district supply officer, Lucknow, told The Wire over the phone that from August, the ration card holders must pay for foodgrains (wheat and rice). However, the government will continue to provide one litre of refined oil and one kilogram each of salt and gram (chana) free of cost, he said.
Of the 36 million ration card holders in the state, around 31.9 million beneficiaries fall under the ‘Patra Grihasti’ priority household (PHH) category, while four million beneficiaries fall under the ‘Antodaya’ category.
The ‘Antodaya’ ration card is issued to persons who do not have a stable income, or come under the “poorest of poor” households. PHH ration cards are issued to households, especially those in rural areas, that meet the eligibility criteria set by their state government.
In a press statement, Singh said that the ‘Antyodaya’ card holders will get a total of 35 kg of foodgrains, comprising 14 kg of wheat at Rs 2 per kg and 21 kg of rice at Rs 3 per kg, per card. The PHH ration card holders will get five kg of foodgrains, comprising two kg of wheat and three kg of rice for Rs 2 per kg and Rs 3 per kg, respectively.
The Wire spoke to some of the beneficiaries of the scheme who said that the withdrawal of the free foodgrain distribution will adversely impact millions of economically weaker families in the state, especially daily wage labourers.
Sushila, a daily wage worker from Bastauli village in UP, was stunned by the withdrawal of the free ration distribution. “I had expected that the government would continue the scheme at least till 2024,” she said. At a time when the price of vegetables is skyrocketing, free ration was a relief for them, she said.
“This decision would adversely hit the budget of daily wagers,” said Meera, a domestic worker. “We would spend the money saved by the free ration on the education of our children. Now our children’s education will suffer,” she added.
Ram Das, an electrician at a private guest house, said he had been out of work since the COVID-19 lockdown. However, he laments that after two years, he has to buy foodgrains again.
“Now managing the household will be difficult with the withdrawal of free food grains,” he added.
In a drought-like situation coupled with a worsening agrarian crisis, many social activists have criticised the government’s move to withdraw such an essential scheme.
“In such a situation, instead of adding more items to the ration, the government has hit 150 million marginalised people by withdrawing free ration,” says All India People’s Front’s Dinker Kapoor.
Farmer leader Mukut Singh also said that free rations were a relief for the people from the marginalised communities; however, the government hastily rolled them back.
“The government should have at least given some more time to them to stabilise their lives after a COVID-19 catastrophe,”said Singh. “This decision has added to the woes of the UP farmers whose crops were destroyed in some places due to floods, and in some other places, because of drought.”
The Yogi Adityanath government had been distributing free rations since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. The scheme has been rolled back with effect from July.
Earlier, the Adityanath government had decided to withdraw the free ration scheme at the end of 2021, but it extended the scheme till Holi. The government had also added oil, salt and pulses along with rice and wheat in the free ration list. In March, the government further extended the scheme for three months.