Food support confined to rice, cash support inadequate: Study

Alarmed by the potential negative consequences of COVID-19 on the poor, the Karnataka government sought to provide support in the form of ration and cash to women, farmers and pensioners. Did the rural poor receive food and cash support?

The study by the Centre for Decentralisation and Development, Institute for Social and Economic Change, Bengaluru, of rural households from Belagavi, Chamarajanagar, Dakshina Kannada, Davangere, and Kalaburagi districts through telephone survey in April-May 2020 shows that food support was confined mainly to rice and wheat and cash support was inadequate.

Soon after the lockdown, two-month ration, notably rice and wheat, was provided to 1.27 crore BPL cardholders at one go to avoid repeated visits to ration and other shops. Our data show that over 95% and 67% of eligible households obtained rice and wheat, respectively, from ration shops.

The government’s prompt action and ration provision as per eligibility norms has come in for praise from the rural poor. Many said that they would otherwise have gone hungry, although some felt that the quality of rice was inferior. Some said with pride that social distancing norms at ration shops were maintained despite long queues.

Pulses were provided to only 6% of the households including those with children receiving it from school, which was widely protested. A tribal from Chamarajanagar remarked that “along with rice and wheat, pulses and oil should have been provided.” Many households complained that pulse consumption by purchase was difficult due to lack of work and income.

Under Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana (PMGKY), ₹750 was provided to 29.23 lakh Ujjwala LPG gas subscribers. But, only 11.2% of the total households received the benefit as the rest did not have Ujjwala gas connection. Milk was rarely distributed in rural Karnataka.

Bank account issues

Monthly cash support of ₹500 for three months was announced to woman Jan Dhan account holders under PMGKY, and ₹234.74 crore was released to 47,15,362 account holders. But, only 21% of the total households studied confirmed cash transfer. 85% of those who did not not receive it stated that they did not have accounts, while 15% said money was not credited. According to the World Bank Global Findex, 80% of Indian adults had a bank account in 2018; this then implies that less proportion of women have Jan Dhan membership and focusing on women to provide cash support is not a good policy.

Cash support of ₹2,000 to farmers amounting to ₹1,011 crore to 50.57 lakh farmers in Karnataka under Pradhan Mantri Samman Yojana was announced. Cash transfer was confirmed by 43% farmers. Others did not receive due to non-possession of Kisan credit cards and non-registration of inherited land in their name. ₹1,296.63 crore was allocated for the release of two-month pension to 62.28 lakh pensioners (elderly, physically challenged, destitute widows, single women, and transgenders) in one go. However, only 39.7% of pensioners received two-month pension. Of the remaining, 51% received one-month pension, while 31% did not receive at all. Cash support to construction workers reached only 1.6% (all of them from Dakshina Kannada) as most of the households with construction workers did not have registration – which is mandatory to receive the benefit.

Public policies of providing food and cash support need to be therefore reformed as COVID-19 will continue to unleash despair upon the poor. First, food support should be qualitative and well-balanced (consisting of rice, wheat, pulses, and oil). Second, as the policy of targeting women Jan Dhan account holders did not work, cash transfer to all Jan Dhan account holders is a better policy option. These reforms have greater potential to help the poor during the pandemic.

(The authors are Professor and Assistant Professor, respectively, at the Centre for Decentralisation and Development, Institute for Social and Economic Change, Bengaluru. This is the third and final part of the series.)

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