When the first case of COVID-19 in India was found in Thrissur on January 27, 2020, the gravity of the situation was yet to settle in. COVID-19 was a simple flu that started somewhere in faraway China and could be treated just like any other disease. Cut to 1.8 years later, the world is going through unemployment, COVID-19 related deaths and of course, the third wave of the pandemic. Amidst all that, one state in India that kept all its resident’s food secure was Kerala.
Well known throughout India for its efficient Public Distribution System (PDS), the government of Kerala, with the help of the Food and Civil Supplies department, started the distribution of food kits (Athijeevana kits) during the first lockdown period, in April. Coordinated by the SupplyCo (an execution arm of the Department of Food and Civil supplies which acts as a government intervention in retail markets to control the cost of essential commodities) and distributed through Fair Price Shops, these kits contained a total of 17 items, including sugar, tea powder, salt, green gram, Bengal Gram, dal, coconut oil, sunflower oil, whole-wheat flour, Rava, black gram, chilly powder, coriander powder, turmeric powder, fenugreek, mustard, and soap (1)(2). This kit was started as part of the Antyodaya Anna Yojana scheme and was distributed to all ration cardholders of the state, with the Antyodaya cardholders ( Yellow ration card) receiving the monthly kits first and the blue and white card holders receiving it later, towards the middle or end of the month. These kits were distributed apart from the usual rations of rice and wheat flour given according to the type of ration cardholder the person was. Let’s have a deeper look into the pros and cons of the scheme.
Th reach of the kits was massive; almost 47,000 kits were distributed on the day of commencement. A survey conducted by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy in 2020 showed that Kerala’s unemployment rate saw a massive jump to 26.5% in May 2020. This was higher than the national average of 23.5%. With unemployment being so deeply interconnected with food security, the chances of Kerala being in a state of food insecurity during COVID-19 was very high, if not for the Athijeevana kits. The 17 items in the kit, along with rations of rice and wheat flour, were enough to sustain a family, especially those who were below the poverty line, for a month or even more. This scheme was further extended to other groups, most importantly, the migrant population, or the guest workers. Special packages were launched for these workers since they were eligible under the “one nation one ration card” programme. Kerala became one of the first 12 states in India to bring the Interstate portability of ration cards into force. While initially the kits were distributed only from the ration shops where the family was registered, with the start of the second wave, the government has mandated that the kits can be distributed from any ration shop in the vicinity. The government took the scheme a step ahead when they introduced the special “Onam” kit which included sugar, coconut oil, green gram, Toor dal, tea, chilly powder, turmeric powder, salt, vermicelli, palada, raw rice, cashew nuts, cardamom, ghee, sarkara varatti, wheat flour and bath soap. A massive sum of Rs 4198.29 crore was spent on distributing food kits during COVID-19 (3).
Quality and quantity were some of the biggest issues that the public faced during the distribution of the kits. At various points during the last 1 year of giving out the food kits, several reports talking about the poor quality of the food items had emerged. The presence of physical contaminants like stones and sticks in items like rice and pulses were some complaints that have haunted the PDS system since time immemorial. The same was observed in the food kits as well. The Onam kit especially faced flak for the poor quality and quantity of items like jaggery and papadams. Another criticism received was on the timing of distribution. A delay has been noted several times in the distribution of the kits, which can be partially attributed to the fact that the Election Commission had ordered a halt to the distribution in April and May 2021 to abide by election rules(4).
While it’s foolish to say that the kit alone contributed to ensuring a food secure Kerala during COVID-19, we cannot deny the positive effects it had. That being said, the drawbacks of the scheme should not be left unexamined. The issue regarding the quality of the food items can be tackled only at the root i.e., at the supply chain level. The government should ensure that proper storage mechanisms are in place so that premium quality food items are being distributed to the public. Frequent quality checks, stringent audits, monitoring and evaluations are to be conducted in the various centres where the kits are being packed so that there are no discrepancies regarding the quality and quantity of the items. The Department of Food and Civil supplies has a major role to play here.
The National Food Security Act of 2013 clearly states that people, at all times, should get access to basic food for their active and healthy life. It is the duty of the government to take care of the food needs of its citizens and ensure that they have access to safe and nutritious foods at all times. While we can’t claim perfection, Kerala is certainly on its way to becoming a food secure state.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own.