How Kerala is feeding its 3.48 crore residents, migrants amid the COVID-19 lockdown

Employees from Food and Civil Supply’s corporation Government of Kerala packing emergency essentials and groceries. Kerala’s near universal public-distribution system has shown itself to be crucial during the COVID-19 lockdown. ARUN CHANDRABOSE
26 April, 2020

Abdul Nasar, the proprietor of a fair-price shop in Mullurkara, a sleepy village in Kerala’s Thrissur district, has been unusually busy in recent days. The line of customers outside his shop has been lengthening daily as he has to divide his time between his shop as well as the neighbouring ration shop. On 13 April, vigilance officials had raided the neighbouring shop and found that it used to illegally sell grocery items that were not part of the state’s public-distribution system. It subsequently revoked the shop’s license. “With the other shop being attached to my shop, I am serving around two thousand and one hundred card holders in the panchayat now,” Nasar said.

Six ration shops cater to Mullurkara’s 5,000 card holders, with each shop handling between 700 and 1,100 members. There is a strong network of 14,189 fair price shops in the state with successful last-mile connectivity to households. The network has been crucial during the COVID-19 pandemic—Kerala appears to have been able ensure the smooth distribution of food, and also used the same network to distribute other emergency supplies. As reports of mass hunger and some suggesting a failing PDS system continue to emerge from other states, Kerala’s approach to food could offer lessons on feeding the nation’s vulnerable populations.

“We are taking care of all 87.28 lakh card holders in the state,” P Thilothaman, the state’s minister for food and civil supplies, told me. The government’s aim, Thilothaman said, was to reach out to everyone during the lockdown. “We decided to cover the entire non-priority sector and announced the special supply of 15 kilograms grains and three kilograms atta, because the usual ration supplied to them is inadequate,” he added.

While the efforts of Kerala’s health ministry in combating the pandemic have been widely recognised, Thilothaman’s team has been on an equally crucial role on the front lines against COVID-19. The well-oiled PDS network in the state has played a vital role in flattening the curve, and keeping Kerala hunger-free during the unprecedented national lockdown, imposed to combat the virus.

The distribution of special family kits is central to the emergency measures the state has taken. These kits include 17 additional items—such as soap, masala powder and salt—and are being distributed to all ration card holders over and above the foodgrain they are already receiving. “We have also distributed rice and family kits to 25,000 non-card holders, welfare organisations, orphanages, religious institutions like convents, with four people being counted as a family,” Thilothaman said.

The government claims to have completed the distribution of the 15 kilograms of rice and 3 kilograms of atta to nearly all forty-nine lakh non-priority ration card holders—those not from the poorest sections of government categorisation—in just a week, barring a few who opted out of it. Mullurkala stands as evidence that in places the distribution occurred even faster. “I started the distribution on 1 April and completed it in five days,” Nasar said.

Kerala’s public-distribution system categorises users under four different cards based on need. The most economically backward families carry the Antyodaya card—commonly called the yellow card. These families get 30 kilograms of rice and 5 kilograms of wheat per card, free of cost, every month. Nasar said he had already distributed family kits to yellow card holders, relatively a small number considering the state’s relatively high per capita income, 1.6 times more the Indian average in 2018–19.

The pink card holders are those that fall below the poverty line. Nasar said he had begun receiving family kits for pink card holders and said he would begin their distribution from 27 April. Even prior to the lockdown, pink card holders were getting four kilograms of rice and one kilogram of wheat per person every month, for two rupees per kilogram each.

Kit distribution to the other two types of card holders—blue card, or non-priority with subsidy, and white card, or non-priority non-subsidy—will follow soon, according to Nasar. Blue card holders will get two kilograms of rice per person, for four rupees per kilogram. Similarly, white card holders will get two kilograms of rice per person, at Rs 10.90 per kilogram. The government announced that those without ration cards can also collect rice, wheat and atta, from their nearest ration shops, with their Aadhar card and a self-declaration that they do not have ration-cards.

Another key demographic the Kerala government quickly adapted to feed is the state’s thirty-five lakh strong migrant workforce, who they call Athidhi Thozhilalikal—guest workers. The state is providing special packages to migrant workers stuck there due to the lockdown. According to Thilothaman, Kerala is among the 12 states that have begun the inter-state portability of ration cards. This means that ration cards issued in 11 other states—including West Bengal, Karnataka and Maharashtra—can be used in any of the ration shops in Kerala. Lakhs of migrant workers from these states work in Kerala and should now have access to food grain and other essentials.

One reason behind Kerala’s quick response to the current crisis could be that it has a near universal rationing system. Statutory universal rationing was developed in the state in the mid-1960s, when most other states had threadbare and disorganised public-distribution systems. Kerala’s system, however, was diluted in 1997 when the central government introduced the Targeted Public Distribution System. This system encouraged the provision of rations to only those who fell below the new poverty line as defined by the planning commission.

The move to introduce TPDS across India stemmed from the central government’s conviction that the earlier distribution system suffered from a perceived urban bias, negligible coverage in states with a high density of rural poor and the lack of transparent and accountable arrangements for delivery. This analysis was outlined in a research paper by Shruthi Cyriac, Vishishta Sam and Naomi Jacob, who were associated with the Centre for Public Policy Research, in Kochi. Subsequently, the TPDS was further extended in 2000 to include the Antyodaya Anna Scheme. This scheme further targeted ten million of the poorest families for welfare, out of the 65.2 million people then below the poverty line across the country.

In the rejig by the central government, the foodgrain allocation to Kerala through the TPDS dropped to a fraction of what it was earlier supplied. Previously, Kerala received 32 percent of its grain requirements from the centre. That is estimated to have fallen to only four percent of the state’s requirement, according to the research paper. The Kerala government identified 42 percent of households as BPL as per the State Official Poverty Line. In contrast, the Planning Commission had identified just 25 percent of households as BPL in the state. The state began providing BPL subsidies to these households paying for the remainder from the state’s own coffers. “Now, around 46 percent of Kerala’s population comes in the priority sector,” Thilothaman said. He added that the shortage of foodgrain for the non-priority sector has been a challenge for the government.

Thomas Isaac, Kerala’s finance minister, said that key to Kerala’s adoption of the universal rationing system was the fact that the state had always faced a chronic food-deficit. Kerala produced only 50 percent of the foodgrain it required. This was partially due to the fact that, in recent decades, paddy cultivation had further dwindled as the cultivation of cash crops expanded.

“There were severe supply constraints in the past and we ran out of food grains,” Isaac said. “Now the non-priority sector, nearly 54 percent of the state population, gets only a limited ration of two kilograms, which is nothing. In the time of pandemic, the food grains supply gets disrupted. Kerala, unlike other states, faces acute scarcity,” he said. Kerala’s requests to the central government in the past to sell them foodgrain at a subsidised rate were ignored, Isaac said. “The rice the central government sells us is priced very high, at Rs 22 per kilogram,” he told me. According to Isaac, buying foodgrains at a high price and selling it to households above the poverty line creates a heavy financial burden on the state. “Even for the additional foodgrain supplied to Kerala during the floods, the centre was demanding Rs 250 crore,” Isaac said.

Thilothaman, however, pointed out that state expenses on food must not be exaggerated to be shown as wasteful. Kerala’s monthly ration bill comes to Rs 80 crore. Of this, Rs 30 crore is a subsidy, while Rs 20 crore is spent on transportation and Rs 30 crore as commission to dealers. “Any additional lifting of rice from the Food Corporation of India costs us Rs 22 per kilogram. So, the 15 kilogram rice we supplied to the non-priority sector recently will cost us around Rs 130 crore,” Thilothaman added.

Alongside the state government’s distribution, the central government has also announced a temporary nationwide food-distribution scheme, which will be distributed in Kerala over and above the ongoing schemes. On 26 March, Nirmala Sitharaman, the union finance minister, announced that five kilograms of rice or wheat and one kilogram of pulses per person would be distributed for three months. This would, however, be restricted to people from priority sectors, those carrying yellow and pink cards. While the pulses are yet to be delivered to Kerala, the supply of rice is already underway. “We have supplied it to all yellow card holders on 20 and 21 April. We are completing the supply to pink card holders by 26 April, with a staggered supply depending on the ending digit of the card number,” Nasar said.

Part of Kerala’s success in public distribution can also be attributed to the efficiency and size of its public-distribution infrastructure. The state government lifts its entire requirement of rice and wheat from FCI godowns. “FCI’s current stocks in Kerala will last for a year and half,” Monylal BS, the joint secretary of the ministry of food and civil supplies, said. “So, there is no supply constraint there. After lifting it from FCI, we adjust it when the centre gives us our allocation under the PM Garib Kalyan Ann Yojana,” he added. The PMGKAY is a scheme under which the finance ministry notified that 80 crore poorer citizens would get money and rations, for the next three months, from April to June.

SS Anidath, the assistant secretary at the Commissionerate of Civil Supplies, said the supply of pulses promised by the central government are yet to reach Kerala. “We have already struck a deal for its delivery through the Kochi International Container Transshipment Terminal,” he said. The supply, he said, is taken from the National Agricultural Cooperative Marketing Federation of India through Supplyco—Kerala State Civil Supplies Corporation. “We may start getting the delivery from 28 April,” he added.

Kerala’s public-distribution system is aided by an umbrella of several other chains of retail shops run by the government and the state cooperative sector that cover the length of the state. State government-owned Supplyco runs 1,589 Maveli Stores, which sell groceries and essentials. Supplyco, headquartered at Kochi, acts as the execution arm of the department of food and civil supplies, and ensures that the government can act quickly when there are spikes in prices.

“We run hyper markets, super markets and people’s bazaar under this chain,” Thilothaman said. “Now we are all set to start a massive suburban mall, a new format, at Piravom in Ernakulam district, jointly with the municipality. We are spending Rs 16 crore. We will start it as soon as we move over the pandemic,” he added. Supplyco also runs 95 medical outlets—called Sabari Medical stores—offering an average 15 percent discount on all medicines, with an additional 25 percent discount for BPL households. During festival seasons like Onam, Christmas and Ramzan, when prices of essential commodities and vegetables are highly volatile, it also organises festival markets across the state.

Kerala State Co-operative Consumers’ Federation, popularly known as ConsumerFed, has also been active in the retail market. The apex body of the consumer co-operatives in the state runs over two hundred super markets—called Triveni Supermarkets. A chain of Neethi Medical Stores, run by ConsumerFed, ensures medicines are made available to the consumer at a price 18 to 40 percent lower than their maximum retail price.

Amid the lockdown, ConsumerFed began the online sale of grocery kits in the first week of April. This started in Ernakulam district and quickly expanded to other districts. It also offered the option of ordering three kits of grocery items online from Triveni supermarkets using their home delivery mechanism.

Kerala’s near universal public-distribution system has shown itself to be crucial when normalcy is disrupted. Its ability to do this is due its long history of seeing social equality and welfare as being intrinsically linked to health. The state’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic also recognises the severity of the humanitarian crisis alongside the medical one. The state can be more confident in ensuring an efficient lockdown without worrying about the decimation of the poor.