The decision to provide free rations to the poor for five more months at a time when the country is in the grip of a grave economic disruption due to the coronavirus pandemic is welcome. It will go some distance to alleviate the condition of tens of millions of people who overnight lost their meagre incomes following the lockdown. The Prime Minister in his address to the nation on Tuesday afternoon spoke at length about the plight of the migrant workers and others who had been hit by the pandemic. Provision of five kilos of cereals and one kilo of pulses to 80 crore people would cost the exchequer Rs. 90,000 crore in addition to Rs. 60,000 crore already earmarked under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana for free rations for the April-June period. With the government granaries overflowing with record procurement of the bumper Rabi crop, the decision to reduce the Food Corporation of India inventory was long overdue. The food stocks with the FCI were far in excess of the minimum buffer stock required for ensuring food security. A number of economists had pressed for the distribution of free food to the poor for them to overcome the economic hardships caused by the coronavirus disruption. It may be purely coincidental that the PMGKAY is being extended till November, the month in which most likely the Assembly poll in Bihar is scheduled to be held. This should electorally help the ruling JD(U)-BJP alliance. The Nitish Kumar Government had initially mishandled the return of migrants following the lockdown; distribution of free rations would help assuage both anger and hunger. Significantly, Modi mentioned that the food availability would come in handy during the festival season, listing both Diwali and Chhatt Puja, a particularly popular festival in Bihar, in his address. Though many expected him to touch upon the standoff on the border with China, the PM steered clear of any reference to anything other than the pandemic. Emphasising yet again the need to observe basic minimum precautions, and not to violate the official advisories as further relaxations are given from the lockdown, Modi noted with satisfaction that the mortality rate from the coronavirus was much lower than in most advanced countries.
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