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.