“We are trying to sustain our livelihood by begging. However, we are powerless to do anything. Due to the lockdown and a halt on transportation, we cannot even access the pension account in our hometown, Mirzapur,” says Sanjay Korwa, an adivasi from Garhwa district of Jharkhand. Belonging to the Korwa tribe, classified as a particularly vulnerable tribal group (PVTG), Sanjay, his wife Rekha Devi and three children are struggling to survive the national lockdown due to a flailing public distribution system (PDS) and delayed pensions.
In a 2003 judgement, the Supreme Court had ordered that the adivasi community or PVTG households should be included in the six ‘priority groups’ to be entitled to Antyodaya cards and 25 kg of ration (now increased to 35 kg). Even though the Korwas are entitled to an Antyodaya card— a yellow ration card acting as a form of identification for receiving ration under Antyodaya Anna Yojana, they were not provided with the ration and live in extreme hunger.
Though the central government increased the monthly allocation of subsidised foodgrains to 10 kg per person for the next three months for PDS beneficiaries post the initial lockdown announcement on March 24, News18’s investigations indicate that in Jharkhand, many are still struggling to get rations and the relief measures announced by the state government are facing various challenges. These findings have led to demands of universalising PDS rations and giving food grains for free (which is currently provided at market rates) to curb malnutrition and hunger issues especially among those who are not registered with the system.
Non-Ration Card Holders At Highest Risk, Dalits, Adivasis Worst Hit
Around 44% of India’s population may not have access to ration cards in 2020 under the National Food Security Act (NFSA), as compared to 33% in 2013, according to a projection analysis of census data by Swati Narayan, a researcher and Visiting Fellow at Institute for Human Development, Ranchi. Narayan spoke to News18 in depth regarding the issue. “When the NFSA was passed in 2013, it was planned that it would cover 66% of India’s population and 33% would be left out," she said.
"The calculations used 2011 census data, to determine eligible populations. Thus, the current PDS lists are based on census 2011 data, and need to be updated. I arrived at the 44% figure by looking at the 2001 and 2011 Census, and projected the same population growth rate for the 2011-2021 decade. I know there will be variations which we will only know after 2021, but I am strongly confident that the figure will range between 42-44%.” Siraj Dutta, a researcher associated with the Right to Food (RTF) campaign, highlighted the same issue.
“Several households are excluded from the PDS as the data is based on the 2011 census,” said Dutta. His estimate is that around 15% of rural households in Jharkhand are excluded from the database. Manik Chand, a local activist belonging to the Korwa tribe in Jharkhand, told us over the phone, “After the SC judgement, the government didn’t make an effort to identify the needy families for the Antyodaya card and rather targeted families based on old census data.”
These estimates gain prominence in light of the April 9, 2020 order, where the central government directed the Food Corporation of India (FCI) to provide foodgrains at 5 kg/person per month for 3 months at the rates of Rs 21/kg for wheat and Rs 22/kg for rice (which are market rates and unaffordable for many currently without a job) uniformly across the country to all beneficiaries not covered under the NFSA to whom ration cards have been issued by state governments under their schemes. However, the decision to provide grains at market rates (of Rs 21/kg) has been fiercely opposed and calls for free universalisation of the PDS scheme have grown louder.
“The issue is not just limited to the lockdown. After the lockdown, it will be even more important because there will be recession and massive hunger and unemployment issues; hence grains should be provided at NFSA rates,” said Narayan.
However, the families who possess ration cards in Jharkhand are facing challenges as well during these times. Mithilesh, a social activist and Right to Food campaigner from Palamu district, told us, “In the context of the lockdown, the government had instructed to provide for April and May ration for free. However, the ration dealers who act as middlemen often do not distribute the ration by either asking for a bribe, or entirely withholding their rations. For instance, Semri village in Latehar district of Jharkhand had complaints against 44 ration dealers who didn’t distribute rations for the month of March. The villages with majority of Dalit population and vulnerable groups such as Brijiya and Asur are at the receiving end of this exorbitant delay in rationing.”
Many of these ration dealers were either suspended or asked to immediately deliver ration after complaints against them, however, exploitation against the marginalised communities has worsened their condition. Narayan from IHD agrees. “In a state like Jharkhand, where there have been more than 20 starvation deaths in the past, the most voiceless and marginalised such as Dalits, Adivasis, Muslims’ and elderly are the most severely impacted,” she said. One of the authors of this article had earlier reported on starvation deaths in Jharkhand.
The state government has announced multiple steps to feed people during the lockdown. Authorities have set up community kitchens across all police stations, Dal Bhaat Kendras (DBKs) by SHGs, allocation of 10 kg ration for non-ration card holders (but those who had applied), and an emergency fund of Rs 10,000 to panchayat heads (mukhiyas) to address the situation. However, a study undertaken by RTF researchers in the first week of April found these steps are inadequate. Among households that have no ration card and have applied for one, very few are receiving 10 kg of foodgrains as promised by the chief minister.
“The mukhiyas are often given 10kg of ration for the non-NFSA card holders. However, many times they withhold the ration,” said Manikchand, the activist. While DBKs were operational in 42 of the 50 survey blocks, most of them are underutilised (just a few customers at a time). Reasons include: people are unable to move about during the lockdown, insufficient public awareness about the DBKs and some are poorly located, e.g., far away from needy areas.
“The other social, political welfare measures to provide for food and ration such as community kitchens, the emergency ration remain largely on paper till now,” said Dutta. According to Jharkhand Janadhikar Mahasabha, a coalition of organisations, the state government allocated funds only on April 15 for providing the 10 kg of foodgrains to ration card applicants who have applied but do not have a card.
A source from the chief minister’s office said, “Jharkhand is the only state which is providing meals at all police stations and across all 4,528 panchayats. I know there are challenges but we are trying our best to ensure that no one stays hungry,"
Universalise PDS, Say Activists, But Central Government Non-committal
Using data from the Food Corporation of India (FCI), development economist Jean Dreze writes that “In June 2019, (when the stocks normally peak), foodgrain stocks crossed 80 million tonnes — more than three times the buffer-stock norms. This year, they have reached a staggering 77 million tonnes in March, before the rabi harvest, when food stocks typically rise by another 20 million tonnes or so. Public food storage on this scale has never happened in India before,” in this April 9, 2020 column for the Indian Express.
He further states, “The finance minister did not do them a big favour by doubling PDS rations for the next three months — something like that was needed, in any case, to make space in FCI’s overflowing godowns for rabi procurement.” On April 13, over 450 rights organisations and individuals wrote to union food minister Ram Vilas Paswan, urging him to immediately universalise the PDS at least for six months so that millions of people who have lost their livelihoods following the countrywide lockdown are saved from hunger and starvation.
However, in an interview on April 15, 2020, minister Paswan remained non-committal to the issue. He admitted that the past PDS list is based on the 2011 census and the population of the poor has increased, but in this context, he argued that everything cannot be left to the centre and states have responsibility too. He claimed that it would cost Rs 46,000 crore to feed all non-NFSA card holders.
Sources from the CM's office told News18, “There is in-principle agreement within the state government about universalisation of PDS rations. We are in the process of writing to the central government to allow universalisation and then we will see what happens. However, a challenge with universalising rations is that leakages could happen, unlike now, where a fixed quantity of rations is delivered to each PDS shop depending upon the households registered. Having said that, we are ‘universalising’ PDS in a way and hence we are preparing an updated list where income tax payers will be excluded and rest everyone will get rations.”
(Devanik Saha is a freelance researcher and PhD student from Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex, UK. Manisha Chachra is a PhD scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University)