It’s a hot afternoon in Jharkhand’s Noamundi and around 25 women are gathered around a Public Distribution System (PDS) shop in Kotghar village. The women, many of them barefoot, have walked from nearby villages after hearing that ration has finally arrived here after two months.
The shop is shut, but the women peep inside through the broken window to see sacks of rice lying on the floor. After an hour of waiting, as Bhola, the local PDS dealer arrives, the women start taking out their Aadhaar and Ration cards.
The women belong to some of the poorest households in Jharkhand’s West Singhbhum, which is one of the nation’s poorest constituencies and consistently ranks at the bottom for health, malnutrition, child mortality and other key parameters.
A study by public health experts from Harvard University and Tata Trusts found that nearly two-thirds of Singhbhum’s children (under the age of five) are underweight, the highest in the country. More than half are stunted (low height for age) and a third suffer from wasting (low weight for height).
Despite this, the issue of child health has rarely featured in the poll vocabulary. The constituency, with a population of around 12 lakh, will vote in the sixth phase on May 12.
Rice and Salt
As Bhola opens the shop and starts to set up the biometric machine to authenticate the beneficaries, the women form a queue outside. One of the women waiting is Sukru. She is relieved she would get her ration today. “Our family has been out of food for the past two days. I had to borrow some rice from the lady next door,” she says.
Ration for Sukru means just rice. An Antyodaya card holder, she, along with the others present there, is entitled to 35 kg rice at Re 1 per kg every month under the National Food Security Act.
“We can only afford rice. So that is all we eat and give our children - rice mixed with water and some salt on the side,” another woman waiting for the ration, Sumila, says. “It’s a staple diet - morning and evening.”
Although there are other food items listed on the wall of the shop -- wheat, sugar and oil -- they are there just for display. Only rice and salt are available. Bhola says that since it is election season, the supply has been slow. The women say it's a regular occurrence in the area.
The past one year has seen several protests by tribals in the district against denial of ration, use of Aadhaar and other irregularities in the PDS. Villagers say they did not get any ration from September to December last year, and again February onwards.
It has been over half an hour since Bhola opened the shop. He is still struggling to set up the biometric system that scans the fingerprint of every beneficiary before they can get the rice they are entitled to.
The women are starting to get impatient. Hungry children are waiting at home for them.
Most of them have to work every day to feed their families. As there are no jobs in the area, the around 36,000 Ho tribesmen here live off the dense forest around them, Saranda, by selling minor produce such as sal leaves and sticks used for 'daatoon'.
With Aadhar being made mandatory for PDS, they have to walk to the village where there is internet connectivity just to get their grain entitlement. If it takes too long, it also means foregoing the wage for the day.
Even then, they are deprived of the ration too often. In many cases, their fingerprints are too worn out to register on the fingerprint scanning machines. Sometimes, the internet connection fails.
Sukarmani, who has been waiting patiently till now, says her vote will go to the party that will ensure proper functioning of PDS. “My three-year-old has never tasted anything other than rice and salt – not even milk. There are no anganwadis in the area either,” she says.
More people, on hearing that ration would be made available today, have started walking towards the shop in the meantime.
But Bhola has started packing up - even before he handed out even a single sack of rice. There is no internet connectivity, he tells everyone standing with empty bags in their hands.
But the tribals don’t move an inch. They instead stare at Bhola’s face in the hope that he would fix the machine. Munda, the village head, requests him and his helper to keep trying.
Bhola switches his location from under one tree to another and tries to get a connection for another 20 minutes. But he is out of luck.
The women have now started turning back. Sukru asks if she could get a handful of rice just for today from her quota, but Bhola is not permitted to do that. Unless the finger is scanned, no ration can be given. She picks up her crying baby and leaves.
This is not a one-off incident. The tribals are used to this situation, and so are the dealers.
Bhola is happy as people didn't get angry and yell at him today, as they often do when hours of wait for ration go in vain.