The bright sun shining over the vast idyllic fields of Jharkhand’s Latehar district is only a mirage. The shadow of hunger sparkles even brighter here. In Sewdhara, a hamlet nestled deep within the forests, 50-year-old Sonmati Kunwar is sitting under a neem tree to weave soop — a bamboo basket used for winnowing. A widow with no land of her own to cultivate, she is dependent on minor forest produce and casual labour to subsist. Every morning, she leaves her children and walks into the forests surrounding the village to collect bamboo; dries it for over a fortnight in the sparing winter sun, and shreds it into pieces to make it possible to weave.
"If I work for very long, and without rest, I will complete two baskets in a day," she explains, her eyes still set on the soop. For the next few days she will clean the fully woven baskets and dry them. Later, she will carry her produce to the local market in the block headquarter, about two hours away from the village, on foot to earn what will be her only cash income, about 150 rupees a day.
Sonmati lives with her children, one of whom is physically challenged. They reside in a one-room house. The doorway leads straight to the dwelling area. The house, made of mud and tiles, is large enough to hold a a cot and a mat. Their possessions — a few pair of clothes and some utensils. Sonmati said there is no toilet in their house and they have to go out to the open fields.
Without a stable source of income and any safeguards or opportunities for employment, Sonmati often cannot afford her basic needs of food. "There's nothing to save. We live in a hand-to-mouth condition. We stay hungry when I cannot go to work," she said. With her ailing health, it gets difficult for her to work regularly, she added. To add to her woes, the looming food insecurity and extreme penury forces her to live in a precarity that can be fatal.
In Latehar it is not unusual for Parhaiyas — classified as a 'Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group (PVTG)'— like Sonmati, to live in such dire destitution. Far away from any markers of governance like, health, law and education, they live in the crevices of hills unable to access any basic amenities of living. Most places have no functioning roads, sporadically functioning schools and anganwadis, and healthcare facilities available many hours away. For Sonmati, and many like her, hunger is the norm here.
A recent survey conducted by NREGA Sahayata Kendra in November, 2018 revealed that an alarming 43 percent of the small sample of 325 households in Manika and Satbarwa blocks surveyed, slept hungry most often or sometimes. In such circumstances, the critical lifelines for survival are the two basic entitlements: food rations under the public distribution system and social security pensions.
According to a Supreme Court order in the right to food case, dated 2 May, 2003, all PVTG families are entitled to possess Antyodaya Anna Yojana cards (AAY) that guarantees them 35 kg of rice a month at nominal prices, in fact, for free in Jharkhand, irrespective of the number of members in the household. Moreover, keeping up with the spirit National Food Security Act, 2013 which envisages “ensuring access to adequate quantity of quality food at affordable prices to people to live a life with dignity,” the Jharkhand government started the Dakia Yojana, which mandates home-delivery of foodgrains for the PVTG families as they stay in inaccessible, remote locations in the hilly terrain making it difficult to collect their grains. However, the survey showed that 12 percent households do not possess ration cards and the delivery mechanism does not function. Sonmati is one among the excluded.
“Teen saal pehle humare card badli hua, naya card kabhi ban nahi paya. Tab se bazaar se hi laate hain 25 rupay deke, zyadatar nahi laa pate hain toh bhukhe so jaate hain (Our ration card was supposed to be updated three years ago. Since we don't have a new card, we buy our ration from the market after paying Rs 25. Mostly we can't get the food and go to sleep hungry).”
The cancelation of Sonmati’s ration card was because she failed to link her Aadhaar to her ration card, she said.
Between August to October, 2016, a year after the launch of NFSA in Jharkhand, the state government initiated a ‘paperless’ public distribution system. Under the system, “genuine beneficiaries” were to be identified by collecting information about them and storing them online, using biometric system linked with Aadhaar number. The then Food and Public Distribution secretary Vinay Kumar Choubey had said that the move was meant “to check identity fraud and seize ‘ghost’ cards.”
In February, 2017, the central government rolled out the ‘end-to-end computerisation’ of the public distribution system. On 8, February, a notification mandated the authentication of Aadhaar to be completed before 30 June, failing which the beneficiary’s name would be deleted and counted as ‘Aadhaar-enabled savings.’ It further brought in the Aadhaar Based Biometric Authentication (ABBA), compounding the process into a complex web of procedural obstacles:
1.First, to have Aadhaar,
2. To link Aadhaar number in the system,
3. Then, the machine has to be connected over the internet,
4.and then to have biometric authentication on the PoS machine
For the poor, like Sonmati, this was the final blow.
The seemingly simple act of ‘seeding’ — the official term for linking — does in fact come with myriad of problems.
Simply possessing Aadhaar meant nothing, but realising deadlines and ‘seeding’ on time becomes crucial. Seeding is the next step after receiving an Aadhaar number. Much like in Sonmati’s case, often, confusion and improper information result in curtailment of fundamental amenities. "Jab wo Aadhaar mange to main de nahi paayi, kyonki mera card kho gaya hai, (I could not give them my Aadhaar card because I have lost it),” Sonmati said. For Parhaiyas, the ABBA is waived. However, this burden of ‘seeding’ fell enormously on the already marginalised, obstructing their rightful entitlements and making them inaccessible.
Failure to link her Aadhaar has affected Sonmati's other crucial lifelines: for instance, the pension. Her daughter, Reema's pension, too, stopped three years ago. “Pehle toh aata tha, ab teen saal se nahi aaya, (We used to get it, for the past three years we haven't got any money)." When asked about the reason, Sonmati said, "Hum anpadh log nahi jaante kyon nahi aata."
Reema is differently-abled. She is entitled to the special disability pension of Rs 600 every month. However, she does not have an Aadhaar number, and hence her bank account is not linked. "Usko hum card banwane nahi le paaye, iss halaat main kaise lete? (How can I take her to get a new card in this condition?)" Sonmati said.
A whopping 11 percent pension holders' money has been discontinued, a recent survey conducted in the district showed. The pension-holders who have discontinued pensions will not be paid for the time lapsed between the time the Aadhaar was not linked.
In Jharkhand, like many other states, the payments of pensions are made through the Direct Benefit Transfer scheme. DBT, as a term, is used by the government to refer to its strategy of linking recipients of various welfare programmes with their unique identity (UID) numbers and transferring the subsidies through Aadhaar-based payments bridge (APB). But what is often overlooked is that even before Aadhaar-based payments started, subsidies of several welfare programmes were already being transferred ‘directly’ to the bank/post office accounts of recipients.
The new norms are the e-KYC (electronic Know Your Customer) banking. This means that Aadhaar must be seeded in their bank account and also that the seeding must be verified through biometric authentication. In the absence of biometric facilities at the bank, pensioners have to go to a Pragya Kendra (customer service centre) for authentication, take a certificate from there to the bank, and then hope that the bank will complete the formalities in good time. Through this, the Jharkhand government said it has saved over Rs 200 crore by seeding the Aadhaar (UID) with the accounts of the beneficiaries of the various pension schemes as it stopped “fake pensioners”.
In February, 2018, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had claimed that DBT had helped in saving Rs 56,000 crores by removing crores of ‘fake’ beneficiaries from welfare programmes. The figure went up to Rs 90,000 crore in his speech on 15 August, 2018. The government is yet to disclose how it arrived at these figures, but meanwhile, Jharkhand was recently awarded by the rural development ministry for its performance in implementing ‘direct benefit transfer’ (DBT) the national social assistance pensions (NSAP) schemes.
The focus of introducing Aadhaar, as per the government, seems to be to check “identity frauds”, i.e. to identify the “fake beneficiaries.” The other problem, which is not addressed in the entire corrective measure initiated by the technological renaissance that the state envisions, is the quantity fraud, both in pensions and PDS.
Shanti Devi of Sewdhara has a AAY card which is full-proof with Aadhaar ‘seeding’. She is able to draw her monthly rations from the local Fair Price Shop — commonly called the dealer shop. However, of the entitled 35 kgs to be sent to her home in a packaged bag, she receives only 33 kgs that she has to collect after walking long hours to reach the dealer’s shop. The card, however, has entries of 35 kgs drawn against it. "Humko woh bolta hai ki pura ration nahi dega. Woh ek teena mein ration deta hai, aur teena ke saath wazan karta hai. Kai baar pucha toh bolta hai 'mera kharcha hai tumko dene mein, katunga nahi toh kaise hoga?' Dara deta hai hum jaise anpadh logon ko, (He tells us straight up that he won't give us the entire ration. He cuts his commission from our share and weighs the ration along with the canister),” Shanti said.
In pensions, too, Aadhaar has not been able to ward off problems for the beneficiaries. Sixty-four-year-old Dasiya Kunwar, a resident of Sewdhara, had all the required documents to apply for Rs 600 entitled to her as old-age pension. "Jab mein form jamaa karne gayi toh sandeep, pragya kendra-wala mujhse 2000 rupay mangne laga, usko jama karne ke liye (The agents at the Pragya Kendra ask for extra Rs 2,000 to submit my form),” she added. For senior citizens like Dasiya, and many others the situation in most villages across the district remains precarious, the survey revealed.
The mechanisms to check quantity frauds have always existed but were made stronger, and well structured in the National Food Security Act, 2013 especially in the TPDS (Control) Order, 2015 notified on 20 March, 2015. It mandates formation of Vigilance Commission (VC) at “State, District, Block and FPS levels” whose work is to carry out “regular supervision of implementation of all the schemes under NFSA including TPDS, informing the District Grievance Redressal Officer (DGRO) in writing of any violation of the provision of the Act as well as of malpractices or misappropriation of funds found by it.”
Mahabir Parhaiya, a Parhaiya leader associated with the Manika NREGA Sahayata Kendra, who has been actively demanding for their entitlements, said that he has never come across any such supervision work by the Vigilance Commission. “Mujhe toh aaj tak pata nahi is committee main hai kaun (Till today, we did not know anything about this committee)” he said. The sub-divisional officer reacted to the question of the VCs by claiming that it is “not at the FPS level, we have the ones running at Panchayat levels, according to the Secretary’s orders.” Confusion and opacity of such an important mechanism which is central to ensuring the well functioning of PDS is indicative of the least priority given to the grievance redressal.
On 13 December, 2018 the NREGA Sahayata Kendra organised a jan sunwayi in the Block Office premises to raise the demands of large-scale malpractices that have come to be noticed after the survey held in early November by student volunteers. Hundreds of adivasis gathered that day. The senior district officials, sub-divisional officer (SDO) and Block Development Officer (BDO) and Marketing Officer (MO) were present, along with other members from civil society.
The MO, Habib Khan, conceded of having stopped ration of the ones whose Aadhaar was not linked. “The Secretary’s order has clearly asked us to make those provisions,” he said. The BDO only suggested for more Aadhaar enrolment camps, without any comments on the actions to ensure speedy access to critical lifelines for the most deprived. The matters of corruption in PDS and pension were not taken very seriously by the administration. Dinesh Rai, the dealer, who openly siphons off grains meant for the poor by using unfair means, was let off, without any penalty or cancellation of his license by the officials.
The other major voice of demand was for the implementation of the Dakiya scheme in the district. All households had denied of having received the packaged grains delivered at their house. The MO had conceded to the ineffectiveness of the scheme. “I am not always there to oversee,” Khan said. “I try and take the help of local PDS dealers, but we have not been able to deliver the rations.” The SDO offered a consolation, “we will do it soon,” without any concrete plan of action.
Two months after the implementation, the Dakiya Yojana has still not been implemented. Mahabir Parhaiya and the local NREGA Sahayata Kendra met the District Collector, in the Jan Samwad Karyakram where he meets people to listen to their problems. Later, they met the SDO. “The SDO called up the MO while we were there and directed him to send the ration to our homes,” added Mahabir, “However, the delivery did not happen until long. It was only two days later after I denied signing the ration register that they were asking me to, they delivered the ration to one village."
The author is a Skye Fellow
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Updated Date: Feb 25, 2019 14:43:28 IST