“But this is paap”, I found myself slipping into a language I don’t normally use. We had stopped at a small village in Mahoba, and were asking people about their accessibility to subsidised food. The local ration shop owner (Kotedar) was present there, as was the food inspector – on orders from the district administration. The two evidently got along very well. Despite their best efforts to tutor everyone before our arrival, the unpleasant truth was tumbling out.
Many visibly poor families were being denied their quota of subsidised food-grain. Many poor women were agitated, while the Kotedar remained nonchalant. I thought it was pointless to use the language of law, entitlements or procedures, and tried to speak to the Kotedar’s sense of paap and punya. How could he possibly deny people food during a drought? He was unmoved.
Throughout the padyatra, the one subject that aroused maximum interest was food-grain through the public distribution system. Women would begin to focus on the proceedings as soon as we asked a question about ration. Every meeting was a revelation. We thought we were there to inform the people about how the apex court had added to their entitlements, under the National Food Security Act of 2013.
The Act mandates that every “priority household” (meaning a family eligible for ration, about two-thirds of the entire population) must get five kg of food-grain per person per month at a subsidised rate of Rs two per kg for wheat and Rs 3 per kg for rice. The Supreme Court order had extended this benefit to all households, not just those in the “priority” list. We were to discover that most villagers were not able to access even the existing entitlements.
Here is my quick list of the myriad ways in which the poor are deprived of their legal entitlement:
1) No card at all: Anywhere between one-tenth to one-third of people in each village do not possess any kind of ration card at all. The number could be larger in a Tanda (a hamlet of nomadic community) in Osmanabad, but smaller in more politically conscious UP villages.
Reasons could vary from legitimate (“came back to my parental village last year after my husband’s death”) to mystifying (“applied many times but got no response”). Not a single village has universal ration card coverage.
2)No ration shop: Officially, each habitation is allotted a shop, but it need not be inside the village. It could be located in an adjacent village – far enough to dissuade some people from taking the trouble to obtain their ration. We found many shops closed. In one such case, the shop was closed for nearly a year, as the license of the previous ration shop owner was cancelled on charges of corruption. Those who suffered due to his corruption, were now suffering more from his absence.
3) No NFSA slip: As different states made the slow and difficult transition from the earlier system of Below/Above Poverty Line (BPL/APL) households to the Priority/Non-priority classification mandated by the National Food Security Act, they were required to issue a fresh slip of entitlement to the eligible households.
This has opened a fresh avenue for delay, denial and discrimination, not to speak of corruption. We discovered that in UP villages, most households had paid a “service charge” of Rs 50 for taking a printout of the computerised slip. (I am happy to report that in three of those villages, we got the contractor to return that money on the spot.)
4) Under process: This officialese covers all those cases where people have applied for ration cards, but are told that their documentation is not complete or has been sent to the tehsil office, and there is no response.
5) Technical fault: You may have completed the due process, given all documents and everything might be verified. Yet your name is not on the final list of eligible households published on the internet. It could be a name mismatch between your ration and Aadhar card, an incorrect data entry, or something else. As an official once said to me, “kya karen, apka bad luck kharab hai.”
6) POS machine: This is a high-tech version of the previous identification machines. Many states like Madhya Pradesh have introduced the bio-metric based Point of Service (POS) machines, meant to generate a coupon after verifying your entitlement and usage with the help of your finger print. Good idea. The trouble is that it needs an internet connection, electricity and a functioning machine. When even one of these conditions fail, it gives a perfect alibi, “Machine kaam naheen kar raha.”
7) Deletion of names: Your troubles don’t end even after you have obtained the computerised slip of entitlement. In Uttar Pradesh (and Rajasthan I am told), the government is on an over-drive to cancel many of these slips. The reason: the state had exceeded its quota of cards. So if you have a tractor, or a gun license, or anyone in the family has a government job, your card will be taken away.
8) Not all members on the card: You finally get your card but find many names missing from it. Since the quantity of ration now depends on the number of family members, a family of eight could be entitled to ration meant for three persons. This is one of the most widespread complaints.
9) Skipping a month: You have everything but the ration shop owner says that the quota for this month has not been released. Even in an otherwise better functioning state like Maharashtra, there were umpteen complaints about skipping the quota every second or third month. In remote villages, you are lucky if you get it once in three months.
10) Inadequate supply: You go to the ration shop and are told “upar se poora quota nahin aaya (the government has not released full quota this month)", so you have to make do with half or one-third of your entitlement. On the way back, you discover that your influential neighbor got his full due.
11) Under-weighing: Many shops in UP still use the old style taraju (weighing scale) – a perfect instrument to cheat (“dandi marna” is the local phrase) the customer of anything around one to two kg of food-grain.
12) Poor quality food-grain: You finally get your quota, but cannot take it to your kitchen. In a village in Maharashtra, women were waiting for us with a sample of wheat they received last month from the ration shop. "Can you feed this even to the cattle," they asked.
13) Over-pricing: Official prices are often not quite known and over-pricing abounds in many forms – in many places they charge Rs three per kg for both rice and wheat (against the official rate of Rs two per kg), or levy “transport charges” above the official figures. We are talking about blatant “black” sale of food-grain for as high as Rs 12 to 15 per kg.
PS: And here is the latest addition to the list: It's three weeks since the Supreme Court's historic order on food security. You would imagine that action would have already begun. But when last heard, the Central government and state governments were exchanging letters on who should pay for it!
Editor's note: Swaraj Abhiyan founder Yogendra Yadav is on a padyatra of drought affected regions of Marathwada and Bundelkhand. He will file dispatches for Firstpost about the drought and his march. This is the fourth story in the series.
Read Story 1: Narendra Modi's inaction speaks louder than his words
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Updated Date: Jun 04, 2016 09:58:50 IST