No Covid relief for Maharashtra's tribals as scheme meant to ease burden fails to lift-off

On 9 September, the state govt passed a resolution saying it would deposit Rs 2,000 into the bank accounts of tribal people and distribute ration worth Rs 2,000 under the Khawati yojana. Seven months later, the benefits are still awaited

Parth MN March 13, 2021 21:06:51 IST
No Covid relief for Maharashtra's tribals as scheme meant to ease burden fails to lift-off

Representational image. Parth MN

On 12 August 2020, the Government of Maharashtra extended the help of Rs 4,000 to the Adivasi families in the state. The state approved a budget of Rs 462 crore towards the scheme and finalised 11.55 lakh families as the beneficiaries.

The scheme, known as Khawati yojana, was supposed to provide some respite to the Adivasi families struggling due to the coronavirus-induced lockdown. On 9 September, a government resolution was issued, which said that Rs 2,000 would be deposited into their accounts. And Rs 2,000 worth of ration would be given to them. Seven months later, they are still waiting for that respite.

"About three months back, some officials came to my house and took copies of my Aadhar card and bank statements," said Pintu Gangad, 30, a farm labourer from the village of Zarwad Budruk in Maharashtra’s Nashik district.

“But nothing has happened since then.”

Gangad, who belongs to the Thakur Adivasi community, said his work particularly dwindled post the lockdown.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi had announced a complete lockdown on 24 March, 2020, suspending all forms of travel hours after the announcement, in a bid to curb the spread of the travel.

“Initially, we could not move during the lockdown because we were afraid the police would catch us,” he said.

“Later, farmers incurred a lot of losses, so they could not employ labourers like me. We live hand to mouth under normal circumstances. I get Rs 250 per day. My wife, Sumitra, gets Rs 150 for the same labour work. After lockdown, it came to a halt. We struggled to have two meals a day,” he added.

Gangad said that had the scheme been enforced on time, it would have at least relieved some of the burden.

“The help should have ideally come in the first six months after the lockdown,” he said.

“It will now be a year and we are still waiting."

On 5 March, 2021, Maharasthra Tribal Development Minister KC Padavi conceded in the Assembly that none of the 11.55 lakh families have received the intended benefits of the scheme. Padavi was responding to questions from MLAs Sadashiv Khot (Rayat Kranti Sanghatna), Gopichand Padalkar (BJP) and Manisha Kayande (Shiv Sena) on the delay in the enforcement of the scheme.

Padavi, a leader of the Indian National Congress, one of the constituent parties of the ruling Maha Vikas Aghadi alliance in Maharashtra, said, "In order to transfer the money in people’s bank accounts, we are in the process of issuing their Aadhar cards and starting their bank accounts."

“Regarding the ration, we have issued a tender and the next steps are being taken,” he added.

However, a steering committee, in its meeting on 1 December 2020, had suggested the cancellation of the tender process as it would further delay the implementation of the scheme.

“An e-tender had been floated on 7 November 2020 to procure pulses and grains,” the steering committee said in a note, adding, “On 17 November 2020, we were told that the terms and conditions are too strict. Until 3.15 pm today, we have only received one response to the e-tender. If we are to do the process all over again, the distribution of foodgrains and pulses is not likely to conclude before 31 March, 2021.”

Therefore, the committee suggested doing away with tenders and recommended transferring the money into beneficiary accounts directly or distributing the ration directly. The note is signed by the managing director of the Tribal Development Corporation, secretary of Food, Civil Supplies and Consumer Protection Department, secretary of the Tribal Development Department, and the additional chief secretary of finance.

But Padavi’s response on 5 March indicates that the suggestion has not been taken into consideration. This reporter tried reaching out to Padavi. On 11 March, he said he would get back in half an hour. Since then, he has not responded to multiple phone calls and text messages.

Maharashtra is one of the states in India with a significant number of Adivasi population — 9.4 percent — which has been particularly affected by the coronavirus pandemic. Largely dependent on gruelling labour work, the pandemic-induced restrictions have directly dented their livelihoods.

In the district of Palghar, for example, where 37 percent of the population are Adivasis, the post-lockdown months saw a surge in malnutrition. With Zila Parishad schools and Adivasi residential schools shut, parents — struggling to find labour work — did not have enough food for their children.

Under the Khawati scheme, the ration worth Rs 2,000 included 12 items — Turkish gram, black-eyed beans, chickpeas, green peas, urad dal, tur dal, sugar, garam masala, salt, tea, mirchi powder and oil.

Between 1978 to 2013, the state government had extended loans under the same scheme. Keeping the coronavirus in mind, the state changed the function of the scheme and decided to extend donations instead of loans. But the implementation has been far from ideal.

Vivek Pandit, a former MLA and founder of Shramajeevi Sanghatna, which works predominantly in the tribal areas of Maharashtra, has filed a PIL in the Bombay High Court “to draw the state’s attention towards the plight of Adivasis".

In response to the PIL, on 13 May, 2020, Subrao Shinde, Deputy Secretary, Tribal Development Department, filed an affidavit, in which he explained how the state has continued its APJ Abdul Kalam Amrut Ahar Yojana, which was launched in 2015, through the pandemic.

Under the scheme, the affidavit said that the department provides hot cooked meals to the doorstep of pregnant women and lactating mothers, along with eggs or bananas to the doorstep of children aged between 7 months to 6 years. If the hot cooked meal is not possible, the affidavit said, the beneficiaries get ration packets to take home. If that is not possible either, the beneficiaries have the option of a direct benefit transfer to their accounts, it added.

The affidavit also attached a government decision that said that the state has taken steps to ensure nobody suffers from starvation post-pandemic.

However, Pandit said the state did not live up to the assurance.

“Adivasis struggled for food and many families suffered from starvation,” he said.

“We continued our agitation and then the state announced the Khawati scheme. But that also has not materialised on the ground,” he added.

Pointing out the delay in the implementation of the scheme, Shramajeevi Sanghatana’s activists filed a complaint against Padavi in 45 different police stations in different districts, said Bhagwan Madhe, who works with the organisation in Nasik.

“The FIR should be filed under Section 420, which pertains to cheating and dishonesty because the minister has been dishonest with the Adivasi residents of Maharashtra,” he said.

One such complaint is filed by Sunita Waghe, 36, resident of Talawli village in Thane district’s Bhiwandi taluka. She is a labourer and a member of the Shramajeevi Sanghatana.

“I was starving after the lockdown because there was no work,” her complaint, dated 7 March, 2021, reads. “The state government promised to provide Adivasis like me with essential commodities and food grains. But we did not get any benefits,” the plaint added.

Waghe, who belongs to the particularly vulnerable Katkari tribe, further said in her complaint, “After the state government announced the Khawati scheme, the officials made a list of beneficiaries. I was one of them. In fact, we needed a scheme like this from June to September. But we are in March, and we have still not gotten anything.”

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