Rising prices of grains, digitisation of PDS records pose challenges for the poor to avail food
The prices of rice, wheat and pulses have been rising steadily making it more difficult for the poor to buy grain at market price.
The last few years have seen a growing price difference between the market price of grain and PDS rations. The prices of rice, wheat and pulses have been rising steadily making it more difficult for the poor to buy grain at market price. It is for this reason that the ration card provides a lifeline to millions of Indians who are leading increasingly fragile and uncertain lives. It helps them ensure they can get wheat at the subsidised rate of Rs two per kilo and rice at Rs three per kilo whereas the market price of these commodities can be twenty times these prices.
Balakram Agriya, a pleasant looking, pony-tailed Adivasi from Chhattisgarh is one of the thousands who epitomise this uncertainty. While trying to fathom why he had been denied a ration card, he said, "I have got an Aadhaar card made. I have also been given money to build a house under the Indira Gandhi Awas Yojana (IGAY). If I can qualify for the IGAY, then why am I being denied a ration card? I am poor enough to receive funds from the Awas Yojana (scheme) but not poor enough for a ration card ?" he remarked.
Indeed Balakram admits to being an extremely confused person. "I own one acre of land. Unfortunately, it is a dry land. It has no water so I cannot grow anything on it. I have three kids – main roz hi kamata hun aur roz hi khata hun (I earn and eat on a daily basis). Given that I am in the BPL category, I am (according to government rules) entitled to 35 kilos of grain under the Antodaya Yojana. One is supposed to get that grain even if one does not possess a ration card but no one is following this rule.’’
Sharda ben from Gujarat finds herself in the same situation as Balakram. A Dalit, her name was included in the IGAY and the government built her house following the earthquake in Bhuj. And yet she says, "Despite all these years of struggle, I have not been able to get a ration card made". Sharda ben’s other complaint is that despite the quake-affected being given houses, the government has given her the land pattas. "I have applied for a patta but have not got one yet," she said.
Balakram and Sharda Ben are among many people who came from fourteen states to the capital to give testimony earlier this month about the problems they faced tackling issues of hunger and unemployment at a public hearing organised by the Right to Food campaign in the capital. These testimonies were heard by legislators, scholars and lawyers.
Middle-aged Pratap Singh from Zilla Satna in Madhya Pradesh spoke out about how despite his best efforts to be included in the public distribution system under the National Food Security Act, he had not met with success. "I am a member of the Gonda tribe. I am in the SC category."Although the district administration gave me repeated assurances, they have failed to give me a ration card."
Pratap Singh also owns one acre of land but the land is not irrigated and is dependent on rainfall to grow crops."I have two children. Both my children had institutional deliveries but we have not received a single paisa due to us under the Janani Suraksha Yojana. I have completed all the documentation. I have an Aadhaar card and yet no money has been given to us," said Singh.
One of the most harrowing testimonies was given by Vishwanath of Jharkhand who recalled the circumstances that lead to death due to hunger of a poor tribal woman, Budhi Soren, in Giridih in January this year.
"There have been seven deaths from starvation in our area. There was no food for days on end in the homes of these poor tribals. I myself was witness to how there was no food in Budhni’s house for fifteen days at a stretch. She lived in a phus ka ghar (straw hut) and would go into the forests to pluck the leaves of the mahua tree to make pattals from them. The district administration has tried to pass off their deaths as being the result of an illness, but all of us who were her neighbours know the reality," said Vishwanath.
The starvation death of 36-year-old Amir Jahan from Moradabad in Uttar Pradesh has also followed the same tragic trajectory. Amir Jahan’s husband pointed out that, "I am a rickshaw puller by profession and did not know how to go about applying for a ration card. I have three daughters and little money to feed them."
Having contracted TB and lacking enough strength to work as a rickshaw puller, he decided to migrate to Pune in search of work. The medication, he maintained, left him weak, so he discontinued the treatment. "During my wife's last three days, we had no food in the house and she did not eat a grain of food," he disclosed with a sense of utter helplessness and despair.
The statistics shared by Debashis, a sarpanch from Koraput in Odisha, were also not encouraging. Debashis said, "From the 1393 households in my gram panchayat, 175 do not have a ration card. We applied for them one year ago and we are still waiting. The website that gives us the status of our positions has been closed down and despite our repeated requests nothing is happening on the ground."
The cancellation of existing ration cards in the absence of Aadhaar cards has allegedly resulted in hunger deaths in Karnataka. Taramani Sahu from Simdega recounted the hunger death of Santoshi due to the cancellation of her family’s ration card in the absence of Aadhaar seeding. The situation is also very grave in Karnataka where three brothers died in Gokarna in Karnataka due to starvation following the discontinuation of their ration cards.
It is not as though this situation is confined to rural areas. Several homeless persons from Delhi have testified about how they have been denied several entitlements due to the absence of identification documents. Others testified on how they had been denied social security pension despite suffering from the disability.
Elderly and ailing Ranjeet Kaur has travelled from Amritsar to give testimony. She claims she had battled "the system" for several years in order to get her pension to little avail. "Despite my inability to walk properly, I had made frequent visits to the office of the District Collector to inform the officials that I am not receiving my pension and yet, nothing has come out of these efforts."
The story of Gulshan Khatoun from Noida is equally heart rending. She said, "I have three sons. All three boys are disabled. Despite my constant attempts, I have failed to get a widow pension or a disability pension nor do I have a ration card." She makes ends meet through one of her son's occasional work.
Food Minister Ram Vilas Paswan has claimed that the push to digitise the database of beneficiaries by authenticating their identities via Aadhaar has helped the government scrap over 23 million fake ration cards and also helped the government save Rs 14,000 crore. “This money will be used to provide foodgrain to more needy households,” Paswan said at a press meet.
The finance secretary Ashok Lavasa went a step further and said that the Direct Benefit Transfer scheme using Aadhaar technology had helped the government save Rs 34,000 crore. However, food activist Nikhil Dey along with Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan and other activists have questioned the claim that four crore bogus ration cards have been eliminated pointing out there is no official data to back this.
Also, Paswan’s assertion that the money saved will be used to provide food grain to the more needy households flies in the face of the increasing number of hunger deaths. Lakhs of people from marginalised communities still do not have Aadhaar cards. There are equally large numbers without ration cards. These people have no voice and so their complaints go unheard.
Dey, an activist, at a press interaction to present on-ground findings about the impact of Aadhaar on welfare schemes and especially the PDS in Rajasthan, had pointed out that as of July 2017, 33 percent of the holders of ration cards, which have been seeded with Aadhaar, were unable to procure their rations from the PDS outlets, because of repeated problems in biometric authentication of fingerprints, and internet connectivity issues in the Point of Sale machines," Dey pointed out.
Food activist Koninika Ray also cited the example of how ten lakh people had been declared dead and therefore ineligible for pensions. Aruna Roy heading the MKNS in Rajasthan said she brought several of these 'dead’ villagers to Delhi to show that they were alive.
Roy also expressed disappointed at the Supreme Court order of 13 March which had extended the deadline for Aadhaar linking of facilities such as bank accounts and SIM cards, but had permitted the continued imposition of Aadhaar on social services and entitlements such as the PDS, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) and social security pensions.
She believed the order “perpetuated a long-standing double standard, whereby the hardships experienced by privileged classes due to Aadhaar being made mandatory are being addressed while much greater hardships endured by poor people are ignored.”
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