A ground report reveals pervasive hunger and undernourishment in rural India awash with returning migrants
Just providing rice and wheat at a highly subsidized price may not be enough when day jobs are scant and families have no cash in hand
Thanks to an all-familiar power cut in the evening, it’s pitch dark in Jhandupurva village. A few torch lights from smart phones pierce through the darkness and illuminate the shape of an eight-year-old boy. Thin, frail, head tilted a little to the side, he can barely speak when asked his name. Sandip is so weak that he stutters and pauses between words.
The boy has already finished dinner, his mother Vidya said. Boiled rice with milk: about half a litre of milk for the six-member family, including four children. A rice gruel with more water than milk, and salt added to taste. No wonder Sandip is suffering from what nutritionists term “wasting"—a sign of acute malnutrition and chronic hunger.
This landless family dependent on day jobs is covered under the federal food security scheme and normally gets 20kg of rice and wheat every month. As a special assistance to help families tide over loss of economic opportunities during the lockdown—enforced to contain the spread of covid-19—the family is also getting an extra 20kg of grains free for three months.
But despite this support, they are battling persistent hunger.
Without a day job, Sandeep’s father Rajesh has run out of cash. Earlier that day, he borrowed ₹1,000 at an exorbitant 10% interest per month. Vidya meanwhile banks on barter—exchanging wheat for vegetables, spices and oil. The subsidised food grains double up as a currency. But it also means the grains get over quickly. In the morning, Vidya bought a kg of brinjals in exchange for a kg of wheat. “It has been months I cooked arhar (a nutrition rich pulse variety)," she said.
The plight of this family, from the Banda district in the dry and arid Bundelkhand region of Uttar Pradesh, points to a peculiar problem. Just providing rice and wheat at a highly subsidised price of ₹2-3 per kg may not be enough when day jobs are scant and families have no cash in hand. Is it possible to survive on just boiled rice and rotis?
But most families are doing exactly that: consuming boiled rice and salt or wheat flatbread with chilly paste. Even potatoes are unaffordable. During a three-day visit to Bundelkhand last week, this reporter witnessed signs of pervasive hunger and undernourishment. Entire families, including children are skipping meals; families out of the food security scheme are on the brink of starvation.
The region is a hub of distress migration—they say 80% of the families here have a member who is a migrant. Now, they are coming back, returning from states like Gujarat, Maharashtra and Delhi (which is 700km away). Migrant workers are fleeing both job loss and the coronavirus pandemic for the relative safety of their homes.
But in an agriculturally-impoverished region, their only hope is the paltry wages from the rural jobs scheme. Even those are hard to come by.
Falling off the map
In Musanagar, a tiny hamlet in Atarra town in Banda, women struggling to cook and feed their children were on the edge. Most here start their day before sunrise to unload sacks of groceries at the local market. They receive between 50 paise to a rupee for a bag, but there is too much of a rush nowadays.
There are fewer bags to unload and more hands willing to work. Labouring for four hours between 3am and 7am, the lucky ones earn about ₹50. At least a third of the families in Musanagar do not have ration cards under the National Food Security Act (NFSA), 2013, which guarantees 5kg of grains per person per month.
“Who do we complain to? Who do we cry before?" asks an angry Laxminiya. She recently applied for a ration card which has been approved, yet she was asked to wait for three months to get her share of grains. The local ration shop dealer told her she can lodge a complaint before the district magistrate if she wishes.
Another woman, 40-year-old Siasakhi said that names of two members in her six-person household were deleted from the ration card recently. This was a pervasive complaint. NFSA beneficiaries often fall off the list, most likely due to a mismatch of details while linking their ration card with Aadhaar number.
The other problem is that the list of beneficiaries is based on the population figures from the 2011 census. Poor households with young children and newly married women are often left out. Currently, the food security Act covers about 770 million people, but a recent estimate by economists Jean Dreze and Reetika Khera suggests that at least 100 million eligible people have been left out.
Gita, a widow and mother of seven, is among them. She relocated with her children to her in-laws’ house after her husband died of tuberculosis. Despite repeated attempts, Gita could not get a ration card. The family’s daily bread is now contingent on the charity of neighbours and handouts from local non-profits. The afternoon this reporter met her, the menu for lunch was the ubiquitous salt and rice.
However, nothing was more symbolic of systemic neglect than a visit to a ration shop on the fringes of the Atarra town. Last month, as part of a relief package to help poor families deal with the lockdown, the Centre decided to add a kg of nutrition-rich pulses to the monthly quota of ration for every NFSA household. But the kala chana or black gram supplied to the shop was in fact green: it was rotten and infested with fungus. The shop owner Ram Bihari Yadav said the entire supply of 800kg he received from the Food Corporation of India was fungus-ridden, not even fit to use as animal feed. Yet families were collecting their share.
A brief chat with Yadav led to more disclosures. The Uttar Pradesh government, for instance, announced that during the lockdown period families without a ration card will receive subsidised grains. But Yadav is yet to receive any extra allocation of grains to implement this promise.
Families without a ration card often visit his shop but are turned away. He added that more families are being enrolled under NFSA, but old beneficiaries are also getting dropped. In 2020 till date, 42 names were included but 72 were dropped from the list of beneficiaries Yadav caters to.
A hunger strike
The sights and sounds of Kherwa village in Naraini tehsil of Banda seemed straight out of a surreal film. The word bhookh, vernacular for hunger, was scribbled with bright red paint all over—on a giant concrete pipe at the entrance to the village, on the walls of mud huts, and each and every brick and mortar toilet built with government grants.
For over two months, ever since a stringent lockdown was enforced on 25 March, the residents have been knocking on all doors for food relief and demanded that all excluded households be enrolled under the food subsidy scheme. But local officials dropped some grains as a one-time relief and disappeared.
The residents of Kherwa are Kuchbandhiyas, a nomadic tribe which roam villages in Bundelkhand sharpening stone grinders and selling trinkets and clothes. The lockdown, which also sharpened caste prejudices, meant they were unable to move around and were left to fend for themselves.
Frustrated, they decided to sit on a hunger strike last week. They banged steel plates and sang in a languid tone how the hunger was killing them. Later that day, local government officials reached the village with an offer to settle matters by providing 5kg of grains per family. They refused. As evening fell on Kherwa, children with skeletal figures rolled on the mud, pleading for food.
“We were tired. The local officers are like monkeys sitting on a tree, eating fruits and throwing leftovers at us," said Babulal, a burly man in his 50s.
It took the district administration more than three days, during which residents continued their hunger strike, to agree to the demand of a ration card for every family. It took kuchbandhiyas two and a half months of struggle to achieve what could have been fast tracked by the government—enrolling vulnerable families under the NFSA during a pandemic.
Back to nowhere
At six in the morning last Wednesday, Prem Narayan was the first to arrive at the office of a local non-profit in Atarra. He came to collect a food kit consisting of pulses, grains and oils the non-profit Vidya Dham Samiti was distributing among vulnerable families. A year ago, Prem Narayan could not have foreseen standing in a queue to collect a handout.
Some days back he had made an arduous five-day journey from Surat in Gujarat, piled into the back of a truck like an “animal" with 70 other migrant workers. “We slept while standing and only had soaked chickpeas to eat," Narayan said. Yet, he would not waste much time before making his way back to Gujarat once the lockdown is lifted.
There is little which can sustain landless families in parched Bundelkhand. Agriculture is marginal. The rural jobs scheme which guarantees 100 days of work for a family is mired by low wages and delayed payments. Of late, work generated under the Mahatma Gandhi Rural National Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) has picked up pace but there are too many hands eager to work.
Several rights groups have urged the government to pay workers daily wages in cash, and provide on-site employment to workers and increase workdays to help families tide over the ongoing pandemic. The Centre is yet to relax the norms but has provided an additional ₹40,000 crore for the scheme to ensure more families get work. “Wapas jana majboori hai (going back is a compulsion)," said Suresh Kumar whose family had to borrow ₹6,000 to pay for his journey back home. Earlier that day, Kumar went to a MGNREGS worksite but was turned back.
Early evening, that worksite next to Banjara village was brimming with people. Over 50 workers were digging earthen pits and carrying the soil to make a narrow road. Among them was Manpyari and her children, two boys aged 10 and 13, who were helping their mother struggling with a hoe. Manpyari’s husband who works at a construction site in Delhi could not send money for two months. She is hoping the MGNREGS wages will provide the much needed cash to buy groceries.
A peculiar feature of the job scheme is that workers are paid according to earthwork and not a daily wage. For instance, if Manpyari manages to complete earthwork equivalent to 80 cubic feet in a day, she will receive a day’s wage of ₹202. This is why her children were helping her finish the task by the end of the day.
At the same worksite where Manpyari toiled with her young children, 65-year-old Haricharan worked with his two grown up sons. He had high hopes on the scheme to sail him through these difficult times. It turns out, the family had already finished earthwork equivalent to 100 days (the maximum permitted in a year) but kept on working. “I think they will not deny the wages even if I work for more than 100 days," Haricharan said. This desperation to work without guaranteed wages will work out for Haricharan only if the government revises the 100 day norm.
Hope for normalcy
Despite the gloom all around, there were moments when the desire for normalcy shone through. This reporter met a young five-year-old boy Anshu and his friend who were busy working on a pile of earth with a hoe. This was in Kherwa, where the elders were busy preparing for the hunger strike.
“We are building a colony," Anshu said in an excited manner. In the local parlance, colony means subsidised government housing—a highly sought-after benefit in these impoverished villages. As I moved further away and was about to disappear into a lane, Anshu screamed at the top of his voice: “Arey colony nahin, toh basta de deo." If you can’t give a colony, give a school bag.