Home / News / India /  No ration cards, no food supplies. Hunger stalks rural India

NEW DELHI : It’s well past lunch hour, but 50-year-old Bitaiya is yet to step into her kitchen. Her meagre supply of wheat flour was scraped clean the night before. So, whether she—a daily wage earner whose husband died of tuberculosis a few years ago—and her two children, seven- and 16-year olds, will have anything to eat today will depend on the generosity of her neighbours.

“There is no work; so, there is no food," Bitaiya said over phone from her house at the Kuchbandhiya Dera village in Banda district of Uttar Pradesh. Like her, at least 15 other landless families in the village of 70 households, do not have a ration card, which entitles poor families to 5kg of subsidized grains per month under the National Food Security Act, 2013.

Amid a countrywide lockdown announced by the government to check the spread of covid-19 infections, families like hers, excluded from the usual social welfare schemes are among the worst hit — living with hunger and on the brink of starvation. Being out of the food safety net also means these families will be deprived of the additional 6kg of grains and pulses (per person per month) under a central relief scheme announced on 26 March.

The central food security scheme currently covers around 800 million people, or about 62% of the Indian population, but leaves out many of its poorest. The primary reason: The list of beneficiaries of the public distribution system has not been updated for over five years and excludes many children and newly married women. “The list of beneficiaries was finalized between 2013 and 2016, and has not been updated since," said Dipa Sinha, assistant professor at Ambedkar University, Delhi. According to Sinha, who is associated with the civil society coalition Right to Food network, millions, including children and migrant workers are excluded from the scheme.

The central food security scheme currently covers about 62% of India’s population, but leaves out many of its poorest.
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The central food security scheme currently covers about 62% of India’s population, but leaves out many of its poorest. (Photo: Reuters)

“We are in an emergency situation and the government should make the food subsidy scheme universal for the next few months to ensure no one goes hungry," Sinha said.

The Food Corporation of India is currently sitting on a large stockpile—close to 78 million tonnes of rice and wheat compared to buffer norms of 21 million tonnes. Yet, poor families remain excluded from the targeted PDS, forcing them to turn to charity for immediate relief.

For instance, 25 families in Bangru, a village of landless labourers from Jharkhand’s Gumla district, sent out an SOS message to local non-profit organizations a few days ago as food supplies were running out and none had a ration card. “Most of us work in brick kilns and stone quarries which are closed (due to lockdown) now... since 2016, we have been trying to get PDS cards; only some families were included in December last year," said 45-year-old Funo Devi from the village. On Monday, food kits comprising of grains, pulses, edible oil and salt were distributed in the village by a non-profit.

Without the periodic consumer expenditure surveys (the latest one showing a significant drop in rural consumption, including on staples, was junked by the government late last year) it is difficult to estimate how many deserving households are excluded from the food subsidy scheme, Sinha said.

But in Jharkhand, the poorest state in India, 15-18% of the population or 700,000-800,000 eligible families are excluded, said Siraj Dutta, who is part of a rights-based coalition, Jharkhand Janadhikar Mahasabha. The coalition’s Twitter page is replete with fervent appeals to help people facing acute hunger and migrants from the state stranded in different parts of the country.

“The tragic aspect is that to ensure basic food rations for the vulnerable, someone has to put out an appeal for charity...the help does not come naturally as part of a functional social security system," Dutta said.

Rajendran Narayanan, faculty at the Azim Premji University, Bengaluru, is part of a recently formed group, aptly named Stranded Workers Action Network, which is coordinating relief for migrants stuck in different states. In the past few days, the network received calls from over 200 groups.

“They have run out of cash and food supplies, they do not know where state-run feeding centres are... the sudden announcement of a lockdown meant the local bureaucracy had no time to prepare for this humanitarian crisis," Narayanan said.

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