Though the National Food Security Act has increased coverage of the public distribution system, a survey in six eastern states finds that there are still gaps to be filled.
Gumla, Jharkhand: Akida Bano works in an anganwaadi in Parsa village, Bharno block, Gumla, Jharkhand. The anganwaadi is supposed to get 124 kg of grain every month from the local public distribution system (PDS) dealer, used to make nutritious food for local children, and pregnant and lactating mothers.
But for the last two months, Akida told The Wire, the anganwaadi hasn’t received any supply at all. Gaps in the supply of ration is common. When the supply of rice doesn’t come, the children are fed halwa. Akida and other anganwaadi workers supplement this with khichdi from their own salaries – Rs 3,000 a month– whenever they can afford it.
Residents of the Muslim-majority Parsa village echoed Akida’s disappointment with the system. According to them, only about 35% of the people in the village have ration cards under the National Food Security Act, while the others are still missing from the lists. Even for those who are covered, ration is extremely irregular.
“We have seven members in our family, but only two are listed on our ration card. Add that to the irregular supply and it means that we have no option but to buy grain from the market,” said Pammi. “A lot of families have this problem, very few household members’ names are on the list.”
People in the village blamed their PDS dealer Sunil Kesri for this state of affairs. “Earlier the ration was managed by the village mahila mandal,” said Mir Anwar Hussain. “Things were a lot better then. My family wasn’t registered then either, but since my parents would regularly get the complete ration they could share some with us. Now they don’t even get enough to feed themselves.”
“The PDS lists are public, I’ve seen them,” said Nasim Khan. “Our names aren’t there, but somehow the dealer’s son and other relatives are on the list. They don’t even live here! I’m sure he must have put their names on other village lists too, the ones that come under his dealership.”
In months when ration is distributed, another problem emerges. “The dealer cuts 2 kg of rice from what he is supposed to give us. My household is supposed to get 30 kg, but he will give us 28 kg. The slip will have the entire amount though, so we will be charged even for what we didn’t get. This way he gets 2 kg rice and Rs 2 at the same time. He does this with every household, imagine how much he is getting out of this,” Sagir Khan told The Wire.
“And when we complain about this to the dealer or ask why we aren’t getting our ration regularly, he says he is only following ‘orders from above’,” added Changez Khan. “What does that mean, that the government wants him to cheat us? We don’t know if anyone will take our complaints against him seriously.”
The problems in Pandarni village, just a few kilometres from Parsa, are slightly different. Almost the entire village is covered by the PDS, barring a few households. However, no household in the village received any ration at all in the last four to six months, a time when the entire state of Jhakhand has declared a drought. In June, households finally had access to ration again.
“We got no ration at all for the last six months,” Baho Mants told The Wire. “Finally when I went yesterday I got grain, kerosene and salt again. I have a six-member family, it becomes very difficult when there is no ration.” Baho Mants belongs to a scheduled tribe and has an Antyodaya card (meant for the poorest households).
NFSA survey and public hearing
In an attempt to demand their rights and what is owed to them by the state, residents from Parsa, Pandarni and other surrounding villages gathered at the Bharno block headquarters for a public hearing on food security and the public distribution system on June 14.
The hearing was organised by a team of researchers who have conducted sample surveys on the implementation of the National Food Security Act (NFSA), 2013 in six states: Jharkhand, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, West Bengal and Chhattisgarh. Led by Ranchi University professor Jean Dreze and IIT Delhi professor Reetika Khera, student volunteers interviewed approximately 1,600 households in total, choosing sample villages from two districts in each survey state.
In Jharkhand, though the implementation of the NFSA last year has made a difference to the access of households to the public distribution system, certain issues still remain. After the NFSA was in place, 74% of survey households had a new ration card, as opposed to 48% before the act was implemented. However, a regional difference remains, as is evident from the story in Parsa. Survey results also found that excluded households are concentrated in certain areas: in the Ramgarh block of Dumka district, for instance, coverage has gone up from 43% to 84% after the NFSA was implemented, while in the Bharno block of Gumla district the increase was only from 53% to 66%.
Shweta Ved, block development officer of Bharno, accepted that the there was still work to be done. “We know there are several households still without ration cards. The process has begun and we hope to distribute them as soon as possible,” she said, speaking at the public hearing.
Even though coverage has increased significantly, other issues like the ones highlighted by the residents of Parsa and Pandarni were reflected in the survey results and at the public hearing. The problems included family members being excluded from ration cards and people not getting the complete amount they were entitled to. “Making a complaint is also useless,” Mohan from Raikeri village, attending the public hearing, told The Wire. “Whoever you complain to just goes to the person you complained about and asks them for money to make the problem go away. Not only does the issue not get resolved, the official or dealer then knows that you complained and makes things difficult for you; it creates tensions.”
Another problem that came up was the insistence of authorities on people having Aadhaar cards before ration cards were issued, going against the Supreme Court order that Aadhaar cards are optional and cannot be made a requirement for ration cards or any other government entitlements. When the district supply officer claimed to have a written order linking Aadhaar and rations cards was mandatory, Khera said that this was illegal and would be taken up with higher authorities if proven true.
Government officials at the public hearing promised to look into all the issues raised, and even said that they would start surprise visits at distribution sites from the very next day. Whether they follow up on this as well as the provision of ration cards to households that are eligible, but so far uncovered, remains to be seen.
State-wise preliminary findings
In all the six states surveyed by the team, it was found that the NFSA has made a difference to the coverage and quality of the public distribution system. Chhattisgarh is the best performing state, with 95% of the surveyed population holding ration cards. In addition, 99% of those surveyed said the quality of grain they received was ‘good’ or ‘fair’. Odisha, Madhya Pradesh and West Bengal have also made substantial progress since the NFSA was implemented. In Odisha, the proportion of the surveyed population holding a ration card went from 62% to 88% after the act was implemented. In Madhya Pradesh this number went from 55% to 85% and in West Bengal from 51% to 86%.
Even in these states, problems do exist. Quality of the grain was an issue in West Bengal, with only 57% being satisfied with the grain they received. In addition, problems like missing names in ration cards, pricing discrepancies and the insistence on Aadhaar cards existed in these states as well. In Madhya Pradesh, the student volunteers said, they also found cases of caste-based discrimination: Dalits were given grain from separate sacks, often of lower quality and were made to wait longer for their ration as “upper” castes were given the priority. There were also problems with malfunctioning ‘point of sales’ machines, recently introduced to digitalise the process.
Bihar and Jharkhand still have a long way to go, according to the preliminary findings of the survey. In Bihar, for instance, though coverage increased substantially after the NFSA was implemented, corruption remained extremely high, with some families reporting that their entire month’s ration was often siphoned off by dealers. In addition, some households reported that the quality of grain was so bad that they fed it to cattle instead of eating it themselves.
But even in these states, a statement from the team led by Dreze and Khera says, progress can be seen. Leakages have reduced significantly and coverage has increased. As long as things continue to improve, they said, they can fast achieve the same standard as the other sample states.