New Delhi: A month ago, on April 7, Chief Justice of India S.A. Bobde asked public interest lawyer Prashant Bhushan: “If they are being provided meals, then why do they need money for meals?”
Bhushan had represented a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed jointly by civil rights activists Harsh Mander and Anjali Bharadwaj to demand the payment of wages to migrant workers and minimum wage earners who have no income due to the lockdown and therefore no food.
Given the opportunity, Laxmi could explain the situation to the Supreme Court. Laxmi is a homemaker and her husband has not received his wages since March 26, despite several directives by both the Delhi government and the Centre that workers must continue to be paid during the lockdown.
Since April 9, Laxmi has been going from one municipal school to another to collect rations that the Delhi government promised to provide citizens without an income during the lockdown. She first went to the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) school in Pana Udyan, Narela, from where she was directed to the MCD school in Pana Paposiyan. By the time she arrived, there were no rations left. Every day she returned; every day she was told she was too late. Finally, on April 26, she was told she had already received her rations – which she had not, When she went back to the school on April 27, she was rudely told not to return.
Harassed and hungry
Under the Delhi Corona Sahayata Yojana announced by the Delhi government on April 6 for non-public distribution system ration distribution, e-coupons have been given to the needy, guaranteeing rations of four kilos of rice, one kilo of wheat, one kilo of refined oil, one kilo of chana, one kilo of sugar, one kilo of salt, 200 grams of haldi powder, 200 grams of dhania powder, 200 grams of chili powder and two 65-70 gram bars of soap.
While this looks good on paper, the distribution of these essentials is filled with discrepancies. What happened to Laxmi was not an aberration.
Arun Verma, a migrant worker in Paschim Vihar, lined up for his rations every day from April 10 to April 26. On April 27, the school authorities told him he had already received his rations and shooed him away.
On April 24, when Chandan, a factory labourer and resident of Narela, went to collect his wife Shanti’s rations with her coupon, he accidentally went to the wrong school. Later that day, the school administration demanded the return of the rations because he had been given the kit for another cardholder named Shanti. When he went to the correct school the next day, he was told he had already been given Shanti’s rations.
According to Ravinder Hummana, a volunteer with Delhi’s Rozi Roti Adhikar Abhiyan, a network of organisations working on food security, no ration kits were distributed at Pana Paposiyan school on April 7. A notice placed at the school gate stated this clearly.
But the records of the Delhi government show that 713 kilos of rice were distributed at the school that day.
Hummana says the school began issuing e-coupons for this area on April 7, but the head of the school in Manmohini says ration distribution officially began from April 8 and this was confirmed by an official from Circle-01 of Food Supplies and Consumer Complaints, Department of Food and Supplies, Delhi.
However, an Aam Aadmi Party volunteer group has a document dated April 7 signed by an official from the same circle that show details of food distribution in the Narela area on that day.
E-coupons are the Delhi government’s way to ensure that people without ration cards still have access to essential supplies. However, registration for an e-coupon requires a functioning mobile phone with an active sim card and internet access. The person applying for the coupon must have the ability to follow an e-application process that needs an OTP. Only the head of the household can apply for an e-coupon, an Aadhaar number is essential and photos of other members of the family must be uploaded as well.
Even this measure has problems. Some people don’t have an Aadhaar number at all. Others have changed their phone numbers since they registered for Aadhaar and now their phone number does not match the one listed in their Aadhaar records. And some people have been unable to recharge their phones, so they cannot make the application.
This means that the most vulnerable people of all, the very people for whom this scheme was created in the first place, do not have access to rations that will help them survive.
For instance, Istekar Har, a resident of Narela, has not been able to collect rations for the whole family because there is a problem with the Aadhaar records for one member of his family. Since no one in the family has received wages since March, this family of three is surviving on rations meant for two.
Istekar Har’s fellow Narela resident Shahanaj is a homemaker with the same problem. Her husband has not been paid by the construction company he works for and one of her four family members has been denied rations because his Aadhaar details are apparently incorrect. Shahanaj has proof that all her family’s Aadhaar numbers are the same as those that had been registered, but this has not been accepted.
According to a Rozi Roti Adhikar Abhiyan survey, carried out in the first week of April, of the 15 shops in Munirka which were open and distributing grains, only 13 were distributing the additional kit containing oil, chana, sugar, salt, soap and masalas, while one shop was distributing less than the stipulated quantity of food grains on the priority category ration cards.
Vani Iyer, a social worker distributing rations in Paschim Vihar, alleges that richer households claim more rations than they need by enrolling more members of their families in the scheme and this causes a shortage for people from the lower income groups.
No wages, poor grain
According to its workers, the Vijay Shirke Construction Company in Narela has refused to pay wages since March 22. Sumit, a labourer at the construction site, says he receives only two kilos of poor quality rice once every 10 days.
“Our contractor has been giving us Rs 600 per week but that is not enough. How much can I send back home?” asks Sumit.
The quality of rations at this labour camp in Narela is so poor that Khursheed, another labourer at the site, says he cannot eat properly and one of the residents says even pigeons will not touch the rice.
About 500 people live in this camp. All allege that they receive rations only once in 10-15 days and only half the amount stipulated by the Delhi government. So far, they claim, they have received 2.5 kilos of rice, three kilos of atta, and one kilo of dal.
Though the North Delhi District Magistrate office has taken cognisance of the issues faced by the people at the camp, they still have no hope of receiving their factory wages and better quality grain. Both the sub divisional magistrate and the official from Circle-01 of Food Supplies and Consumer Complaints say they have received no complaints of harassment at the ration distribution booths.
Suchitra is a freelance journalist.