Why People Are Protesting Against Jharkhand’s Experiment With Direct Benefit Transfers

A pilot project in Nagri block has only created more hardships for people trying to access the state’s public distribution system.

Women participate in the 8 km march against the DBT scheme, carrying their children on their backs. Credit: Jahnavi Sen

Women participate in the 8 km march against the DBT scheme, carrying their children on their backs. Credit: Jahnavi Sen

Ranchi (Jharkhand): In the last few months, Jharkhand’s public distribution system (PDS) has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. The alleged starvation deaths due to the denial of ration have shed light on how the Aadhaar-linked system is making people’s lives harder. And now, people in the Nagri block of Jharkhand’s Ranchi district say the government is trying to put the final nail in the PDS’s coffin.

In October 2017, the Jharkhand government decided to roll out a pilot project in Nagri – direct benefit transfers as part of the food security scheme. Earlier, people would take their ration cards to the local dealer and be able to purchase rice at Re 1/kg, with each member of a priority household allotted five kg. Now, the government has decided to throw a few extra steps into the mix – money is first transferred into each household’s Aadhaar-linked bank account. They have to then withdraw this as cash (often from the local Pragya Kendra or business correspondent and not the bank), take it to the local ration dealer and buy rice at Rs 32/kg – of which Re 1/kg comes from the ration card holder.

On Monday (February 26), over a thousand people from across Nagri block collected in Ranchi to mark their protest against the new system and demand that the PDS delivery return to what it used to be. Slogans like ‘DBT nahi, ration chahiye (We want our ration, not DBT)’ rang through the streets as men and women of all ages marched more than eight km from Nagri block to the governor’s residence in Ranchi.

People carrying posters against the DBT scheme during the march. Credit: Jahnavi Sen

People carrying posters against the DBT scheme during the march. Credit: Jahnavi Sen

The rally was organised under the banner of the Ration Bachao Manch, a coalition of five opposition parties – Congress, Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, Communist Party of India (Marxist), Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) and Jharkhand Vikas Morcha – and a number of civil society groups, including the Right to Food Campaign and All India People’s Forum.

Once at the governor’s residence, representatives from various groups submitted a memorandum to the governor, Draupadi Murmu. “We demand the immediate withdrawal of the DBT pilot in Nagri in favour of the Re 1/kg rice at the ration shop. All households who were unable to purchase rice due to this pilot – and other reasons such as the mandatory linking of the Public Distribution System with Aadhaar – should be compensated as per the provisions of the National Food Security Act,” the document said. While the old system had its own set of problems, it was far better than what is happening now, was the general consensus at the rally.

Behind the anger

What brought them out to the streets in such large numbers? “The new system is nothing but a new set of problems for us,” Sushila from Lada village, who is a member of the local mahila samiti (women’s group), told The Wire.

“First, we don’t know when the money comes into our account – most of us are not literate so we can’t check online or through SMS. We have to keep going to the bank. Then, after multiple trips to the bank, we finally get the cash and then have to go to the ration dealer. We lose so many work days, children also have to miss school. It’s okay for those who have a motorcycle, but what about the rest of us? If we don’t go to collect the DBT one month, they send us a notice saying they will stop giving us the subsidy, trying to scare us.”

A warning notice received by a card holder who did not collect his DBT. Credit: Right to Food Campaign

A warning notice received by a card holder who did not collect his DBT. Credit: Right to Food Campaign

Another problem people raised is that when the scheme was first introduced, households with multiple bank accounts had no idea where the money was going. “We were not told if the money would come to my account, my husband’s or my mother-in-law’s. The ration dealer also didn’t know. We had to keep going to all three banks to check,” Meena Uraon from Saher village said.

A recent survey of 224 household across 13 villages in Nagri, carried out by student volunteers working with the Right to Food Campaign, found that 97% of the respondents wanted to go back to the old system. Of the four instalments of ration due to them since the DBT method was put in place, on average people had received only 2.1 instalments. In addition, the multiple trips required to go through the process meant that people were losing out on work days – on average, respondents said the entire process took 12 hours or almost two working days.

Dilip Mahto from Tusmu village earns about Rs 400 per day as a daily wage labourer. His bank is about five km away, in Nagri town. He first goes there to make sure that the money has come in, which can sometimes take multiple trips. Then he goes to the Pragya Kendra to withdraw the money, since the transactions are too small for the bank to handle. When he gets the money, he brings it back to the village and takes it to the ration shop. “There’s barely any point anymore,” he told The Wire. “We just really want the system to go back to the way it was.”

In Hotwasi village, Sanju Tirku says her problems go even beyond the ones everyone else is talking about. “My DBT transfer has been coming in the form of Airtel money. I didn’t even know I had an account with them until that happened! I don’t have a smartphone and couldn’t figure out how to get money converted to cash that I can take to the ration shop. One month my brother-in-law helped me – we transferred the money to his account and managed to get it out. But since then I haven’t taken in out now – two more instalments are still in the phone.”

“It doesn’t make any sense,” added her neighbour, Sumita Devi. “We have to go through all this effort to take out rice. But for everything else we are buying at the ration shop, we are still paying out of our own pocket. There is no DBT for that. What is the logic?”

“Also, who is the government trying to fool by telling us that this rice costs Rs 32/kg? For that kind of money, we could buy better rice in the market. But now they are giving us the money, and still saying we must buy the same quality rice from the ration shop. Some women have also been complaining that their husbands are taking the money and spending it on other things, including alcohol.”

Dhaneswar Gor, a 58-year-old farmer from Katarpa, says the bank has been cutting away his family’s DBT money because the account which the money comes to – his wife’s – had an outstanding loan. “I went there (to the Bank of India branch in Nagri, where him and his wife both have accounts) and they told me that the money had come, but the bank would be cutting it because we hadn’t repaid our loan. So now we’ve been buying ration with our own money. We were told that if we don’t collect ration for three months in a row, our card will be cancelled. Others in our village have got notices saying their card may be cancelled since they haven’t collected ration.”

It’s not just card holders who are unhappy with the new system. Members of the mahila samiti in Katarpa village, which runs the ration distribution, say that their work has become a lot more difficult now. “Earlier, the supply would come and we would open the shop for two-three days, everyone would come and buy their share. But now we are sitting here all month, and still everyone hasn’t come. Out of the 120 people on our list, only about 80 have taken their ration. Before DBT, in any given month, only four-five people wouldn’t come. Now the supply is just lying here, and we have to be available all the time,” Lalita Devi, a member of the mahila samiti, said.

Surle Munda loading his ration onto his neighbour's motorcycle. Credit: Jahnavi Sen

Surle Munda loading his ration onto his neighbour’s motorcycle. Credit: Jahnavi Sen

“Look,” she said, pointing at two men outside the ration centre. “They have come now to collect their January ration. It’s February 27, but we’re still dealing with last month’s supply. This month’s money is yet to come.”

“What can I do?” asked Surle Munda, one of the men who had come to collect his ration. “The problem is the system. I lost two working days at the beginning of the month going and checking if the money had come. Then I had work, I couldn’t go again. I finally went this morning.”

Why the change?

According to Kuldeep Kumar, Nagri’s block development officer, the new system – which involves more cash than the previous one – is part of the state government’s push for a cashless economy. “Right now it involves cash, but the plan is that soon the money will be transferred directly from government to card holder and then card holder to ration dealer, without any withdrawals in between. It will be completely cashless. And it will also make sure that no duplicate ration cards are there.”

When asked about the troubles people said they were facing and the rally in Ranchi, Kumar said, “Some people start protesting even before a scheme is rolled out. What can you do about that? Now opposition parties are just trying to politicise the issue. There may be a few problems, but if they bring those to us, we can smooth things over. They should wait and watch instead if protesting instantly.”

People from Nagri gathered outside the governor's residence in Ranchi. Credit: Jahnavi Sen

People from Nagri gathered outside the governor’s residence in Ranchi. Credit: Jahnavi Sen

Sunil Kumar, the block supply officer, seemed a little less convinced about the issues being only a few. “So far, we have managed to make sure that 84% of Nagri’s population is covered under the DBT pilot project – that’s no small feat. But about whether it’s good or bad, that’s not for me to say. It is a government scheme, our job is to implement it. Yes, there are problems – but the card holders will be able to tell you about them better than I can.”

Communist Party of India leader Annie Raja thinks there is a more sinister motive behind the programme. “Efforts have been on for a while now – since the UPA regime – to end the ration system. The government doesn’t want to take responsibility, so it is slowly killing the system. This is just another way of doing it.”

At the rally, one of the major demands was that the project be rolled back in Nagri and not be carried over to other parts of the state. From ration dealers to card holders, there seems to be a near consensus that the project isn’t working for the people. “It has to go,” Congress worker Pramod Kumar Singh told The Wire. “The people of Nagri will not take this.”

“They’re doing this in Nagri, which is close to Ranchi and relatively well-off,” economist and activist Jean Drèze said. “And even here people who depend on the ration system are facing countless problems. Imagine if this is taken to more remote areas – where banks are further away and literacy is even lower. The implementation has also happened in a rushed and unplanned manner – there’s no evaluation mechanism to check what’s actually going on. How is that a good model for a pilot project? Now people are being excluded without compensation and obviously there is public anger.”

On February 28, Jharkhand’s food minister Saryu Rai and food secretary Amitabh Kaushal met with Drèze and three others from the Right to Food Campaign to discuss the situation in Nagri. According to a press note issued by the campaign, Rai did not deny the results of the survey that said 97% of people are unhappy with the new system. “However, the delegation failed to persuade the Minister that the DBT experiment should be discontinued to avoid further damage,” the release says. Another meeting between Rai and a larger delegation from the Ration Bachao Manch and villagers from Nagri is set for March 6.