Updated: May 4, 2020
Bengaluru: Portly and cheerful, Nargis Sekh, 30, and her husband, Ajarul Sekh, 35, sat idly in their ramshackle tin-and-brick home in a slum surrounded by the high-rise buildings that provide them livelihood. Her husband helped build them, and when people from India’s large, upwardly-mobile middle class moved in, she worked as a maid, cook or nanny.
It was a hard life, but between them they made about Rs 23,000 a month, a sum eight times above India’s urban poverty line of Rs 1,410 per person (the poverty line in urban areas is at Rs 47 per day) and 22% above the minimum wage of Rs 5300/month (the baseline figure which varies from state to state). After paying Rs 2,000 for rent and Rs 7,000 for other living expenses, they sent the money home, where their two children live with Nargis’ sister and go to school.
But when India declared a lockdown on 24 March 2020 to combat a global Coronavirus epidemic, Nargis and Ajarul lost their jobs. Now construction has ceased, and the middle-class residents in those towers in India’s IT capital have barred domestic workers from entry. So, here they were in Thubarahalli in eastern Bangalore, effectively trapped, nearly 2,500 km from home in West Bengal, with no jobs, no money and—with national transport shut—no means to leave.
Ramazan, the holy month of fasting and prayer, had begun when we spoke to Nargis. Despite the looming threat of hunger and destitution, she smiled and said she was fine. “I am fasting, didi (sister), so I can’t be sad,” she said.
Her neighbours, who gathered around to speculate when the lockdown may be lifted, were less optimistic. What if the lockdown was extended beyond 3 May, they worried. With no income in April, how would they manage to survive the month of May? At least back at home, some kind of assistance would have trickled down through the Public Distribution System (PDS), which provides those below the poverty line—and some above—subsidised foodgrain via 527,000 "fair price shops" nationwide.
Nargis’ ration card, her access to the cheap-food system, was issued in West Bengal, where it lies in her village in Bethuadahari. The card allows the family cheap foodgrain at the village fair price shop at prices assured to them under the National Food Security Act (NFSA), 2013. But since both she and her husband are in Bengaluru and her children can’t draw rations on the family’s behalf, their quota of 5 kg of foodgrain per person per month lapses uselessly for most of the year.
This should not be.
Launched in April 2018, according to this government release, the One Nation One Ration Card (ONORC) scheme would have given migrants access to rations wherever they were. The programme is under various stages of implementation, with some states more advanced than others, and currently of little use. In Karnataka, it began in October 2019.
Instead of the ad hoc and clearly sub-par methods that governments are using to trace and help migrants within their jurisdictions, some forethought and fast-tracking of the ONORC could have channeled aid more effectively, said experts.
Despite the 100-150 million people left out of the NFSA and the many flaws in the PDS, its fair price shops still remain the best way to deliver food to millions of people during this crisis.
The Food They Cannot Reach
On 27 March, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced a relief package, which included free double-rations and increased rations for cardholders over the next three months in PDS stores. But this would prove meaningless for the millions of internal migrants who can’t access their rations anyway.
The migrants, who have become emblematic of the troubles with the lockdown, have been largely left to fend for themselves in unforgiving cities and without the social support of their communities. But the ONORC programme, riding on the back of Aadhaar (the national unique identification card geared towards the delivery of social security programmes), was supposed to allow migrants access their rations wherever they might be.
Over the course of the past year, the ONORC was introduced in eight states and was extended to four more at the beginning of this year. As late as February 2020, the Union Ministry for Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution said that this would be implemented in all 29 states from 1 June 2020.
The government has maintained that the ONORC is on track, and the Supreme Court, responding to a plea filed for its speedy implementation, has asked the Centre to consider adopting it during the lockdown. But there is no clarity on how this will be implemented, considering Aadhaar verification via fingerprints has been suspended due to the outbreak.
Thus far, new data indicated, the programme is not working as it should.
The Stranded Workers Action Network, a group of volunteers linking stranded migrants to the government or aid organisations, released in April 2020 a report that indicates tens of thousands of migrant Jharkhandis stranded and on the brink of starvation, a situation that could have been avoided with better implementation of ONORC.
Jharkhand, which traditionally has seen high out-migration, was among the latest states where the scheme was rolled out, starting 1 January 2020. “The government has been saying from January, and even before that, that this has been implemented within the state and it will be extended across India,” said Siraj Dutta, Right to Food activist. “But I haven't really seen it working in Jharkhand.”
According to data from the Integrated Management of Public Distribution Systems, which includes the ONORC, the number of transactions under the programme have been in the single digits so far, with the outlier being Telangana, where mostly guest workers from Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra have been using their state-issued ration cards.
But even these numbers are infinitesimally small when compared to the number of people who are working away from their homes at any given time. According to the Economic Survey 2016-17, there are 139 million internal migrants in India, and 9 million people move around each year for work-related reasons, according to railway data for 2011-2016.
This February, there were only 734 transactions under ONORC, the majority in Telangana, which recorded 583.
Those working on the ground didn’t need to look at the dashboard to glean that the scheme is a non-starter. In Rajasthan’s capital, among Sitapura’s many kacchi bastis which are populated by industrial workers from Bihar, UP, West Bengal, Jharkhand and Odisha, the norm is to buy rations on credit from the kirana stores. After the state was locked down on 21 March 2020, some left for their home states, but the majority were stuck, with their money spent, and stores no longer advancing credit.
Migrants are now entirely dependent on the state for dry rations and cooked food, a responsibility that the state is trying to pawn off on the industrial associations and factory owners, said People’s Union for Civil Liberties’ Kavita Srivatsava.
On paper, the ONORC scheme has been active in Rajasthan and, at the very least, migrants from the other 11 states should have been able to draw their rations here. But the state has seen 122 transactions since July 2019. Co-founder of Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan Nikhil Dey recalled that, over the last year, the Rajasthan government tried to roll out ration portability within the state—first within the district and then between districts—with limited success.
“The government certainly issued orders at different points that you can claim rations from anywhere, but it didn’t work [because] the shops themselves used to get a certain quota [of rations] based on the number of cards [under them], and they were not interested in giving them to others, even if they were just from a neighbouring village,” said Dey.
Building On Top Of Failures
Ration-card portability has been more successful within southern states that have rolled it out, such as Karnataka and Telangana. There are more than 12.7 million below poverty line (BPL) and Antyodaya ration cards—issued additionally to tribals, widows, senior citizens and the disabled —in Karnataka and more than 600,000 of these portable across states, according to M C Gangadhara, Additional Director at the Karnataka State Food Commission.
Gangadhara acknowledged that inter-state portability has been a failure but could not quite fathom why. Most migrants, who leave ration cards back home with families, don’t use the portability, despite the fact that up to half of their rations can be withdrawn at a different location after Aadhaar verification. The other half can be withdrawn at home after a gap of at least 10 days.
A senior official from the food and civil supplies department in Telangana, who requested anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the media, also confirmed the failure. He said perhaps restrictions on quantity should be lifted to encourage ration card holders.
Gangadhara said neither technology nor logistics were reasons for failure.
“Every month, Karnataka gets 2,17,403 metric tonnes of rice from the Centre,” said Gangadhara. “In November (2019), the government of India gave us 5% of this to cover those from outside the state who may be withdrawing rations here. So the foodgrains are available but no one is coming forward to utilise this feature.”
He ventured to guess that not enough advertisements have been carried out regarding this by the Centre. “The scheme must be promoted in the home states in the migrants’ own language like Bengali, Odia, etc.,” he said.
But more pertinently, ONORC is being rolled out on an unwieldy and flawed system, which has only become further dysfunctional during the pandemic.
The promise of double rations remains unfulfilled in many parts of the country; some were even waiting for their March rations. Not all PDS shops are open, and those open were not providing rations because they claimed to have run out, according to a survey conducted by Delhi Rozi Roti Adhikar Abhiyan. Proteins, such as pulses, are not yet distributed at PDS shops, and with no money to buy vegetables, nutritional levels are suffering, according to Joshi. Dealers continue to take cuts (katauti) from people’s rations, demand bribes and continue to insist on Aadhaar verification despite government directives.
“Only oral orders [about emergency measures in the PDS] have been passed,” said Siddarth Joshi, an independent researcher and food activist, referring to the situation in Bengaluru. “Things remain the same. Officials want us to report such dealers, but it becomes difficult because the people are then targeted.”
The relief measures announced by the Centre has brought attention to the fact that the NFSA list—based on which ration cards are issued—is still plagued by large-scale exclusion.
There are roughly 230 million households and 800 million people on the NFSA list. Given that India’s population currently is 1.35 billion, not counting households that do not require subsidies, about 100-150 million people who need rations but are not covered under the NFSA are excluded.
This is because the list relies on the 2011 census. Many states have already exhausted quotas given to them by the Centre and are unable to give out any more priority household ration cards, including to many migrants who might have not been present in a village when ration cards were issued.
Food for All: An Achievable Goal
There are at least 77 million tonnes of grain with the Food Corporation of India, not including the 20 million tonnes or so from the rabi (winter) season that is yet to be procured. Activists and experts have called on the government to release stocks to ensure hungry, stranded migrants are fed.
Experts believe that, flawed as it may be, the PDS is the best bet in dispersing urgent aid. “We already have the stocks and the PDS machinery,” said Dipa Sinha, an assistant professor of economics at Delhi’s Ambedkar University. She said fair price shops were “much more accessible” than bank branches.
“While cash is also important, free food is the main thing people are looking for currently,” said Sinha. “It is more urgent, and it is possible to reach people immediately with this existing system of food distribution. We just need to give the instructions.”
Instead, what little aid flowing to migrants is ad hoc and mostly handled through revenue departments under the Disaster Management Act, rather than the food and civil supplies department. In Delhi, non-ration card holders are required to download an e-coupon through a website after generating a one-time password via a mobile phone and uploading their aadhaar card, among other things. This process makes it complicated and inaccessible to those most vulnerable.
Back in Thubarahalli, Nargis and her neighbours must wait for city municipal corporation officials to visit their settlement and count them as vulnerable before they get food. Even if they are counted, succor may not be immediate.
Surveys conducted in two Bengaluru migrant colonies by media and arts collective Maraa indicated slow or no responses from municipal officials, unanswered SOS calls from both workers and NGOs, erratic distribution of cooked food in some areas and rotten vegetables in the ration kit in some areas.
Saad Mohammed, a retired electrical technician with the Bangalore Metro, has taken it upon himself to collate the information of 750-odd people living in Nargis’ slum. A local NGO gave him the number of the local municipal officer. Mohammed tries the number every day. No one answers.
(Ayswarya Murthy is an independent journalist based in Bangalore. She writes on politics, policy and everything in between.)