Over the years, governments have routinely denied starvation deaths and turned a blind eye to its connection with documentations
“Most of my neighbours have received full three months’ ration entitlements and even some cash, but we got nothing! What can I do now save cry all the time?” said Fuleshwari Patro, from Kasada Gram Panchayat in Odisha. When we spoke to her on call a few weeks ago, she was distraught. Her distress had been amplified by the lockdown. Fuleshwari’s husband was patiently attending to their child in the same room who was wailing frantically. Fuleshwari offhandedly remarked, “What do we have in these times but each other?”
This call was part of a telephonic survey we conducted with a total of 130 respondents from rural Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Uttar Pradesh to assess the impact of the lockdown. The overall findings noted that while 82 per cent of the respondents had a ration card, 96 per cent of the cardholders did receive the PDS rations in April. The state of affairs in Odisha wasn’t very different.
As early as March 17, 2020, the Odisha government had judiciously announced three months’ rations to the people to be provided between April 1 and May 15. Respondents from Odisha did confirm that most people with ration cards have been able to access these food entitlements along with Rs 1,000 cash on time. The problem, however, remains unaddressed for people like Fuleshwari who do not have ration cards.
Although Fuleshwari was grateful for her altruistic neighbours who help within their limited capacities, she is scared that this cannot possibly continue for long.
“If this lockdown extends again, we don’t know how long we can survive. We might just die without food and wages” — were her disturbing last words.
We had first met her family in June last year for the Jaccha Baccha Survey. The survey noted conditions of pregnant and lactating women in rural areas of six states of India.
That hot summer afternoon, Fuleshwari and her husband sat with us outside their thatched hut with their child and spoke to us at length about the exclusionary nature of welfare schemes. She was seven months pregnant then, and still continued with household chores including fetching water from afar.
“Not working is not an option!” she told us. Her husband did help with chores as and when he could. While he managed to earn about Rs 7,000 per month, that sure wasn’t enough to meet their expenses.
Fuleshwari had not been eating additional food during her pregnancy, and also admitted that she had not been able to make any effort to include nutritious food in her diet. Incidentally, this pattern is in congruence with one of the most crucial findings of the survey: Only 22 per cent of nursing women reported that they had been eating more than usual during their pregnancy, and just 31 per cent said they had been eating more nutritious food. Without full realisations of the right to food and the right to work, this undernutrition of pregnant women remains inevitable.
The family’s efforts to obtain the ration card are not recent. Last June, they had approached both the panchayat office as well as the block office with all necessary documents. This running from pillar to post has not yielded result.
Most food subsidy packages announced after the lockdown remain dependent on enrollment of individuals in the public distribution system (PDS). However, as Jean Dreze, Reetika Khera, and Meghana Mungikar have demonstrated, governments are still relying on the 2011 census population figures to calculate state-wise coverage under the National Food Security Act (NFSA) and that automatically excludes at least 100 million people. These numbers should have been updated using projected population figures, but weren’t. Without that update from the central government, the number of persons to be covered in each state remains frozen.
This has resulted in immense hunger and starvation issues in the country. A year after the starvation death of Santoshi Kumari, an 11-year-old girl in Simdega, Jharkhand, social workers compiled a list of 56 alleged hunger-related deaths since 2015 across the country. Sadly, the list has only expanded over time.
On April 13, we, at the Right to Food Campaign, wrote to Ram Vilas Paswan, the minister for consumer affairs, food and public distribution, urging the need to “universalise PDS in such a manner that any person/household that approaches a fair price shop (FPS) can get a package of grains, pulses and cooking oil to avoid widespread hunger and starvation”. A week later, we wrote again that while Mr Paswan, himself, admitted the presence of sufficient grains to mitigate this food crisis and noted that there is no food shortage at all, he called the food crisis a result of “logistical problems” owing to states not issuing enough ration cards.
Meanwhile, the Odisha government has been declaring its intentions of addressing loopholes in PDS. On March 21, they announced their decision to include five lakh more people under the purview of its own state food security scheme. This was meant for ones who have been left out of NFSA. Three weeks later, another announcement stated about 50,000 of the five lakh have been added. Ranendra Pratap Swain, minister for food supplies and consumer welfare, promised further inclusions were in process.
Fuleshwari, however, was unaware of such an exercise. For her, the story had remained just about the same. In June, she had said in response to our question on NFSA: “Jaanne se sirf kya hoga? Milega toh nahi humko! (What’s the point of being informed if I still can’t access the service?)”
It is a vicious cycle of number games gone wrong, and that is indeed a reflection of the relationship between the State and its people. Over the years, all governments have routinely denied all starvation deaths and turned a blind eye to its connection with identification documentations like the ration card and Aadhaar. The courts of law have also stopped heeding these grave dangers, and gone ahead with utmost callousness to remark that the poor do not need wages when the government has already promised food. A recent example is the dismissal of a petition for universal PDS for it “being a policy issue, it is left open to the Government of India.”
Amid this all, Fuleshwari’s apprehensions about starving to death grow more possible every day. But our only hope in these abysmal times is still that benign promise of universal PDS and employment guarantee.