Winter mornings in the rocky hills of Jharkhand’s Latehar district are piercingly cold. Braving the unfavourable weather, Kaloti Masomat, 35, a widow with four children, is leaving for the local ration dealer’s shop. She holds her youngest daughter in her arms, the boys aged four to seven years follow her.
She will walk from Uchvabal, a small hamlet in the midst of dense forests where Parhaiyas – classified as a ‘Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group’ – like her live, to Dumri, about six km away, to collect her ration entitlements. The Antyodaya Anna Yojana, meant for the “poorest of the poor”, guarantees 35 kg rice for free. Her meagre cash earnings of Rs 100 depend on grazing cattle or collecting forest produce, which will be halted for the day.
“I usually walk to the ration shop, as I cannot afford to take a tempo from the village. It is exhausting to walk, especially with the heavy load on my head for so long, but where will I get Rs 30 for the tempo from?” she asked. “Often times when I am unwell, I skip going to the dealer’s shop and stay hungry.”
Travelling takes hours, and then she has to wait in the queue at the dealer’s shop for her turn. “My children get hungry, they wail, but I have nothing to give them. Buying biscuits or toffees requires money, and leaving the young ones at home is impossible,” she said. Her day will end only in the evening after she returns home – about ten hours to reach, collect and avail the essentials on which her life depends.
In Jharkhand, for many like Kaloti, undergoing this arduous journey is a survival routine. The absence of any source of employment, and severe disturbance in their traditional habits, have made them dependant on social security measures. But a creaky public distribution system, and lack of measures to safeguard entitlements, have had catastrophic effects on the underprivileged in these parts of the country.
Failing welfare schemes, rising food insecurity
In its preamble, the ambitious National Food Security Act (NFSA) of 2013 envisioned “ensuring access to adequate quantity of quality food at affordable prices to people to live a life with dignity”. In an attempt to realise those objectives, in a state with hilly and inaccessible terrain, and most Adivasis – especially PVTGs – spread across small hamlets in remote parts, the Jharkhand government started the Dakia scheme in 2017.
It mandated the doorstep delivery of 35 kg rice to over 70,000 PVTG families across 25 districts. A budget of Rs 63.2 million was allocated to transport and package foodgrains. The poor implementation of this scheme, however, has done very little to reduce food insecurity.
The scheme vests responsibility on the marketing officer (MO) of the block to distribute sealed packets to identified households, by acting as a dummy PDS dealer. It also assures employment to women in the work of packaging, under the National Rural Livelihood Mission. But in Manika block of Latehar district, none of this takes place.
The block programme manager, Jharkhand State Livelihood Promotion Society, in Manika confirmed that there is no packaging done by self-help groups. “I have no knowledge of such packaging under the NRLM scheme,” he said. Marketing officer Habib Khan conceded to failures in implementation in the block, and said that the money for packaging has not been allocated in whole. “I am not always there to oversee,” Khan said. “I try and take the help of local PDS dealers, but we have not been able to deliver the rations.”
The long hours and perilous journey still do not ensure Kaloti and many others their full entitlements. The major hurdle is katauti – fraud by the dealer, which leaves beneficiaries with less than their sanctioned allowance. Of the mandated 35 kg rice, the local dealer, Dinesh Rai, allegedly gives them only 30-32 kg. “He uses a teena to measure rice. We receive two teenas,” a dozen women from Kaloti’s village said. A teena holds about 16 kg of rice.
Corruption in the PDS remains unchecked in most of Jharkhand. A survey by student volunteers and the NREGA Sahayata Kendra showed that, of the entitled 35 kg, an average of 33 kg of rice is received by each household. The state government’s attempts to regulate pilferage by pushing Aadhaar into social security schemes has remained ineffective because it does nothing to control quantity fraud, which is the major hurdle.
The survey also revealed that a startling 43 per cent of the 324 families surveyed had missed meals in the last three months because there was no food at home. This food insecurity still continues in Jharkhand, where 17 starvation deaths have been reported since young Santoshi Kumari’s death in Simdega district last year, demonstrating rampant exclusion from public services and government welfare schemes.
Earlier this month, hundreds of Adivasis gathered in front of the Manika Block Office for a public hearing organised by the local NREGA Sahayata Kendra and the Gram Swaraj Mazdoor Sangh. Kaloti and others from her village had also come.
In the presence of senior block and district level officers, villagers spoke of everyday impediments that block their access to welfare entitlements – especially the rampant corruption. Kaloti complained against her ration dealer’s embezzlement and her difficulties of collecting rations from far off.
Block development officer Santosh Kumar only promised that the panchayat would oversee the ration distribution to avoid further discrepancies. “We shall delegate the panchayat members to keep a check on the dealer’s ration shop,” he said. He did not consider any reparations, or acknowledge the multiple testimonies on the dealer’s alleged corruption.
The SDO, however, ordered an enquiry against Dinesh Rai, to be led by the district welfare officer. He also recommended that the Dakiya scheme be implemented very soon. No implementation deadlines could be promised, though, even two years after the state government rolled out the programme.
Kaloti’s challenges are far from over – but this public hearing is her only hope. She does not know when will she receive her foodgrains at home. She hopes to get her full 35 kg of rations. “We will continue to raise our voices against the system, until we get what we should,” she said, as she set off on the walk back home.
Abinash Dash Choudhury is a Skye Fellow. He is currently based in Ranchi, Jharkhand.
In arrangement with The Wire