As of end 10 June, members of the Valmiki community residing in a slum in Sector 8 of Uttar Pradesh’s Gautam Buddha Nagar district said that since 25 March, when the nationwide lockdown began, the authorities have only distributed dry ration in their area thrice. Most members of the community residing in the area hail from Uttar Pradesh. They said the authorities have asked them to get ration cards made for regular supplies but did not impose the same condition on people from Bihar and West Bengal who live in the same area.
A representative of the Democratic Outreach for Social Transformation—a trust that joined hands with the Noida Authority, a development authority in the district, for the distribution of rations during the lockdown—confirmed this. The representative, Suraj Sudhakar, who is DOST’s incharge for coordinating relief work in Sector 8, said, “We thought instead of immediately giving them rations, let us have a permanent solution of them getting ration cards.”
Members of the Valmiki community—a Dalit sub-caste—are being pushed to get ration cards during a pandemic, even though the state government decided to universalise the public-distribution system by 30 June. According to the state government’s press release announcing the decision, on 17 April, the chief minister, Ajay Singh Bisht—more commonly known as Adityanath—said that this move would “ensure that every needy person is entitled to free ration even if he or she does not have ration card or aadhaar card.”
As a result, members of the Valmiki community in the slum have few means of getting supplies without ration cards. In a handwritten letter dated 14 April, residents of the slum told Suhas Lalinakere Yathiraj, the district magistrate of Gautam Buddha Nagar, about this shortage. “Around 250–300 families in our Valmiki community’s mohalla require ration,” the letter said. “People are facing a lot of trouble here.” Phone numbers of around one hundred and fifty people had been listed in the letter, in case the government wanted to step up efforts to distribute ration and contact them. I contacted nearly twenty of them, who described the haphazard process of the government’s distribution drives. They said it was not possible to purchase ration easily in their locality as it had been a part of a containment zone for a long time and they depleted their savings during the lockdown. Some residents said that they had seen authorities distribute packets of cooked food a few times but its supply was grossly insufficient.
I emailed and called Yathiraj for a comment, but did not receive a response. A staffer in the office of Pankaj Singh—the member of legislative assembly representing Noida from the Bharatiya Janata Party—who wished to be anonymous, dismissed allegations of a shortage of supply and said that the government was providing ration according to each individual’s needs.
Sudhakar explained how DOST—founded by the BJP national spokesperson Gopal Krishna Agarwal—and the Noida Authority were distributing rations. He said that they had chosen to give dry ration to those whose domicile is not Uttar Pradesh on a priority basis but insisted this was not a discriminatory decision.
For distribution, he said, they have divided residents who do not have ration cards in two different categories—people who are domiciles of Uttar Pradesh and migrants from other states. They are supposed to submit “Praroop-1” and “Praroop-2” forms, respectively, to get ration cards. “Praroop-2 are forms where ration cards cannot be issued at this point of time because One Nation One Ration Card is just coming in,” he said, referring to a system that was announced during the lockdown, which is aimed at easing access to ration for migrants, irrespective of their location. “So, those are people who will not get ration cards but government is giving them rations through CSR funds,” he said. Hence, the team distributed ration to migrants from other states and Praroop-1 form to people from Uttar Pradesh, Sudhakar said. They contended that if residents from Uttar Pradesh can become ration-card holders, it would benefit them post the pandemic as well. But the residents I spoke to emphasised the need for immediate relief.
All residents of the slum whom I spoke to believed that the authorities evidently favoured people from Bihar or West Bengal with distributing dry ration, but did not know any rationale behind this. “Some arrangements were made but it was for Bengalis and Biharis,” Rajender, who has been a resident of the slum for 16 years, said. Rajender used to worked as a sweeper but lost his job when he fell ill before the lockdown. According to Rajender, the authorities distributed ration in his locality on 20 May, but refused to give him any. “They refused people from UP saying that those from UP will not get anything.” Rajender said that the authorities asked them to get ration cards first. He, along with most other residents, did not know who these authorities were.
Residents were wary of the long and usually unfruitful process to get government documents in order. He said that he had attempted to apply for a ration card earlier too, but his applications were never processed. “I have filled the form for the third time today,” he told me, on 21 May. Sachin Kumar, another resident, said, “If we apply for ration cards, it takes three months to move forward and it still gets rejected. It takes a lot of time. When we had last filled a form, we were told that it is old and asked to apply with a new form.”
Another resident, who holds a ration card and has been trying to coordinate ration relief for others, told me that on 4 June, Noida Authority officials assured the residents from Uttar Pradesh in the slum that their ration cards would be processed in two days. He said he received ration on 10 June, but had no update on the ration cards till then.
On 5 June, Sudhakar told me that his team has collected 70 applications for ration cards from residents of Uttar Pradesh in the slum, which would be processed by the following week. When I told him that many residents are concerned about the delay in getting ration cards, he replied that they took “four–five days” to submit the applications to the local ration-card office.
Aashu, a resident of the slum who has been helping people fill those forms, said that having the requisite identity cards did not necessarily translate into everyone having access to supplies. He said he witnessed dry ration being distributed twice—once on 20 May and another time before that. “There is no system to it,” Aashu said. “Those who reach first will get it. Some people go twice for more. They don’t check who it is before handing it out.”
Manju, Aashu’s neighbour, said she did not get ration even once. “They distribute it to their own people. I go and stand there but I never get it.” She added, “Once they are done distributing to their own, they say, ‘Arre DM ka phone aa gaya, chalo bhago, bhago’”—The district magistrate has called, run away from here.
She said an official from the Noida Authority had informed her of a distribution drive on 20 May beforehand. “When the vehicle came here for distribution, they went to their own mohallas. They did not reach me. The Biharis got ration, the UP people got forms,” Manju said. “There was fighting and commotion and nobody among our people got the chance to receive the ration. So we returned home.” She said she knew of at least eight–ten people in her vicinity who also did not get supplies that day.
Manju is a homemaker who lives with her five children and her husband who worked in a restaurant, which temporarily shut its operations due to the lockdown. No one in her family has a ration card. When asked how she has been making ends meet, she told me, “What do I tell you? I have been borrowing money from my relatives—Rs 500 from one, Rs 1,000 from another.”
When I spoke to Sudhakar, on 5 June, he was dismissive of the question that insufficient ration had been distributed to people in the slum, but did not deny that distribution of dry rations took place only on two occasions. “One ration pack of government is around 15 kilograms. And that is sufficient for a family of four to continue for at least 15-20 days minimum,” he said. “That way, if the government has already done two round of rationing, then that is a good thing, I would say, because apart from that, the food packets are also going.” He claimed DOST has been sending 300 packets of cooked food to residents of Uttar Pradesh, who did not have ration cards, once per day since the lockdown began. “I have been calling them every day to check if they have received food. I have been in touch with them,” he told me.
A couple of residents mentioned seeing the distribution of cooked-food packets. “Yes, I have seen them distribute food packets,” Satish Kumar, a resident, said. “The lines are too long. So I never went to receive it.” Aashu said they had received these food packets at least once. “It had khichdi,”—a dish made with rice and dal—“puri and sabzi. I have a brother here who maintains the stock,” Aashu said. According to him, at least once, the authorities sent the ration to a few locals including him, who then distributed it to others.
Contrary to Sudhakar’s claim, residents said the supplies were hardly sufficient as most of them typically lived in joint families. “Ever since this has started, we have got it only once, that too in the early days,” Satish, who lives with nine family members, said, referring to dry-ration kits. He and his sister, who lives with him, received separate supplies based on their Aadhar cards. His wife is four-months pregnant. Arjun Singh, a resident who works in a parlour with his brothers, said that their entire family of 16 people uses five kilograms of wheat in a day. He received a dry-ration kit on 27 May, and so did two of his family members, just two days before my conversation with him. But he already sounded worried at the prospect of depleting this stock. “What will two kilos of wheat do for us?” he said. Three of his family members received this ration kit. “This reached us the other day only, after two–three months. We have no hope from the government.”
But Sudhakar insisted that there was no deficit on the government’s part. Referring to the residents from Uttar Pradesh, he said, “They have got more preferential treatment, I will say.” According to him, the DOST team distributed dry ration kits to 150 migrant families and the office of the MLA, Pankaj Singh, distributed 54 packets to all the residents, irrespective of their domicile. “In total, around two hundred packets have already been distributed there,” he said. Later, Sudhakar said that on 1 June, DOST stopped the food distribution stopped due to a dearth of funds, but the Noida Authority continued to provide ration relief.
A resident of the slum, who is in his twenties, confirmed that the MLA sent around fifty ration kits, a minuscule quantity for the residents. “There were many people in need. It was distributed in such an unorganised way that people snatched it away,” he said, on the condition of anonymity. He told me that on 20 May, “The Noida Authority came to distribute 300 packets but they said that people from UP will need to apply for ration cards and that rations will be given to those who are not from UP.” Even the 300 packets that arrived were not fully distributed. “There appeared to be thousands of people where they were distributing ration—people had received the message that the distribution was happening,” he said. The resident added that the authority left after distributing some twenty packets because the crowd got “uncontrollable.”