In March 2020, the central government issued guidelines on the distribution of free ration through the Public Distribution System to provide economic relief during the coronavirus induced nationwide lockdown. Following this, the Bihar government announced a mandatory free supply of five kilograms of rice and one kilogram of pulses for the month of April to 1.47 crore ration card holders. However, the supply has been ineffective; the state’s health crisis has been compounded by a food crisis.
I spoke to residents, social activists and public officials who told me that food grains have either not been reaching the intended beneficiaries or are very delayed. “The way the declared six kilograms of free ration has been distributed to our people ever since nationwide lockdown is more show and less about implementation,” Manorama Kumari, a member of the zilla parishad, or district council, of Saran district in southern Bihar told me.
Referring to the block development officer and others members of the local administration, she added, “Many officers from the rank of BDO, circle officers to mukhiyas across Garkha block in Saran treated the government order as an arbitrary activity. They would ensure free ration supplies are taken care of by the ration dealers only in a few parts. They would often click photos with the few beneficiaries getting supplies.” Kumari continued, “The focus was more on getting publicity than feeding people throughout. I hear that hardly any beneficiary in this area received free pulses, most of them were only supplied rice.”
Across southern Bihar, people told me that free ration supplies were not received before the end of May. “We are a family of 12,” Rahul Yadav, a migrant worker who returned to his village Pancharatan in Gaya district from Chhattisgarh said. “Since my ration card is very old, I am not eligible to get free or subsidised ration according to suppliers but six of my family members did get it on their cards very late. What’s the point of delayed supplies when the policy was meant to feed poor like us who are unemployed during the lockdown? We have received the free supplies for April at the end of May. Yet the distribution is not fair. My family members received 50 kg free ration under the policy and were made to pay for 25 kgs of it. We were not given one kilogram of free dal which was promised to each family.”
In April, the Bihar government said that Jeevika workers will identify and assist the beneficiaries in need of updating their ration cards or getting new ones made. Jeevika workers are members of women self-help groups and volunteers who carry out government assigned tasks in rural areas. On 4 May, chief minister Nitish Kumar asked Deepak Kumar, the Bihar chief secretary, to ensure that all poor families without ration cards are able to get their cards made. However, ground realities showed that there were lapses in implementation.