Bihar residents say they did not receive free ration supplies during the lockdown

In March, the Bihar government announced a free supply of five kilograms of rice and one kilogram of pulses for the month of April to ration card holders. Parwaz Khan / Hindustan Times / Getty Images
19 July, 2020

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.

I spoke to MK Nirala, a social activist from Dobhi block in Gaya district, who also awaits a revised ration card and supplies. “Of my entire experience of meeting beneficiaries, only about 40 per cent of the list of cardholders have received free ration,” he told me. Furfuri Nagar is a colony of about forty families of Musahars—a Dalit sub-caste declared as Maha Dalits—in Gulzarpur village in the Dobhi block. Santosh Musahar, a resident of the colony, confirmed that no one there has received PDS benefits since April.

Kusa Beeja, a resident of Furfuri Nagar also had similar complaints. “Whenever I approach Jeevika volunteers in the village to get a ration card made, my request is turned down,” she told me. “The suppliers also don’t help me. Ever since the lockdown, my husband, Pon Manjhi, and my brother-in-law have been unemployed. We are a family of eight persons. Only through the help of other people have we been able to feed ourselves since April. It’s unfair that we have been left out of government policy benefits that we are in need of.” 

Nirala added that the free dal was hardly being distributed. In northwestern Bihar, residents also said that pulses had not been supplied in the first two months of the lockdown. “I was stuck in my village in Gopalgunj throughout the lockdown,” Binit Kumar, a resident of Gopalgunj district told me. No villager I know in the region had received free supply of pulses till May. In June, I heard about pulses to be distributed. And these are supplies for the month of April. The implementation of free ration policy has been extremely unfair. It is outrageous.” 

Social activists in Patna said there was a lack of ration cards in the city and that free supplies had not reached poor families. I spoke to Kishori Das, the president of Jhuggi Jhopri Shehri Gareeb Sangharsh Morcha, a civil society organisation, about the status of free ration distribution during lockdown in Patna. Das, who has been active on the ground in Patna for over two decades, largely works for the upliftment of marginalised slumdwellers and has chosen to live among them too. “I can say it with assertion that only 25 per cent of the targeted number of people to receive free ration in the capital hold functional ration cards,” he said. “The state government’s promise to speed up the process of making new ration cards for beneficiaries who either don’t hold cards or have rejected cards after the April announcement was absolute eyewash. I only hear of new cards in process but I don’t know of even one beneficiary in Patna who was allotted a new ration card since the free ration distribution order.” 

Anticipating a delay in processing new ration cards, Das said he carried a survey of Lohanipur, a slum area in Patna, and submitted the Aadhar and Below Poverty Line card details of 200 slumdwellers at the Patna nagar nigam office, or the municipal corporation. “I had appealed to the officials to consider distributing free ration to individuals on grounds of those details,” he said. The officials never got back to me.” The Patna municipal commissioner Himanshu Sharma did not answer my calls.

Domni Devi, a resident of Lohanipur, who has been denied ration facility on her husband Jairam Manjhi’s ration card ever since his death, told me that she had not received any free or subsidised ration since the start of the lockdown. “There are 10 members in my family including my children and grandchildren,” she said. “Tired of my family’s hardships to merely sustain ourselves during the lockdown, I had applied for a ration card when the Nagar Nigam volunteers came to our basti in April with forms. I haven’t been allotted a new card even after these many months. Whenever I ask the nagar nigam officers, I am told the card is in process.” 

According to the residents of the centrally located slum, about 3,400 people had applied for new ration cards after the free ration distribution announcement in April. Several residents told me that neither they or anyone they knew had since received new ration cards. Das said that only 400 residents of the slum, where 1,200 families reside, hold functional ration cards.

“I work as a domestic help and my husband used to work as a security guard at wedding functions,” Indu Devi, another resident of Lohanipur, told me. “Throughout the lockdown, we both lost our livelihood. I hold an old ration card which the ration suppliers don’t accept. It’s wrong that because of government’s failure in providing us new ration cards on time, beneficiaries like us are being denied government relief.” I also spoke to Chaniya Devi, Indu’s neighbour. “I have not received any free ration on my card ever since April,” she told me. “The lockdown translated into a very difficult phase for my family to survive.”

I went to meet the Patna district magistrate Kumar Ravi on 14 July, but he declined to see me. I also contacted the Gaya district magistrate Abhishek Singh on 22 June. “We have provided free ration to all the ration cardholders in the district,” Singh told me. “Only those who don’t have a ration card are yet to be helped. Between June and July, we will be making new ration cards for 1.5 lakh beneficiaries in the district and they will get their share of free and subsidised ration right after.” The Bihar food and consumer protection minister Madan Sahni did not answer my calls.

In July, the Alliance for Dalit rights, a group of Dalit-rights organisations, conducted a fact-finding mission in Bihar to study the repercussions of the lockdown on the economic capacities of 1,400 Dalit and Adivasi households across 14 districts in the state. Their report revealed a widespread food shortage among these communities in rural Bihar. “A large number of them have not received the benefits of welfare schemes that would have immensely helped them to tide over the crisis,” the report stated. It further noted that only two per cent of the households surveyed were “food secured” on the day the lockdown was announced, with food grains available for one year; 49.4 per cent had food to last a few days and 14.5 per cent had no food available.

“Nearly 17 per cent of these households did not receive regular subsidised ration during April and 36 per cent did not receive it in May,” Anto Joseph, the convenor of the fact-finding team, told me, citing the report. “Free ration relief did not reach 22 per cent of these households in April and 40 per cent in May.” The report concluded that, “There is economic distress, hardship, hunger and starvation among a substantial section among the dalits in rural Bihar.”