UP government’s universal PDS not implemented in Loni; Muslim residents struggle for food

People line up outside a ration shop in Prayagraj, in Uttar Pradesh. Despite an announcement to universalise the public-distribution system, several residents of a Muslim-dominated colony in Loni, Ghaziabad have been turned away at ration shops. Prabhat Kumar Verma / Pacific Press / LightRocket / Getty Images
22 April, 2020

Over one thousand five hundred residents of a colony in the Loni Municipal Corporation of Uttar Pradesh’s Ghaziabad district have been waiting for food and monetary aid promised by the state and central governments following the nationwide lockdown. Several residents of this unauthorised colony, most of whom are Muslim daily-wage labourers who have not been able to earn anything during the lockdown, said that they have run out of whatever little resources they stocked and do not have any food or money left to survive till 3 May, when the lockdown is scheduled to end.

On 17 April, the Uttar Pradesh government announced its decision to universalise the public-distribution system. “Nobody should be left hungry in the state,” the chief minister, Ajay Singh Bisht—more commonly known as Adityanath—said, according to a press release issued by the state’s department of information and public relations. Yet, according to residents of the colony in Loni, the staff at the local ration shop have been turning them away because almost all of them do not have ration cards. The few of them with ration cards were also turned away because their cards were not issued in Loni, but in their native villages in other parts of Uttar Pradesh and Delhi.

“We went to the ration shop day three days ago to get the food grains, but they told us that we are not entitled to anything,” Mohammad Jaffrudin, a daily-wage labourer from the colony, located in ward number 55 of the Loni Municipal Corporation, told me over the phone. “My ration card was issued from Noida, but I am staying with my family here. I have my Aadhar card too. How can we go to Noida to get our ration? The staff at the ration shop here are refusing to give us anything.”

The Uttar Pradesh government’s press release stated, “The universalization of PDS would ensure that every needy person is entitled to free ration even if he or she does not have ration card or Aadhaar card. This mechanism has to be evolved under special circumstances due to Covid-19. In order to provide relief to all the poor of urban and rural areas including nomads.” But with the government’s commitment in the press release being incongruous with the reality on the ground, on 21 April, residents from the colony gathered out on the streets in large numbers out of desperation.

“We are out here today because we don’t know what else to do,” Zareena, one of the residents, told me. “We don’t know whom to turn to. The authorities should immediately provide us foodgrain and cooking fuel.” Two days later, the residents said that their situation had only worsened, and that no one had reached out to help them.

“No government aid has reached us till now,” Shahjahan, a 35-year-old resident, told me. “My ration card is from Muzaffarnagar, but I have been living here for the last seven years. I went to the ration shop with my Aadhar card three times, but the staff at the ration shop told me that they can’t give me anything. They just told me to go home. My husband is a daily-wage labourer and we have to six children to feed.”

Another resident, Shama Parveen, criticised the state government for failing to understand their plight. “The government is asking us to stay inside our homes, but what will we do when our kids are crying out of hunger?” Parveen asked. “We don’t know whom to turn to now.” According to Parveen, some of them have already run of gas cylinders and they struggle to procure firewood to cook.

“It is almost a month since the lockdown has been announced,” Sageena, an elderly resident, said. “But people living in seven streets in this colony have not received any help from the government. I have an Aadhar card, but they refused to give us anything from the ration shop despite the UP government’s announcement to give food. Since this is kachi colony”—referring to it being an unauthorised status—“none of us have a ration card here. My husband is a daily-wage labourer, there is no job now. We are in great trouble.”

She said that the residents had managed till now by sharing the foodgrains among themselves, before adding that it was not a sustainable solution. “How long can we go on like this?” she asked. “I have been feeding just rice porridge to my children.” Sageena added that she suffered from diabetes and hypertension but did not have the money to buy her medicines.

Most residents spoke with a sense of despair and uncertainty. “There are over two hundred people living in our street,” Mohammad Shahir, a 45-year-old daily wager, who is the sole earning member of his six-member family, told me. “Everyone here has Aadhar, but we haven’t got anything from the government.” The members of his family worked as rickshaw drivers, vegetable vendors and farm labourers, and all had suffered under the lockdown. “We support the government’s decision to lockdown, but when we are not able to work and earn a living, what should we do?” Shahir asked. “They were distributing ration today and I had gone, but they didn’t give us anything.”

According to Nisar Saifi, the member who represents the ward number 55, he had been compelled to pay the residents of the colony out of his own pocket. “To those who have absolutely nothing to cook that day, I have arranged for a shopkeeper nearby to provide foodgrain,” Saifi said. “That is all I am able to do now.” The residents, though, were critical of him, noting that he had not done anything for them.

Saifi said he reached out to Naseem Akhtar, the regional food-supplies officer of Loni, for help, who told him that foodgrain would only be available for ration-card holders. According to Saifi, Akhtar said that the state government would issue temporary ration cards to all individuals from 1 May, following which they would be able to procure foodgrain. Saifi did not have any solution for how the residents of the colony were supposed to manage till then. Akhtar did not respond to several calls and messages. 

“Nothing has been happening, people without ration card are in trouble here,” Saifi told me. “Only those with ration cards are getting rations of rice or wheat.” When asked about Adityanath’s announcement of PDS universalisation, Saifi responded, “It was in the newspapers. But the ration shop staff are saying that they have not got any directions to give ration to people without ration cards, to those with Aadhar cards or even poor people. Since the lockdown, people here have not got any aid from the government.”

I also spoke to Dinesh Chandra, the municipal commissioner of Ghaziabad, about the status of food distribution in Ghaziabad. Chandra said that there are two “fully-functional community kitchens” in Ghaziabad, at Kavi Nagar and Vasundhara neighbourhoods, “where 6,000 food packets are distributed twice a day, in the morning and evening.” These kitchens, however, are located at a distance of over twenty kilometres from the colony in Loni, and is therefore inaccessible to its residents during a lockdown. Chandra said these kitchens became fully operational by 26 March.

“The state government and municipal authorities have identified the areas where food is required and are delivering it there to maintain social distancing,” he said. Yet, little food seems to have reached Loni. On 21 April, the Uttar Pradesh government’s official Twitter handle posted that the state had opened 754 government-run and 1,321 private-run community kitchen, which had distributed food packets to 13,56,987 people. Saifi told me that they had delivered around 300–500 food packets in his ward. “But when there are at least 25,000 people and most of them live in unauthorised colonies, how can this be enough?” he asked. “At least 30 percent of the population in the ward is poor. This is not enough to feed everyone.”

Both Chandra and Smita Gupta, the executive officer of the Loni Municipal Corporation, directed me to speak to the district magistrate and food-supplies officials when I asked them about the inaccessibility of rations. But Ajay Shankar Pandey, the district magistrate of Ghaziabad, and Khalid Anjim, the sub-divisional magistrate of Loni, did not response to multiple calls and messages.

On 18 April, in another press release, the state government announced that it had “made arrangements to pay Rs 1000 each and food grains to labourers, Daily wagers, Destitute and traditional artisans under Vishvakarma Shram Samman Yojana”—a skill-development initiative of the central government. The press release further stated that Adityanath had “instructed the officials to identify other destitute of urban and rural areas who are left out so far” and that it should be “done on war-footing.”

Once again, the chief minister’s promises saw little implementation on the ground. “Except for two–three houses here, we are not even making tea for children in the mornings,” Imran Khan, a 32-year-old auto rickshaw driver from the colony, told me. “The government said they will give money in our account, but we haven’t gotten anything yet.” According to another resident, Sangeetha, whenever the residents step out onto the road out of desperation, the police ask them to return to their houses.

Dilshad Mohammad, a resident and a Congress party worker, told me that apart from three or four houses, the residents in the colony are all Muslims. Mohammad said that only six people from the colony had received any money in their bank accounts—and only Rs 500, not Rs 1,000 as promised by the chief minister—while the others had not gotten anything. “We raised this issue this with the ward member, he has also not done anything so far,” Mohammad added. 

There is another reason that the residents are scared to step out of their streets—a fear of communal, targeted violence. “Last week, around 7 pm in the evening I had gone out to get milk,” Gulbahar Saifi, an 18-year-old resident, recounted. “Two people carrying rods came on a bike, beat me up and broke my phone. My hands and legs are wounded and I am in pain now. Few of my neighbhours pooled in money and helped me to go to the doctor. We are not allowed to go out, so I haven’t registered any complaint with the police yet. I was told that two more people from the colony was beaten up.” Khan, too, told me that word had done rounds that two–three people from the colony had been beaten up by unknown people.

Meanwhile, the state government has been singing its own praises about its efforts and achievements to help those in need during the lockdown. The government stated in its second press release that since 24 March, when the lockdown was announced, the state had transferred Rs 1,000 each in the accounts of street vendors, rickshaw drivers, porters, railway porters and other daily wagers. The press release claimed that the government had transferred money to as many as 5.82 lakh labourers of urban areas, amounting to a total of Rs 58.19 crore. It further claimed that the government had also paid a sum of Rs 43.69 crore to “4.37 lakh helpless and destitute persons of rural areas.”

I called and messaged queries to Asha Sharma, the mayor of Ghaziabad; Nand Kishore Gurjar, the member of legislative assembly from Loni; AK Pandey, the regional food controller of the Meerut zone, which covers Loni; Dharam Singh Saini, the minister of state in the Uttar Pradesh department of food security; and the chief minister’s office, but received no response from any of them. The story will be updated if and when a response is received.

In a report published last December, the Niti Aayog, had listed Uttar Pradesh among the five poorest performing states in the country in the goal to eradicate hunger and poverty. The accounts told by the residents of the colony in Loni inspired no confidence that anything was likely to change. “We just want the government to provide us ration so that we can survive the rest of the lockdown period,” Fareeda, a 45-year-old resident, said. “The authorities should immediately do something. Should we die of hunger?”