Mumbai, Maharashtra: Kaisar Abdul Rashid, a 42-year-old plumber from Mumbai’s Malad area, used to earn around Rs20,000 a month before COVID-19 struck and forced India to impose a lockdown. The sole breadwinner of his family, he didn’t have a source of income for months and is still struggling to make ends meet.
With seven mouths to feed in his house, he’s entitled to 35kg of rations under the National Food Security Act — 5kg of rations (2kg of rice at Rs3 per kg and 3kg of wheat at Rs2 per kg) for each family member. But he received only 10kg of rations this February and hasn’t received over 15kg a month since the lockdown was first imposed in March 2020. “Plus, the condition of wheat [supplied in February] was so bad that I had to refuse,” Rashid says. “The rations should be good enough to eat. We are human beings, not animals,” he rues.
“Today, I somehow earn around Rs12,000 a month by doing odd jobs. It’s hard to feed a family of seven in such a situation. We can’t argue with ration shop vendors. If we do, they either refuse to give the ration or use abusive language.”
Rashid and his family are not alone in this suffering in Mumbai. Asha Thombare, a 70-year-old from the city’s Chembur locality, alleges that she and her family had been refused rations under the claim that their income was over what would make them eligible for subsidised wheat and rice. This, even though they possess a saffron ration card, which is issued to families with an annual income of Rs15,001 to Rs1 lakh.
“My elder brother’s wife earns Rs5,000 a month as a housemaid. My elder brother, who used to do odd jobs, didn’t have a source of pay during the lockdown. It’s tough to manage our household expenses. In reality, there’s no one to earn in my house since the lockdown. The subsidised rations could have eased our turmoil but we now have to buy rations from general shops at the market price.”
Rashid and Thombare’s situations bring to light the rampant misappropriation of rations across Mumbai and the predicament the poor ration card-holders of the city are in as a result.
Vendor: It happens across state
Under the National Food Security Act 2013, families with weak financial backgrounds are issued rations cards so they can avail rations (rice and food grains) at subsidised prices from fair price shops. After the central government enforced a pandemic-induced lockdown across India, it announced an additional 5kg of free rations (rice or wheat) for identified beneficiaries. The Act, however, covers free supplies only for families whose annual income is Rs59,000 or less, which leaves out a significant proportion of ration card-holders who earn between this amount and Rs1 lakh.
Despite these provisions under the law, vendors at these ration shops often withhold the full quota that is owed to ration card-holders for a host of reasons. The situation was only exacerbated by the lockdown, when more and more people who lost their jobs during the pandemic approached these ration shops to put food on the table.
While vendors admit to the wrongdoing, they justify their actions under the garb of low compensation from the state government. Take the case of Narayan, a shopkeeper from Mumbai’s Govandi area, who did not want to be identified by his surname.
He says they have to resort to such means to meet the expenses involved in running the ration shop. “The government gives us Rs1.50 per kg of ration as a commission,” he says. “Suppose we receive about 12,000kg of rations for 400 card-holders. This means we make only Rs18,000 in a month. But there’s rent to pay, plus electricity bills, salaries of employees and charges for the labourers who drop off stock from the government at our shops. These expenses amount to around Rs30,000 a month. It is impossible to bear these expenses if we don’t take away at least 5kg of rations from every ration card-holder.”
Rajendra Jaiswal, a vendor from Chembur, backs Narayan’s stand. “This happens across Mumbai. I would say it happens across Maharashtra,” he says. “If the government wants us to stop using such means, it should pay us for all the expenses we incur.”
There are figures to back the claim that shopkeepers are indeed involved in the illegal business of not supplying beneficiaries what they are due. According to Prashant Kale, Additional Deputy Controller of Rationing (Mumbai), the government collected Rs33,78,978 from ration shop vendors in the city between April 2020 and January 2021 in fines for stealing rations from consumers.
Kale, however, agrees that a commission of just Rs1.5 per kg is too low for them to sustain their business. “But it’s not in our hands,” he adds. “The state government decides the commission. Those who have a problem with this should approach the state and demand more,” he adds.
Volunteer group comes to rescue
A group of around 15 people in Mumbai has taken it upon itself to tackle this menace and get the eligible folks their complete quota. The group, named Govandi Against Corruption (GAC), has been carrying out awareness campaigns on ration quota since April 2020 and educating card-holders on information they should have at their fingertips.
Akbar Ali, a ration card-holder from Mumbai’s Shivaji Nagar neighbourhood, earned around Rs10,000 by running coaching classes pre-lockdown. But that came to an end in March last year. Before GAC came about, he was unaware that card-holders could check their ration quota online. Doing this helped him realise that his ration shop vendor had been duping him for years.
“I’m entitled to 40kg of wheat and rice but have been receiving not more than 30kg to 35kg,” Ali says. “I argued with the vendor for my full quota after I checked the figure online, but in vain. I can’t do anything but accept whatever I’m getting because the vendor may stop giving me rations or abuse me verbally if I complain."
GAC believes that such siphoning of supplies has been going on for years at ration shops but it came to the fore even more clearly during the lockdown, when scores of beneficiaries lost their livelihood and had to turn to these shops to survive. Ateeque Khan, the head of the group, emphasises that this form of extortion is rampant across Mumbai.
“I can say that every ration shop siphons the card-holders’ rations and sells them at a higher price to others,” Khan claims. “They sell wheat and rice at Rs10 to Rs18 per kg. This is a huge scam across Mumbai,” he alleges.
GAC began as a team of three that tended to complaints of ration card-holders in Maharashtra, especially Mumbai. It now has around 15 members of teachers, corporate professions as well as students preparing for UPSC and other competitive exams.
“Initially, we used to receive some 800 calls every day. Many would complain that they were being sent home empty-handed while some would complain about not being given the quota they were entitled to,” Khan says. “Many would also accuse vendors of getting abusive when they demanded their quota. This started when we shared a video online explaining how card-holders could find out their ration quotas.”
The group was instrumental in exposing one such shopkeeper in Shivaji Nagar and having his store shuttered. Khan says the rationing officer they approached lodged a police complaint against the vendor for withholding rations and ultimately ordered his shop closed.
Their vigilance, however, comes at a price. Khan claims that the group has been receiving threatening calls from goons to dissuade them from creating awareness among the beneficiaries. “This scam is a huge source of income for man,” he claims. “But we will not stop doing what we do because we know how the poor suffer if they don't receive sufficient rations,” he signs off.
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