Starvation deaths emerge as key poll issue in Jharkhand as ration card woes keep vulnerable groups hungry

Anand Dutta | Jun 17, 2019 | 7 min read

Anand Dutta & Manmohan Singh

Ranchi, India: Over the past few years, several questions have been raised upon the efficacy of the Public Distribution System (PDS) implementation in India. The multifarious issues start right from the legal and regulatory framework at the executive level and trickle down to pilferage of subsidised food grains in open market. Now, there seems to be some link between the recent starvation deaths in Jharkhand and the loopholes in PDS implementation. The latest factor influencing people's daily lives could be the practical hurdles faced by Jharkhand dealers in implementing the online distribution mechanism adopted by the state. So much so, an amalgamation of these issues has resulted in the death of 20 beneficiaries in Jharkhand since 2016, allege Right to Food activists.

In Jharkhand, 26,135 public distribution system dealers are catering to as many as 2,24,99,034 pink card holders, also known as Priority Households (PHH card). Apart from the PHH card holders, there are 9,10,635 yellow card holders - Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY) beneficiaries - from extremely poor households (primarily primitive and vulnerable tribal groups) in the state. 

According to provisions of the National Food Security Act (NFSA) 2013, the households having AAY cards are entitled to a monthly ration of 35 kg, while pink card holders are supposed to get 5 kg a month. But here is the catch: pink cards may have names of multiple members of a family and each person is entitled to 5 kg of monthly ration. For example, pink cards bearing names of four members of a family shall receive 20 kg (4X5 kg) of ration every month. Yellow cards, however, are issued to a single person of a household. While addition of names is allowed on a yellow card, the ration entitlement is fixed at 35 kg. Hence, if an extremely poor household comprises 5-7 members, the ration has to be divided between them.

This division of ration creates the first challenge in the successful implementation of AAY in Jharkhand, as the extremely poor households are primarily dependent on government support for their survival, supplementing their meagre incomes by selling forest produce in local haats. "According to studies conducted by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), 14 kg of ration supplies is the minimum monthly requirement of an individual. While the National Food Security Bill does talk about ensuring food security among priority, non-priority and AAY card-holding households, it is quiet on the issue of nutrition security - i.e. supplementing protein and fat deficiency through distribution of subsidised pulses and edible oil, which are obviously out of bounds for such populace," pointed out Dheeraj Kumar, a Right to Food activist from Jharkhand.

Pilferage of subsidised food grains, and overcharging by transporters and loaders at warehouses is another major loophole in the system. This causes leakage of thousands of metric tonnes of subsidised food grains in open market. According to the latest statistics available with the Food and Civil Supplies Department, Jharkhand, 47,91,309 priority cards have been issued in the state covering a total of 2,24,99,034 persons. In addition, 9,10,635 AAY cards have been issued to extremely poor households. A simple arithmetic shows that 1,12,495.17 metric tonnes of subsidised food grain is distributed among pink card holders, while 31,872.225 metric tonnes of food grain has to be distributed among AAY card households per month.

However, some PDS dealers across the state painted a different picture altogether when Firstpost sought their opinion. "The scam starts at the ration depot itself. If a dealer's quota is 50 kg per month, only 45-47 kg is released by the depot, whereas official entry is done for the full amount. How can anyone expect dealers to disburse full ration to beneficiaries if they are not getting the same in the first place?" argued a dealer based in Ranchi's Kanke block.

Ramnaresh Singh, regional president, Jharkhand Public Distribution System Dealer Association, said, "The dealers are released less amount of food grain from the depot than their mandated quota. The average amount ranges around 45-47 kg per 50 kg of food grain mandated on paper. The dealers consequently distribute 30-32 kg of grain instead of 35 kg mandated for yellow card holders and 4 kg instead of 5 kg mandated in case of pink card holders. Although illegal, it has become the norm of late."

According to Mohammad Saqib, a resident of Lurgumi village (where the recent 'starvation death' victim Ramcharan Munda used to live), the local dealership routinely distributes less amount of food grain than what he is entitled to. "I have a pink card, which makes me eligible for 15 kg of rice each month. However, the dealer gives me only 12-13 kg of rice, but makes an entry for 15 kg. I tried complaining to the village mukhiya and BDO, but to no avail," lamented Saqib.

If just one kg of subsidised food grain is being pilfered from 1,12,495.17 metric tonnes being disbursed each month to pink card holders, approximately 22,499 metric tonnes of food grains are finding their way to open market, where they are sold at Rs 16 per kg in urban areas and Rs 17 in rural areas. The figure translates to Rs 36 crore a month and Rs 432 crore a year,  pointing to a possible scam in the state in the name of ensuring food safety of priority households and extremely poor households, as mandated by the NFSA.

Despite being released less amount of grains, dealers are apparently forced to shell out Rs 100-200 monthly by assistant godown managers and Rs 10 per quintal by transporters. This is notwithstanding the rules clearly stating that food grains have to be delivered to the dealership free of cost. "The dealers who refuse to pay up are delivered goods at the end of the month or early next month, leading to a month-long backlog in food grains reaching the beneficiaries," complained another dealer.

Firstpost spoke to State Food & Civil Supplies minister, Saryu Roy regarding a possible scam as well as the problems faced by PDS dealers. On being questioned why the ministry is not initiating any action against the complaints and loopholes in the Jharkhand PDS supply chain, he feigned ignorance. "Why don't beneficiaries getting less ration protest? We have ample provisions in place to provide compensation in such cases. There are a multitude of beneficiaries per dealership and if they get together, they can force their dealer to distribute fairly," retorted Roy.

As for whether Munda's demise would be treated as a case of natural death, he said, "Do you want the government to declare this a case of starvation? His family members are saying that he died of prolonged illness. Then, how can the government say otherwise?" Munda's daughter Sunila Kumari had earlier claimed to Firstpost that he died of starvation. It was echoed by Munda's wife Chamri Devi, who also said that their household didn't have any food. (The video statements of both are in our possession). It was only when officials started visiting the village after the news break Kumari changed her version. 

Roy criticised the Right to Food activitists saying that they are crusaders without a plausible cause and that it has become a fashion among activists to write long posts on Facebook instead of using the 'right platform' to raise their concerns. "If they have anything substantial, they can use the platform of the National Food Commission to lodge their complaints; merely writing on Facebook won't change anything. Pulling out fancy numbers of 18-20 starvation deaths has become fashionable," Roy fumed.

Photos and videos by: Anand Dutta


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