Security officials distributing ration at Bodli village of Bastar district, Chhattisgarh on Monday.(ANI)
Security officials distributing ration at Bodli village of Bastar district, Chhattisgarh on Monday.(ANI)

As states struggle to distribute ration, demand for work surges

Jharkhand and other states like Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Bihar, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh announced that the needy would get two months of rations during the lockdown period.
By Sanjoy Dey | Hindustan Times, New Delhi
UPDATED ON APR 04, 2020 05:11 AM IST

Sita Kumari, 26, visits the local ration shop daily to get her family’s share of government-subsidised foodgrains under the public distribution system. Everyday she returns home empty-handed. Although the Jharkhand government has announced the distribution of subsidised rations for April and May together, her family hasn’t received theirs even for March.

“No distribution of rations is being done in my village,” said Sita Kumari, whose husband is an out-of-work driver who has applied unsuccessfully for work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), which has anyway been suspended for the duration of the March 25-April 14 nationwide lockdown to beat back the coronavirus disease pandemic.

“We are at the mercy of our neighbours, who are providing us food,” said Sita Kumari, a resident of Sukurhuttu village in Ranchi’s Kanke block. “My husband is pleading with panchayat officers to give him work under the MGNREGA.”

The MGNREGS, which promises at least 100 days of work a year to at least one member of every rural household, and the Food Security Act that is aimed at making sure no one goes hungry, are national entitlements covering 50% and 75% of rural households, respectively, intended to shield impoverished communities in difficult times such as the Covid-19 lockdown.

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They haven’t quite served their purpose this time. Jharkhand and other states like Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Bihar, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh announced that the needy would get two months of rations during the lockdown period, but the distribution hasn’t even begun in many places yet.

CAUGHT IN A BIND

State officials cited supply constraints such as the non-availability of trucks to transport foodgrains from warehouses to public distribution system outlets in the villages. Until Friday, only 30-50% of the rations for March had been distributed, government officials said on condition of anonymity. In many places, distribution of rations for this month will start after April 14, when the lockdown is lifted.

The problem is more acute in the tribal belts of Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Odisha, where the rations are distributed to ration shops n smaller vehicles from district warehouses.

Babita Devi, 25, of the Chattarpur block in Jharkhand’s Palamu district, has lost her daily wage work at a local stone crusher, which had to close because of the lockdown. No PDS rations are available at the village shop and no public transport is available for her to visit the district headquarters and collect her quota of foodgrains.

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Her husband is physically challenged. “I have four children at home. I have to take care of them. Going to Palamu would take four to five hours and there are no buses,” she said.

A daily wager in Chhattisgarh’s Raipur, Sumesh Singh, said he had to wait for about five hours to get rations for two months. “There is a long queue and not enough rations,” he said.

In Bhubaneswar’s biggest slum of Saliasahi, tribal resident Sal Marandi said only 100 people received their rations every day. The Odisha government is giving three months’ rations to all the poor, but in the rural areas, distribution hasn’t even started yet. Soumya Ranjan Pradhan, head of the Laxmiprasad panchayat in Nayagarh district, said distribution will start after April 14.

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In West Bengal too, residents of various districts said they were not getting their rations, amid reports of protests by people outside PDS outlets in Murshidabad and Darjeeling districts.

“It was announced that rice and flour would be given free but this was not displayed at the local ration shop. The ration dealer is using his own discretion,” said Nimai Pal of Berhampore town. Another resident, Atanu Nag, said he had received just 2 kg of rice instead of 5 kg.

UNFAIR DISTRIBUTION?

A blame game is underway in some states, with PDS dealers blaming poor supply systems and the government alleging that the dealers weren’t fairly distributing rations.

“The supply chain is affected due to shortage of labourers in godowns. Ration has reached to only 20% of shops by now while we had to begin distribution from April 1,” said Sanjay Kundu, general secretary of the Fair Price Dealers Association (FPDA) in Jharkhand. He said a few shops had received rations, but only enough for a month.

Jharkhand’s food and public distribution director Sanjay Kumar said, “The issue of labourer has been sorted out. We are receiving reports that some dealers are not distributing rations, despite availability.”

Odisha’s additional secretary of food, Mohammed Haque, said the there was indeed a shortage of labour and drivers to transport provisions to individual gram panchayats, resulting in only about 30% of rations being distributed until April 3. Odisha distributes about 170,000 tonnes of rice/wheat to the 90.4 million beneficiary families.

Jharkhand’s government said it would take disciplinary action against officials and dealers obstructing the fair distribution of PDS rations. In Chhattisgarh, the police has been deployed at ration shops to ensure hassle-free distribution of the subsidised grains. “We are doing everything to ensure that 90% of the state’s population covered under NFSA (National Food Security Act) gets their quota of rations for April to June 2020,” said Taran Prakash Sinha, Chhattisgarh’s director of public relations.

PLIGHT OF THE JOBLESS

As the states grapple with distribution of foodgrains, demand has increased for work under the MGNREGA, the flagship job guarantee scheme, judging from anecdotal evidence. In 2019-20, the programme received demand for work from by 50.2 million people because of an economic slowdown, a nine-year high.

“There are queues outside panchayat offices in villages,” said an official of Muzzafarpur district of Bihar. An official in Odisha said people were registering for work under the MGNREGA because they believe the lockdown will continue beyond April 14 and they will not get work in the cities.

The plight of MGNREGA workers was vocalized by Sukhmani Devi of Jharkhand’s Latehar district.

“I have not got any job under MGNREGA this year. Now, all work under the scheme has come to a standstill due to the lockdown. I am a widow and the only bread earner for my three children. I have no money to even buy the subsidized rations,” she said.

Some states such as Chhattisgarh, Odisha and West Bengal have demanded payment of an unemployment allowance to MGNREGA workers for the duration of the lockdown. The Centre is yet to take a call on the demand.

(Ritesh Mishra in Raipur, Debabrata Mohanty in Bhuvaneshwar and Tanmay Chatterjee in Kolkata also contributed to this story)

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