India Matters: Food secure in the Capital

New Delhi: 
The debate on the merits and demerits of the National Food Security Bill went on for months. But most of it seems disco
nnected to the reality on the ground to the churning lakhs of low income families are experiencing as they register for the new scheme.
There is anxiety and desperation to get subsidised foodgrain. In the office of the Food and Supply Officer in Delhi's north east district, many have been waiting in the queues since 5 am. The new ration cards will be made in the name of women.

"We have been going back empty handed for the last three days. Our turn doesn't come because others cut in the queue. Five elderly women got crushed at the gate in the morning. They were so hurt, we don't know if they're still waiting or have left," says a harried woman.

An old woman pleads with the staff at the office, "Please let us submit our form here. We are old. There should have been a separate queue for us."

For the urban poor, ration cards are a major marker of identity and of the domicile status in the city. New micro food cards will replace the old ones. Some poor families had found their cards had been cancelled in the last survey three years ago. Some have never had a ration card. Now, there is renewed hope.

But they have to bounce from one set of rules to another and the system is not designed to help. At the same office a week later, there is little improvement. A few policemen have been roped in.

The megaphone that could have been used to provide correct information is silent. There are rumours that touts can get you the new ration card without your having to stand in queues. Ten touts have been arrested across Delhi.

"People here told us that the form has to be stamped by our MLA. The form does not mention this anywhere."

Some complain that ration dealers are charging for registration forms that are meant to be free.

The atmosphere is surcharged. Rumour mongers are having a field day. Some say the scheme will come to a close on the 16th of this month.

The rumour is linked to the possibility of the Delhi Assembly election schedule being announced this week. The registration process may be stopped by the Election Commission.

Over one lakh forms are accepted every day. The administration is clearly unequal to the task of bringing clarity to the situation, handling queries or managing crowds.

"We've tried to form queues but no one listens to us. In fact they hurl abuse at us. There is a shortage of staff. We don't have a peon, there are just two data entry operators, one is handling the desk for gas connections and the other is entering the ration card data into the system," said Manvir Singh, the Food and Supplies Officer of Seemapuri.

At Chilla Khader, on the banks of the Yamuna, nearly 1600 families live in makeshift huts, covered with plastic sheets. They work as agricultural labour and their status is comparable to the homeless. They lose their homes periodically when the Yamuna floods the banks or when the Delhi Development Authority (DDA), which owns the land, carries out demolitions. In the past they have got ration cards, only to be withdrawn.

A social worker decided to distribute the new ration card forms and accept them on behalf of the food and supply officer. Word had spread to nearby settlements and there was an unprecedented rush. Cow sheds were emptied out as people queued up.

Nempal came to Delhi from Badayun in Uttar Pradesh and has lived in the city for 12 years. He said, "We work as daily wagers to earn our living. If we get a ration card, it will become easier for us to survive."

Many, however, had no Aadhar card or Aadhar enrolment slip, the only documentation required for the vulnerable category. Aadhar is mandatory for every applicant, every family member, including children.

The absence of proper guidance or helpdesk was causing frustration. The attempt to do good seemed set to fail.

Then began the rumours that the forms were fake as some did not have registration numbers. Fights broke out and the police had to be called in. The fact is that forms do not require registration numbers. But only a trip to the police station could cool tempers.

Delhi's Commissioner of the Food and Supplies Department, SS Yadav, admits it is a mammoth task. "We decided that in Delhi we will implement it in two phases. In the first phase, we selected people who already have a ration card of the following four categories: Antodaya Anna Yojana, Below Poverty Line (BPL), Jhuggi Ration Card, Resettlement Colony Ration Card - because these are the people who are vulnerable because of their geographical location. That was to quickly give benefit of this new ordinance to people of Delhi."

The second phase, which is open now, is to enrol other people who are eligible but either have no card or have been wrongly identified as being above the poverty line.

Mr Yadav explains that it would include vulnerable groups like transgenders, handicapped people, single women, and occupationally vulnerable groups like unskilled laborers, domestic workers, rag pickers, rickshaw pullers and porters. He said, "All these groups will not have to submit any income certificate. Their geographical vulnerability or their occupational vulnerability will be taken as the qualifying criteria. Any family who has annual income of less than one lakh rupees per year, is eligible for getting enrolled for the benefit."

The hurry to roll out the Food Security Bill before the Delhi elections has resulted in chaos. Though a lot of things are still unfolding, the expansion of the food security net is likely to benefit vulnerable groups who had no access to a ration card.

The Special Commissioner of the Supreme Court in the Right to Food case, Harsh Mander, said, "The really poor in a city like Delhi are considered almost illegitimate or illegalised citizens. If you don't have a fixed address and proof of that fixed address, if you don't have an age identity proof, if you don't have citizenship proof, then there is no chance of your getting any marker of citizenship which is PDS, ration card or voter ID and it's hard to even get an Aadhar card."

The provisions of the Food Security Bill are for all residents of the country. They don't define migrants, non-migrants.

If the scheme is implemented properly, families that live as tenants in slums will also benefit. Savita and her husband came from Bihar six years ago. He works as a construction labour and their income is about Rs 5,000 a month. They do not have a ration card. Landlords are reluctant to help them with documents for proof of residence and electricity connection.

Like Geeta and her family who do not have a ration card. Her husband came to the city as a child to work as a domestic help. Now the family lives as tenants in a South Delhi slum.

The Delhi Government believes that making the new ration card Aadhar based will completely eliminate bogus ration cards and duplicate names. It has set the ceiling for the new cards at 73 lakh people, which translates approximately into 15 to 17 lakh families.

The Principal Adviser to the Supreme Court Commissioners in the Right to Food case, Biraj Patnaik, said, "Close to 15 lakh families now will get rations under highly subsidised rates, but about 4 lakh families will lose out. Therefore, I believe Delhi Government has two options: one option is to use state government funds to expand the coverage of the PDS, and the second option is to cover everybody who is being covered today, whether BPL or APL to start with, under the provisions of the food security bill. Either way I think it is a winner for Delhi."

One had only to walk through a slum to find that though everyone had the same profile, they had different ration cards: Antyodaya, BPL and APL. Now there will be only two categories: Antyodaya and Priority households.

Antyodaya card is for the poorest of the poor. But the category remains fixed as it is not being expanded. Everyone else, including new entrants, will be put in the Priority Households category.

The rates will be the same, Rs 2 for a kilo of wheat and Rs 3 for a kilo of rice. The difference is Antyodaya card holders will get 35 kilo foodgrain a month for a family and priority households will get 5 kg a person a month.

The downside is that for many BPL families, their entitlement is going down in the new system. Say a family of five getting 35 kilos of foodgrain, is now entitled to 5 kilos a person or 25 kilos.

The National Food Security Bill has been welcomed for making the entitlements legal and more inclusionary.

But there are concerns. Is the Delhi Government taking that are necessary to ensure that the entitlements reach the people?

Poor enforcement by inspectors and a poor grievance redressal mechanism is a reality.

Everyday people file complaints regarding delivery of rations which languish in government departments. The grievance redressal framework continues to be weak as it is not accessible at the ward level.

Amrita Johri of the Satark Nagarik Sanghatan, a non-governmental organisation, said grievance redressal is a key issue. "Even if you're providing better entitlements. Again the issue is not of 'X' entitlement or of 'Y' entitlement. The issue is that in any welfare scheme, unless you empower people to hold that system accountable, it will not reach them."

If the Delhi Government is proactive, the new food security law has the potential to force the PDS to work better. It is early days yet, but all eyes are on the Government to see whether it treats the scheme as a vote catcher or as an opportunity for change.

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