The Right to Food campaign launched a series of yatras in north India last month. Ankita Aggarwal joined the Jharkhand yatris and got a taste of the woes of the villagers.

The National Food Security Bill, tabled in Parliament in December 2011, is a travesty of the right to food. There have been regular agitations ever since for a comprehensive food security act, which guarantees adequate nutrition to everyone. Last month, the right to food campaign launched a series of yatras (convoys) in Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Jharkhand, Rajasthan and West Bengal to take this issue to the people.

I joined the Jharkhand yatra on October 11 in Bokaro. Baleshwar Bauri, who seemed to be leading the yatra at that time, is a Dalit from Dhanbad. He joined the Total Literacy Campaign in 1992 and was later a part of Asangathit Mazdoor Vahini, which agitated for minimum wages in the unorganised sector. He has also worked with Bharat Gyan Vigyan Samiti (BGVS), the right to information movement, and the National Rural Health Mission (NRHM). Encouraged by the achievements of earlier struggles, he is hopeful that the campaign for a comprehensive food security act will also succeed.

The next day we moved to Ramgarh and gathered people at the Gola block office compound. After talking about our demand for universal old age pension, we asked the few elderly people intently listening to us whether they were getting pensions. One of them, a woman, said that her pension was yet to be sanctioned in spite of her giving money and murga (chicken meat) to the middlemen. Another woman, a widow, had also paid money to get her pension sanctioned but was still waiting for it. People said that in their villages (Chadi, Chokada, Hupu, Navadih, among others) there were many other cases of old people or widows who were not getting a pension. Even those who do get a pension often receive it after delays of up to six months.

In the same meeting we asked people how they would feel if food rations under the Public Distribution System (PDS) were replaced with cash transfers. Without pausing for a second to think, some people said that they preferred rice to cash. When I asked if anyone would rather get cash, nobody in the group of about 50 people said “yes”. I then asked one of the old men who wasn’t getting a pension why he preferred rice. He said that money would get spent within a few days on other things. A younger man shouted from the back that if the old man was given money, he would squander it on alcohol.

A yatri’s story

Farkeshwar Mahto, one of the yatris (travellers), told me how he got involved in “social work”. He said that in 1999, when he was about 18 years old, a Dalit widow in his village was branded a daayan (witch) by her relatives who actually wanted to scare her away and seize her land. This woman was stripped, paraded in the village and sexually assaulted. Shaken by this incident, Farkeshwar decided to join struggles for justice. He was confident that the campaign’s demands would be accepted, because the government – he felt – is afraid of the people and needs their votes. He also said that some people, after listening to the yatris, asked whether they belonged to a political party and said that they wanted to vote for them.

Sometimes we would do a street play on a negotiation between the government and the public on PDS entitlements. The play was written by Bhagirath Das, another Dalit from Dhanbad, who also writes and sings songs on various social issues. When I asked him about the role of this creative work in the struggles he had been part of, he said that the public was bored of bhashans (speeches) and was more attracted to songs, plays and slogans. He felt that these were great means of communicating to others what social movements are trying to achieve.

On October 14 we reached Geddu Amba toli in the Angara block of Ranchi. In this village, people had mobilised last year to protest against the non-distribution of PDS rations in April and May. After a dharna at the Block office and other agitations, they had succeeded in forcing the administration to distribute the missing rations. This was an encouraging story, in a State where people generally feel so powerless to prevent corruption.

Jharkhand has expanded its Below Poverty Line (BPL) list to include more rural households in the PDS. All families among the (so-called) Primitive Tribal Groups have Antyodaya cards which entitle them to 35 kg of rice every month, free of cost. BPL cardholders also get monthly rations of 35 kg of rice, at one rupee per kg. A survey of the PDS conducted last year in Dumka and Ranchi districts found that actual purchases of PDS rice by BPL cardholders were around 70 per cent of the official entitlements. This was lower than in any other State covered by the same survey (except Bihar), but still represents an important step forward in a State where most of the PDS grain was diverted to the black market just a few years ago.

The yatris came from very diverse social backgrounds. Arif Ansari, 20, was assisting the driver in the bus we were travelling in. Soon after the yatra began, he took a liking for our songs, slogans and plays, and decided to join in. There was of course no looking back. Arif said that he didn’t have a ration card, but that after listening to so many people speaking about the need for everyone to have a ration card, he was hopeful that his family would be able to get one too.

Onward to Delhi

On October 16, a large convention on the right to food took place in Jamshedpur, where yatras from different States (Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and West Bengal) converged. The Bihar yatra had begun from Jalhe Bogia village in Gaya district, where, sometime in 2005, hunger forced people to exhume a dead goat and eat its meat. Yatris from Chhattisgarh recounted many complaints of hardship due to the diversion of land and water for industries. In West Bengal, the yatra played a crucial role in the State government’s decision to start distributing additional allocations of 5 kg of foodgrains a month to 5000 households in every district. Various speakers stressed that ensuring food security requires addressing related issues of food production, procurement, storage and distribution.

In all the States where yatras took place, people earnestly supported the campaign’s demand for abolishing the division between BPL and APL (Above Poverty Line) households, and for a universal PDS. They wanted not only cereals from the PDS, but also pulses and oil, which are crucial for good nutrition. The campaign’s demand for excess food stocks to be immediately distributed through the PDS also received overwhelming support.

It was most energising to be part of a gathering where people from different States (some of whom had travelled for more than two days to reach Jamshedpur) had come to share their struggles for the right to food. The participants also danced, sang songs and exchanged slogans in several languages. The convention ended with a resolve to intensify the movement for a comprehensive food security act and agitate in the capital during the winter session of Parliament. I look forward to meeting all these people again, this time in Delhi.