In Chhattisgarh, bureaucratic enthusiasm leaves lakhs without rations

With a handful of grain and a head full of recipes, Leela cooks rice in a pot balanced on three stones in a room with a few bricks knocked out to let in sunlight in this village barely 150 km from Raipur, Chhattisgarh capital.

When rice is scarce, she adds more water to make a broth, a little extra salt and cumin to give it taste and a few grains of dal for body. Sometimes she boils leaves of a forest plant, kandha , and grinds a chutney of chillies, salt and water. As a member of the Kamar tribe (classified as a ‘particularly vulnerable tribal group' by the Government of India), scarcity has long been an ingredient of Leela's cooking but the past six months have been particularly hard. In February this year, the Chhattisgarh government conducted a Statewide verification campaign to plug leakages in the Public Distribution System, and cancelled more than three lakh ration cards, of which 2.3 lakh were in rural areas. Leela's is one of them.

Better PDS

Chhattisgarh actually has one of the better PDS in the country. In an article in The Hindu last year, development economist Jean Dreze noted that almost 80 per cent of the State's rural population is entitled to purchase 35 kg rice at subsidised prices of between Re. 1 and Rs. 2 every month, and cited block-level studies suggesting that 85 per cent of cardholders were receiving their rations. The article also stressed the role of innovations like using cellular short messaging services (SMS) to improve transparency by keeping the public informed of the availability of rations in shops.

The current verification campaign, according to sources familiar with the matter, appears to be a case of bureaucratic overenthusiasm coupled with panchayati indifference. In February last year, the Department of Food and Civil Supplies circulated a note outlining its intended verification drive. Last month, the department brought out full-page advertisements in local newspapers highlighting its success in eliminating the so-called bogus cards. A perusal of the numbers, and a forthcoming survey, suggest that the drive has unwittingly deprived a number of genuine beneficiaries like Leela Kamar, who depend on monthly rations for their survival.

Figures obtained from the administration illustrate that 1.5 lakh cards (about 62 per cent of the cancelled cards) were struck off the rolls because the cardholders did not submit their verification forms on time, and 13 per cent more were cancelled for ‘miscellaneous' reasons. Only six per cent of the cards were cancelled when a survey of household assets rendered the cardholders ineligible for the Below Poverty Line (BPL) ration cards, indicating that a number of beneficiaries lost their entitlements, stumped by the bureaucratic procedure.

“Two years ago, my children tore up our ration card while I was out on work,” said Leela Kamar, “so the panchayat gave us a duplicate card to pick up rations. When I submitted my card for verification, they cancelled it saying that duplicate cards were not allowed.”

Leela explains that she and her husband make ends meet by gathering datun, tree twigs that villagers across India chew in place of brushing their teeth. She estimates that it takes an entire day to collect about 400 twigs that are then sold at Re. 1 per bundle of 10. “We leave the children at home and head out early morning. Often it gets so late that we can sell our datun only the following day,” she said. This means that she and her husband collectively earn about Rs. 40 every two days, or about Rs. 600 a month. Without her card, she buys rice at Rs. 17 a kg, instead of at Re. 1 a kg, and salt (which the ration shops provide for free) for Rs. 15 a kg.

“There is never enough rice to go around for the whole family.” Leela said: “The older children get one proper meal a day at school, but Gauri [her daughter] is too young to go to school.” But, Leela says, Gauri has become adept at fixing a lunch of water and rice. The four-year-old girl has a swollen stomach, a characteristic of chronic malnutrition.

Panchayat members said Leela would have to submit another affidavit to get a new ration card. “We can't do anything until she gives us a written application,” said panchayat secretary Anit Kumar Dhruv. Leela, who is illiterate, said she spent a week at the local tehsil office but could not get a new card. “Going to the tehsil office means I don't earn that day,” she said. For the same reason, neither she nor her husband could get a job card to seek work under the Centrally administered Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act.

Law and poverty researcher Usha Ramanathan says the case of Leela and hundreds of thousands like her in Chhattisgarh illustrate the high personal costs borne by those battling exclusion in a regime of increasingly targeted welfare benefits.

“When the means of identification becomes the basic issue and not the delivery of services, there is a real threat of exclusion of those who must be included,” she said. “Whether it is cards or biometrics, they are, at best, a means to identify beneficiaries.”

Principal Secretary for Food and Civil Supplies Vivek Dhand was unavailable for comment.

  • Drive to weed out bogus cards unwittingly deprives genuine beneficiaries of rations
  • Chhattisgarh holds verification campaign to plug leakages in PDS