Why universalisation of the Public Distribution System is a must
Excluded from the TPDS
While the COVID-19 pandemic has spread across the country and a lockdown has been imposed since 25 March 2020, the Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS) has emerged as one of the most important welfare schemes, as millions across India lose access to livelihoods, income and food. The access to TPDS, however, is limited and excludes many who are now on the brink of starvation.
There are millions of poor informal workers in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR) that keep cities running. They work without job security, wage security or social security; to safeguard them or their resources in times of crisis. Often, they work without any access to welfare schemes like the TPDS, due to lack of the needed documentation, migration and a range of other reasons. Now as COVID-19 is impacting MMR and Maharashtra far more than the rest of the country, the condition of such workers, is getting worse with every passing day.
Bansi (name changed) lives in a rented room in a basti in Navi Mumbai and is a Devdasi. Every Tuesday and Thursday, Bansi dresses up as a newly married Hindu woman, goes from door to door with a picture of the God she is married to, and requests people to donate grains, vegetables and money to her. On these days, she eats only the donated food. On the remaining days, she sells sprouted lentils in a vegetable market. Those who do not have enough time to sprout lentils because of their busy work schedule find it handy to buy them from her. She is one of the many invisible informal workers whose labour subsidise and support the formal economy. Being a Devdasi, Bansi was not allowed to marry or have children. She is a single woman and does not have a ration card. Government welfare schemes meant for women like her has not reached her. Bansi is one of the many going hungry in this lockdown.
Among them, there are also many migrant workers like Gagan and Shabri who are from Bihar and are currently on the roads of Mumbai, without any shelter or food. They sell flowers in a local market in Kurla. Occasionally, their son is also able to extract some honey from beehives for some extra income. Since about a month now, none of them have been able to earn or buy food. Finally, they decided to step out of their rented homes. They left from Kurla and via Tilak Nagar reached Mankhurd. After staying there for a night, they headed to Vashi, from there to Sanpada, then to Mansarovar, and from there they reached Khandeshwar, Kamothe, where our team met them. Throughout their journey from Kurla to Kharghar, they got no help from any government official, police or any NGO. They are unable to go back to their village in Bihar because the trains have stopped. Gagan and Shabri appeal to the government to provide whatever minimum ration supply possible.
There is another major section of migrant workers across Mumbai that are also going hungry but are mostly invisible because they are stuck inside or around the small and medium size factories they work at. We are in touch with such migrant workers who were employed at small factories in the National Market in Wadala. Before the lockdown was imposed, the workers used to sleep inside these factories. Since the lockdown and the closure of their factories, they are sleeping on the roads nearby their factories. Many of these workers are from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Most of their contractors have not paid them the salary for the month of March and haven’t faced any repercussions for the same. In a hope to get it some day, these workers do not want to move to any shelter away from their workplace. Once they leave, they may never get their salary which is highly valuable to them at this point. Without food and shelter, some of these workers have already started borrowing money from private moneylenders at interest rates as high as 10–12 per cent per month. Sometimes, some people from the poor neighbourhood area also provide some food to these workers living on roads.
We have come across many such workers who have been completely left adrift to deal with COVID-19 as well as hunger and exacerbated poverty due to the lockdown. So far, none of the measures by the government for provision of rations cover those without eligible ration cards. These are the people most in need of food provided by the government. Right now, they are highly dependent on NGOs and private donors which cannot replace a long-term provision by the government. They will run out of food any day if the aid stops flowing in. With food shortage, the nutrition level of the poor will also go down, affecting their natural immunity to fight COVID-19 and making them far more vulnerable to this deadly virus than others. The impact of malnutrition and starvation is even more on pregnant women and young children.
Understanding TPDS cards
Among those having ration cards, those with a card under the Antyodaya Anna Yojna (AAY) (the green ration card) are those that do not have any stable source of income above INR 250 per month. Beneficiaries include persons aged 60 years or more, terminally ill persons, people with physical disability, widows, unsupported single women and men, nomadic tribes, people with HIV/AIDS, and those without shelter.
The rest of the beneficiaries of the TPDS are covered under a tricolour ration cards scheme in the state. The yellow ration cards are for those under the Below Poverty Line (BPL) limit of annual income less than Rs. 15,000 among other criteria. The next layer of income bracket covered in the scheme is of annual income between INR 15,000 and INR 1,00,000 and are commonly called ‘Above Poverty Line’ (APL) category. The beneficiaries in this category are given saffron ration cards. Those APL households with annual income above INR 1,00,000 are provided white ration cards.
Under the National Food Security Act 2013 (NFSA), BPL and APL categories were done away with and all the card holders with annual income under INR 59,000 were brought under a ‘Priority House Holds’ (PHH) category. While this recategorisation happened, the tricolor ration cards provided already remained the same, with a new PHH stamp to identify the newly defined category. The same price system was adopted for AAY card holders and PHH card holders: rice for INR 3 per kg, wheat for INR 2 per kg and coarse grains for INR 1 per kg. While the AAY card holders continued to get 35 kg of ration at this price like they were getting earlier, PHH card holders were promised 5 kg of ration per person. Rest of the ration card holders would get ration at a higher price and only as per availability.
TPDS relief packages during COVID-19
Since the onset of COVID-19 pandemic in India, the central government has been using the TPDS system to ensure food security of the poor. On 26 March 2020, the central government declared 2 kg extra ration per person at the same subsidised rate to AAY and PHH card holders for the next three months. This soon turned out to be not enough. On 30 March 2020, the central government announced its relief package Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana under which an additional 5kg of ration (5 kg of rice for the beneficiaries in Maharashtra) per person per month was approved free of cost for AAY and PHH beneficiaries of TPDS for a period of three months, April to June 2020. That made the total ration quota for PHH beneficiaries 10 kg per person and for AAY beneficiaries at least 40 kg per household.
On 20 March 2020, the Government of Maharashtra announced that state ration shops would provide grain, onions and potatoes that can last for three months to TPDS beneficiaries. In the second week of April, the state government also approved a scheme to provide 3 kg wheat at Rs. 8 per kg and 2 kg rice at Rs. 12 per kg to all saffron card holders in the state for May and June this year. This would cover those saffron card holders left out of the PHH category. However, people need food now and there is still more than half of April to get over.
Madhu (name changed), a street vendor who sold fish before the lockdown was imposed has an saffron card. Last week, Madhu went missing from her home in Vashi Naka. For two days, police and her daughter looked for her all over the city. After two days, she showed up at her brother’s house in Dombivli. She had been walking for two days to reach her brother’s house to get some ration after she ran out of it and was denied more by the local Fair Price Shop.
We have talked to many people under the AAY and PHH categories who have been denied any additional ration during the lockdown. Also, even the provision of collecting three months ration together, as per both state and central government relief packages, is not available in Mumbai. Onions and potatoes, as promised by the state government, are also unavailable till now. Moreover, those with non-priority ration cards are also not getting ration as promised. An HIV positive couple living in one of the communities we have been catering to and has an AAY card. Normally, they are eligible for 35 kg of ration per month. They reported that they were provided merely 8 kg of rice this month by the Fair Price Shop (FPS) owner and were told to not come back until the next month. As soon as this meagre supply gets over, they will be forced to step out of their homes in search of food despite COVID-19 being fatal to them.
The slow or insufficient communication across the government bureaucracy is also adding to the problem. While for some relief packages no Government Resolution (GR) has been issued as per the government’s promise, for some of them no follow up circulars have been issued after issuing GRs. Meanwhile, we are also getting reports of exacerbating shortage of ration at FPS throughout MMR. Many FPS owners are complaining that they are not getting enough supply for the increased distribution to beneficiaries. Many FPS owners also state that if supplies for 3 months were to be sent, they do not have space in their godowns to store such large quantities. If the situation continues, those with some access to ration supplies may also go hungry in the city despite food security promised by the government.
Existing issues in the TPDS
Most of the problems with the TPDS system currently have existed long before the outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic. It is a fact that the TPDS is unable to provide the promised amount of food to even all those poor people in the country that are registered in the system. A few of these issues have been detailed below.
Lesser quantities: We have received persisting reports from communities across the MMR that they were regularly provided less ration than their quota. Those with bigger families are denied ration portions for some of their family members despite having their names on ration cards. The complaint system of PDS is also easy for FPS owners to manipulate. This being a general trend, it is highly unlikely for FPS owners to start providing the entire portion of the promised ration to beneficiaries during this lockdown when there is hardly any supervision. The stolen ration can be easily sold in the black market now that grocery is in short supply and prices of grains are rising in Mumbai.
Technical glitches in the ePOS System: Since 2017, electronic Point of Sale (ePOS) system started being used at FPS in Maharashtra. ePOS needs linking ration cards with Aadhar cards which has many technical issues. Many beneficiaries have complained of being denied ration because their Aadhar cards could not be linked to their ration cards. Despite having ration cards, they continue to be deprived of the food promised by the government during this lockdown. Recently the state government discounted the use of ePOS during the lockdown, however, FPS continue to use it mandatorily as it was required so far.
Migration: Ration cards of migrant informal workers are often registered at their native place. While they live across the MMR as migrant workers, often frequently relocating from one settlement to another depending on the availability of work, it is not feasible for them to keep getting their ration cards transferred to their address in the city. FPS owners often deny them ration and urge that their ration cards be transferred to the new address for availing any ration. This excludes many of them from access to ration.
The ration card as more than a food card: Some beneficiaries fall out of the system because of lack of understanding of how the PDS system works. Ration card is one of the key government-provided documents that also work as identity proof for many. Therefore, even when children move out of a household, their names are still kept on the ration cards in case it is needed as a proof anywhere. However, this drives up the total household income which is the criteria for deciding ration benefits for a household. As a result, there are many old parents who live alone but are not getting PHH benefits despite needing it. The Kendriya Annapoorna Yojana, that provides 10 kg ration for people of 65 years or above, is also poorly implemented as per our observation.
From a Targeted PDS to a Universal PDS as a necessity
The government has introduced the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana as a relief package, however, the promised food transfer should be taken up under the National Disaster Management Act 2005 on an urgent basis. The PDS system should be used as conduit of this critical relief work that should reach all who are in need regardless of their location, occupation, class, native place or registration status in the TPDS program.
On multiple occasions in the past, temporary ration cards have been provided under TPDS to ensure food security to vulnerable communities and populations like Pardhi community or Bidi workers. Even in case of evictions of informal settlements, temporary ration cards have been provided to displaced populations until they get rehabilitated. Such temporary ration cards are the need of the hour for all the poor looking for ration supplies during this lockdown and until they get employed again. An efficient mobilisation of the government staff to provide these ration cards to all in need, coupled with sufficient supply of ration to FPS and supervision of fair distribution through them is the need of the hour.
Managing the distribution of temporary ration cards and ration may also reduce the number of individual calls of distressed people to the government helpline. Additionally, though the state government has initiated many meal distribution centres, community kitchens or Shiv Bhojan centres (selling meals at INR 5 per plate) and has assured that nobody without a ration card need to go hungry, not all the people in need know their locations and can reach them during the lockdown. Also, these centres tend to have people gather frequently at such spaces during the meal hours. On the other hand, giving them ration instead of cooked meals can help them stay at home much longer. Moreover, if the FPSs are kept open for long hours and are well stocked, people can maintain social distancing and collect ration without any rush.
For Bansi, Gagan, Shabri and Madhu, for the migrant workers sleeping outside their closed factories awaiting food and salary, for that couple that is HIV positive and stranded, and for millions of other poor people living in the slums, factories and shelters across MMR, food security is their right and a matter of life and death. Owing to the rise in hunger and food insecurity, India’s success in dealing with COVID-19 also depends hugely on ensuring food security through efficient and swift use of existing structures and systems like PDS.
We recommend immediate action towards the following measures for the universalisation of food transfer:
1. Provide temporary ration cards for 6 months to all those in need coming to the FPS for ration. Each FPS must have a jurisdiction so that duplication is avoided.
2. Install counters/camp at FPS manned by government officials to create temporary ration cards on the spot.
3. Engage local NGOs and health workers in the process of identifying people who need temporary ration cards.
4. Install banners with the details of government provisions for the poor at all FPS.
5. Make the use of ePOS optional to allow ration provisions to those whose Aadhar card cannot be linked with a ration card immediately.
6. Ensure due supply of ration to those ration card holders that are registered somewhere else.
7. Install temporary FPS centers in locations where no FPS exists.
8. Immediately ensure sufficient supply of all ration at all FPS.
9. Regularly supervise provision of ration through FPS to ensure fair practice by the owner.
10. Cap prices of ration in the open market to avoid exploitation or deprivation of the poor.
11. Ensure “provision of cooked meals” to “provision of ration” to those who have cooking facility.
 Devdasi are the women who are married to God and left for his service because of caste traditions.
Written by Sheeva Dubey with inputs from Raju Vanjare, Namdeo Guldagad, Husna Khan, Amrutlal Betwala, Pooja Yadav, Sachin Nachnekar, Amit Gawali, Jaysing Randive, Vijay Kharat, Anuja Sirohi, Marina Joseph