India spends more than 1 trillion rupees on the ration card program but there are still tens of millions getting locked out of the assistance.
Bureaucratic difficulties were cited by the government’s think tank Niti Aayog as the single most-important reason blocking access to the food program. (Bloomberg image)
Nafisa watched her baby’s life drain away. She and her husband struggled to make even 1 rupee (1 cent) a day from their tailoring business after India went into a Covid-19 lockdown in March. They often have nothing to eat. Nafisa was breastfeeding little Aaris, and with hardly any food for herself, she simply couldn’t produce enough milk. He grew weak, and his skin yellowed with jaundice. Hungry and in pain, he sobbed and howled. He died in his mother’s arms just a few weeks into the lockdown, at four months old.
It was an especially cruel tragedy because it happened in a country that boasts about having the world’s largest food-aid program. Government warehouses brim with more than 70 million metric tons of grains, or almost 15% of global stockpiles, and the nation’s wheat and rice harvests have surged to records. Still, like millions of other Indians, Nafisa has never gotten any of the subsidized food promised by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration. Her 5-year-old son, Salman, doesn’t even bother asking for food anymore, because he knows there’s no point.
“Nobody is listening to us,” 24-year-old Nafisa, who goes by a single name, said from the Banda district in Uttar Pradesh state. Recounting how she applied in vain time and again for the ration card that would help feed her family, she broke down in tears. “If we had the card, at least we could feed our child.”
Governments across the world have failed to prevent a hunger crisis that is reaching monumental proportions. Globally, as many as 132 million more people than previously projected by the United Nations could go hungry in 2020. The total increase for this year could be more than triple any this century, even at a time of ample food supplies, as the pandemic sharpens the world’s deep inequalities.
Covid-19 is also exposing India’s big divides, like access to quality health care and proper sanitation. And of course, there’s the basic question of who gets to eat, and who doesn’t. Even before the lockdowns, roughly three-quarters of the population (more than 1 billion people) couldn’t afford a healthy diet.
To meet the need, the government is required by law to provide as many as 5 kilograms (11 pounds) of rice, wheat and coarse grains at subsidized rates as low as 1 rupee per kilogram to anyone who needs it. The cheap staple foods are sold at so-called fair price shops, where buyers need a government-issued ration card to make a purchase at the give-away rates. India spends more than 1 trillion rupees ($13.6 billion) on the program. But there are still tens of millions getting locked out of the assistance.
Bureaucratic difficulties were cited by the government’s think tank Niti Aayog as the single most-important reason blocking access to the food program. Raja Bhaiya, the secretary of aid group Vidya Dham Samiti which works in the Banda district, said some shopkeepers also direct grain that’s meant for the program for their own sales, at higher prices.
The biggest problem with the program, though, is that it’s woefully underfunded. More than 100 million people are being left out of the current budget, according to Jean Dreze, a visiting professor with Ranchi University in eastern India, who helped draft the national food law. The government is allotting its funds using 2011-2012 census data. Back then, the population was a little more than 1.2 billion. Now it’s grown to roughly 1.38 billion.
Siraj Hussain is a former chairman of state-run Food Corp. of India, the agency that oversees the food procurement program. He agrees about the problems with the old figures. The dated census data means that the actual number of those in need “is not known,” said Hussain, who’s now a visiting senior fellow at the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations in New Delhi.
That means local agencies like the one Nafisa visited receive more applications than they have quotas for, according to two officials with the program in Uttar Pradesh who asked not to be named because the information isn’t public. There are thousands of pending applications in the rural Banda district, according to one of the officials. The majority of those applicants should technically be granted approval based on the food law, but because local quotas are already filled, they are usually rejected or left in limbo. Only when someone who’s already enrolled in the program dies or is otherwise deleted from the list does a spot open to issue a new card, the officials said.
Sudhanshu Pandey, India’s food secretary, acknowledged that government benefits are being calculated based on the old census data in emailed comments to Bloomberg. The federal government is responsible for procurement, storage and bulk allocation of food grains to states, which are responsible for identifying beneficiaries and issuing ration cards, he said. The food department is regularly advising states to cover any left-out eligible persons, within the coverage limits, he said. During the pandemic, the program has been scaled up, with Uttar Pradesh alone adding about 4 million people.
Uttar Pradesh is India’s most populous state. The Banda district, Nafisa’s home, is among the poorest, with its children suffering some of the worst rates of stunting from malnutrition in the country. Anand Kumar Singh, district magistrate of Banda, didn’t respond to emailed questions. Bloomberg tried more than five times to speak to him on the phone.
Nafisa has made several trips to the local office where she’s supposed to sign up for the ration card. Each time she gets turned away without one, and she’s never given a clear reason why. “We are in a dire situation,” she said. “There is nothing in the kitchen.”
The government has taken some steps to mitigate the situation as Covid-19 continues to spread — India now has the second-highest number of cases in the world, trailing only the U.S. Stimulus measures include offering an additional 5-kilogram grain package per person for free until November to the more than 800 million who are covered by the food program. On top of that, about 80 million migrant workers, some of whom don’t have access to the food program, were also offered grains for free in May and June.
The virus outbreak is also accelerating India’s push to digitize the food-rationing system, allowing citizens to receive entitlements anywhere in the country rather than just in their home towns. But the problem remains that millions haven’t been granted access to the program.
Ram Kumar, who also lives in the Banda district, first applied for a ration card in 2019. Since then, he’s made trip after trip to the agency to inquire about his status. Each time he’s offered what feels like a different excuse for why he hasn’t been approved yet. “The officials scold us when we go to check the status,” the 39-year-old said.
He’s been out of work for months, relying on savings to feed his family of four. Now, the money has run out. His wife and two children have left to live at his in-laws’ houses. To feed himself, he’s sunken into a debt trap — first borrowing from his employer, then taking a loan from village lenders to pay back that advance on his salary.
“I will try again for a ration card when the next government comes to power, and if that doesn’t happen we will continue living like this,” he said. “I never expected it would be that difficult to get a ration card.” The government is hesitating to expand the program to cover more people as higher expenses on subsidized food will widen the nation’s fiscal deficit, said Dreze of Ranchi University.
Some economists in the country are calling for a universal public distribution system, removing the need for a ration card to access the subsidized-grain stores and opening them up since the state is sitting on huge crop stockpiles. “I would favor providing food to all who arrive at the ration shops,” said Rohini Pande, Henry J. Heinz II professor of economics and director of Yale University’s Economic Growth Center. “The government should also sell other essential items such as edible oil, sugar, vegetables and milk at subsidized rates.”
Mubina Khatoon, a 34-year-old homemaker in the Banda district, first applied for a ration card back in 2019. That application was canceled by the local office, though she wasn’t told why. Back then, Khatoon’s family would end their days with meals of rice, lentils and vegetables, even meat or fish on occasion. But now her husband, Sheeraj Ahamad, is lucky when his work as a hawker selling clothes brings in 200 rupees once in a while. A stark turnaround after making as much as 600 rupees a day in the months before Covid. Dinner these days is often little more than chapatis, a homemade flatbread made from wheat flour.
In just a few months, Khatoon dropped 9 kilograms (20 pounds). Her 11-year-old son is down almost the same. Her husband, who carries a heavy load of clothes from to village to village, is down a whopping 20 kilograms, she said. Khatoon applied again for a ration card in June, and each time she checks with her local agency, she’s told that it’s still pending. “What do we eat to survive? What do we feed our child?” she said. “All our food containers are empty.”