As the afternoon sun bore down, Naujibai Bhil waited for her turn outside the public grievance office in Rajasthan’s Rajsamand district.

“The sarpanch cancelled my red ration card and replaced it with a blue one,” said the adivasi woman from Daang Ke Vaas village, holding her head in her hand. “I can no longer get any wheat in the ration, only kerosene.”

A widow in her 60s, Naujibai Bhil survives on a monthly pension of Rs 500 since farm work is hard to come by at her age. She says she worked under the national rural employment guarantee scheme for two years, earning Rs 3,000 in wages, but no new public works had been initiated in her village in recent months despite the drought-like conditions.

Around Naujibai milled other Bhil adivasis, many with the same grievance.

Rajki Bai and Bagu Bai, both Bhil adivasi women from village Bhilwadi Tola of the same panchayat, also complained that their ration cards which entitled them to subsidised ration had been changed after a period of 15 years. The resultant loss of food entitlements, in a drought year, has pushed the two landless women into the throes of fear and anxiety.

Their stories echo many times over in Rajsamand in central Rajasthan, one of the state’s most arid and poorest districts. The drought-like conditions due to inadequate rain last year was the first blow. The second setback came a few weeks ago, when many beneficiaries were re-designated in public distribution system records from Below Poverty Line to being Above Poverty Line, and their red ration cards exchanged for blue ration cards.

Identification mess

Rajasthan was among the first states to implement the National Food Security Act. The law was passed in August 2013, and states were given a year to implement it. But with assembly elections around the corner in December 2013, the Congress government of Ashok Gehlot in Rajasthan tried to rush through the law’s implementation. The hurry required it to cut corners.

To identify fresh beneficiaries, states were needed to use the 2013 Socio Economic Caste Census, which replaced the earlier Below Poverty Line census. But since the 2013 Socio Economic Caste Census was not complete, the Rajasthan government distributed new ration cards based on the 2002 census. Cautious of upsetting any political constituencies a month before the assembly election, the government added new categories of beneficiaries without deleting any undeserving beneficiaries from the old lists.

Making that mistake much worse is the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party government. It is slashing the lists of beneficiaries, claiming that its predecessor had included excess names, covering nearly 90% of the rural population though Food Act provisions mandate 69% coverage in rural Rajasthan. Further, though the 2013 Socio Economic Caste Census data is available now, Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje’s government is pruning the number of beneficiaries using the old 2002 census list, leading to confusion and, in some instances, removal of rightful beneficiaries such as the Bhil women in Rajsamand.

Most worryingly, the state has slashed by half the number of Antyodaya beneficiaries – the poorest households among the Below Poverty Line households – whose entitlements were to continue as before under the new Food Act. The Antyodaya scheme provides 35 kilos of food grain – rice at Rs 3 per kilo or wheat at Rs 2 per kilo – to the most vulnerable among the poor, including some tribal groups, elderly couples, and widows who can’t afford food grain from the market. Zealously trimming the Antyodaya list, the government has reduced beneficiaries to 4.9 lakh households from 9.3 lakh last year.

Tribal districts worst hit

Subodh Agarwal, principal secretary in the food and civil supplies department, defends the government, saying it is reducing beneficiaries as per the Food Act.

“Till last year, because our ration beneficiaries were in excess of the provisions, we could not provide the full quantity of grains to this entire population,” said Agarwal. “We have set up village committees that decide who will continue being a beneficiary or not. Anyone who has been wrongly excluded can make an appeal to the district administration.”

On the other side, civil society activists in Rajasthan point out that the exclusions from the Antyodaya category have been way too many, particularly in districts where more than half the population is tribal. In this way, the government has cut off the poorest from the food safety net, they assert.

“In Udaipur, with 48% tribal population, the number of most vulnerable Antyodaya families has been cut from 85,000 to 28,000 families, in Dungarpur with 65% tribal population it has been reduced from 52,426 to 20,174 families, in Banswada which has 72% tribal population, the number has gone from 61,577 to 34,905 families,” said Ashok Agarwal, an activist with the Right to Food campaign. “Even if tribal or other poor families manage to appeal against this, will the panchayat functionaries go against the MLA or the sarpanch?”

Agarwal adds that the government should have used the latest Socio Economic Caste and Census data for the deletions. Currently, he says, there are no clear, consistent criteria being applied.

‘Compulsory APL’

The committees that revised the lists at the panchayat level constituted of the gram sewak, the patwari and the ration shop dealer. In Sameecha panchayat, where the Bhil families live, gram sewak Subhash Meena says the village committees had visited the houses of those who were on the 2002 list of Below Poverty Line households to verify their assets.

“We had instructions from above to cut 30% of BPL,” said Meena. “We did not remove anyone wrongly. But we had instructions that all new cards could only be Above Poverty Line cards.” In effect, if the adult children of any Below Poverty Line beneficiaries wish to apply for a new card for their nuclear household, they can only be categorised as Above Poverty Line, irrespective of the assets they own.

In Atalumba village in Urs panchayat, residents question this logic.

Bhairu Lal Bhil says he still continues to get Below Poverty Line benefits, but his son was recently denied entitlements when he tried to get a new card after moving out. “My son Jeevan Lal has no job, he has no land in his name,” said Bhairu Lal Bhil. “I own 2.5 bigha, but it is barren land on which nothing grows. Then on what basis is my son Above Poverty Line?”

Nikhil Dey, an activist with the grassroots group Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, says the Rajasthan government has slashed 1.4 crore beneficiaries. During an ongoing travelling public campaign in the state, his group received more than 4,100 complaints on the working of public schemes. Half of them were about being deprived of food ration. “In 13 districts that the [100-day accountability] yatra has covered so far, we are hearing similar complaints about wrongful exclusion from ration system over and over again,” said Dey. “The government must paste and paint the lists publicly on village walls and how they were decided publicly at ration shops in all villages.”

The poorest and the most vulnerable, meanwhile, are queuing up at public grievance offices like the one in Rajsamand. The ration system might not have functioned flawlessly in the past, but at least it sustained them. Now there is a question mark over their survival.