So precious was the chana dal that came in a red carton featuring the photograph of Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav, that Ram Devi took just two spoonsful, and sprinkled it on the greens she was cooking for lunch.

For months, the adivasi woman, living in Uttar Pradesh’s Lalitpur district, had fed her children rotis with salt. On a rare day, the rotis were accompanied by vegetables, mostly potatoes.

2015 had been a dismal year for Bundelkhand, the arid region at the intersection of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, where Lalitpur is located. Unseasonal rains had washed away the winter crop of wheat. Then, the monsoon failed, and with it, the crop of urad dal.

The cascading losses hit the region’s poor who cut down on meals. In December, met an old Sahariya adivasi woman who was foraging the fields for the seeds of weeds to pound into flour to make ghaas ki roti or grass rotis.

After repeated admonishments by the Supreme Court while hearing a public interest litigation, Uttar Pradesh government in the first week of April announced special food provisions for the poorest of poor in Bundelkhand. They were identified as those getting rations under the Antodyaya Anna Yojana, a national food scheme meant to cover the most vulnerable families.

Days later, on April 16, Ram Devi and other residents of the Sahariya basti in Kareela village piled onto a tractor to travel to the tehsil office in Talbehat. They carried with them, wrapped in plastic, their tattered lal-cards, the pink-coloured cards issued to them under the Antodyaya scheme.

At the tehsil, they were given sacks of potatoes, salt, sugar, turmeric, and red cartons. Inside the cartons were ten kilos of wheat flour, five kilos of chana dal, five litres of mustard oil, ghee, milk powder – and a letter from the chief minister.

The letter went unread, since no one in the basti has finished middle school. In it, Yadav had assured beneficiaries that his government would not let anyone die of starvation. He also appealed to recipients to share their provisions with others – an indirect admission that his government might not be able to reach all the needy.

In the basti, for instance, many vulnerable people had not got the red cartons.

Two old women, Maleeda and Chironjia, did not get them because they did not have ration cards.

Several others did not get them because, despite being landless labourers, they had been issued yellow ration cards, meant for those above the poverty line.

The most glaring case, however, was that of Suman Devi, who had a pink-coloured Antodyaya ration card, and yet had been turned away by tehsil officials. “They said your name is not on the list,” she said. “But for years, I have been getting 35 kilos [of foodgrains] from the control [ration shop].”

The kotedaar, or the dealer at the local ration shop, was a 68-year-old man named Bhagwan Das Kushwaha. He pleaded innocence. “I did not cut the name of Pritam [Suman's husband],” he said. The exclusion, he explained, was part of a larger upheaval underway in the state.

New system

In January, Uttar Pradesh started implementing the National Food Security Act in 24 districts, including the eight districts of Bundelkhand.

Earlier, the state distributed ration cards in three categories – Below the Poverty Line, Above the Poverty Line, and Antodyaya Anna Yojana. For every ration card, it offered 35 kilos of foodgrains. The price depended on the type of card – higher for APL cards, lower for BPL, and the lowest for Antodyaya cards.

The National Food Security Act has merged the BPL and APL categories into "priority card holders". Instead of 35 kilos per card, it stipulates monthly rations of 3.5 kilos of wheat per person at Rs 2 per kilo, and 1.5 kilos of rice at Rs 3 per kilo. Altogether, five kilos of foodgrains for every eligible person.

An exception has been made for Antodyaya card-holders, who continue to get 35 kilos of foodgrains per card.

The real benefit of the National Food Security Act lies in the expansion of the coverage of the public distribution system. In Uttar Pradesh, for instance, 79.56% of the state's rural population and 64.43% of its urban population are now entitled to food rations under the law.

In Lalitpur, 794,542 people were enrolled on the old ration lists till December 2015. After the implementation of food security act in January, the number has already climbed to 868,643 – 71% of the district’s population. The district has contributed to more than one-third of the rise in the number of rations cards since food security act was implemented.

While this looks impressive on paper, on the ground, the picture is messy.

The most visible sign of the mess is the sacks of unsold foodgrains piling up in Kushwaha’s godown.

Why are subsidised foodgrains lying unsold in times of a food crisis?

To understand this, first, a note on the way the state implemented the National Food Security Act.

Under the law, the state had to draw up a fresh list of beneficiaries.

Starting last year, people were asked to fill applications online – a difficult feat for the region’s illiterate poor, who ended up paying Rs 100 to computer operators who sprung up overnight.

A team of panchayat-level officials verified the eligibility of applicants.

The names of those found eligible were sent to the Food and Civil Supplies Department, which prepared the new list of beneficiaries, and printed and distributed the ration cards.

Till the last week of April, 762,855 people had made it to the National Food Security Act list in Lalitpur as "priority card-holders". But, between January and April, the government allotted rations in this category to just 680,214 people – or those who had made it to the list before January. This means 82,670 people did not get rations in April, despite being on the new list.

In Kushwaha’s area, the names of 809 people feature on the priority-card list under the food security act. But for the last four months, the dealer has been allotted rations for just 597 people – about 2,090 kilos of wheat and 895 kilos of rice per month.

Of this, Kushwaha has been able to sell just 1,320 kilos of wheat and 565 kilos of rice per month.

The rest has remained unsold – altogether 8,302 kilos of wheat and 5,306 kilos of rice – because 220 of the 597 people had not received their ration cards. In effect, 513 people on the National Food Security Act list have gone without their rations for the last four months. Many of them are poor families who were getting rations earlier, and cannot fathom why they have been cut off from the supplies in a drought year. "There was no water for us to grow wheat," said Dheeraj, a young farmer. "And now the rations have stopped coming."

Kushwaha said it wasn't his fault. “I have already paid for the stocks, and I need to recover my money through sales," he said. "But I was told to give rations to only those with the new parchis."

The district supply officer, DS Ram, confirmed this. “Rations can be given to only those with the new cards,” he said.

It is unclear how many people in the district have been deprived of rations because the new cards failed to reach them. But calculations based on the allotment and sale of foodgrains in March show that in just Talbehat block, rations for 13,257 people remained unsold. Talbehat is just one of six blocks of Lalitpur, one of the 75 districts of Uttar Pradesh. “Once people get their ration cards, we will give them the backlog of four months,” said Ram, seemingly oblivious to the food crisis in the lives of the poor.

Why have the ration cards not reached people? Officials had no answers. But on the ground, there were signs of administrative disarray. A sheaf of 50-odd ration cards meant for another village were lying with Kushwaha. “The tehsil officials mistakenly gave them to me," he said. "Now they are refusing to take them back."

At the tehsil office, bundles of applications have been piling up. Officials complained of a staff crunch. “I have two data entry operators and 113 kotedaars, each of whom gets dozens of forms daily," said Abhay Kumar, the head clerk in the supply department at Talbehat. "How can we cope?”

It isn’t just that the National Food Security Act list is incomplete. The question is whether the most needy have made it to the list?

Mota is a majra, or hamlet, of Hasguwan village in Kadesra Bansi panchayat near the Madhya Pradesh border. On April 19, with the help of a local non-profit Parmarth, did a quick survey in the poorest quarter of Mota, where Sahariya adivasis and Dalits live. Sixteen families were present in the quarter that morning. Only three had received the new National Food Security Act ration cards.

This was in sharp contrast to the results of a similar survey done just 20 kilometres away in Madhya Pradesh, in the village of Panchampora. Here, of the 20 Sahariya families, 18 had National Food Security Act cards. They were getting regular food rations, albeit not the full amounts.

Madhya Pradesh implemented the National Food Security Act in 2014 and researchers have found improvements in the public distribution system since then.

In contrast, Uttar Pradesh first delayed the implementation by two years. Then, in the haste to implement the law, officials admit several ineligible people were added to the list. "We were given a target of 60% [enrolment of the population] till January," said Pankaj Soni, the village development officer in Talbehat. "In the rush, the names of some ineligible people were added the list." The tehsilar of Barh, Avdesh Gautam, said, “When there is pressure, you call the pradhan on phone, and take his word on who is eligible. But we are trying to weed out those names now.”

Such errors can prove costly. For every ineligible person who makes it to the list, an eligible person gets left out.

In Mota, the adivasis and Dalits said they had filled out the application last year. But they did not know if they had been found eligible and their names had made it to the list. The government has claimed great transparency in making the lists available on the internet. But in the villages, people have no way of accessing them, unlike the old lists that were painted on the walls of ration shops.

Moonje, an old Dalit man who lives alone, said he did not fill the application. “The pradhan asked for Rs 100 to make my form online,” he said. “Hum bichak gaya. I got annoyed and left.”

Rajabeti and Deepa, Sahariya women, said they had just returned from months of work in the brick-kilns of Indore. They were not sure if they could still apply for the ration cards.

The pradhan, Jaipal Singh, had no answers to the queries. His aide, Jeetendra, claimed tehsil officials had pointedly said no new forms would be accepted.

Relief by rules

The day did the survey in Mota village, chief minister Akhilesh Yadav was touring another part of Lalitpur district. With state elections next year, his government could not afford to appear apathetic. He visited six villages, including Ladwari village in Bar block, where he reportedly reassured people of all help, emphasising his government's initiative to distribute special food packages for Antodyaya families.

But the poor implementation of the National Food Security Act has directly affected the distribution of these special packages.

Three days after the chief minister’s visit, when the adivasis of Ladwari village came to the tehsil office in Lalitpur to collect the red cartons, several discovered that their names were not on the list, even though they had pink-coloured Antodyaya cards.

Explaining the anomaly, the tehsildar, Avdesh Nigam said, “According to the government order, only Antodyaya families can get the packages. For us, Antodyaya families are those named on the new list. After the implementation of NFSA, the old list has no legal status.”

But the state was still making the transition from the old system to the new, I said. If administrative chaos was delaying the addition of people’s names to the new list, perhaps they could rely on the old Antodyaya lists for the distribution of the packages, I suggested.

“We are bound by government orders,” he said. "If we get permission to distribute the packages to those left out, we will."

Meanwhile, outside his office, where the packages were being distributed, a woman broke down. Officials had giver her the red carton with food supplies, but not the sack of potatoes, which had temporarily run out.

Even potatoes can drive people to tears in Bundelkhand, but the tears have failed to drive the Uttar Pradesh government to fulfil its responsibilities to its people.