“Jayenge nahi, toh khayenge kya?” declared Chotulal. If we don’t go, what will we eat? The gruff, lined old man had been asked whether it made financial sense to wait in line at the ration shop for up to three days a month, losing a day’s earnings on each occasion.

The government ration shop is 5 km away from the small, dusty village of Teekel Purohitan in the Phagi tehsil of Rajasthan. The shop is supposed to provide subsidised foodgrain throughout the month. In practice, however, the dealer arbitrarily designates three days a month for disbursing wheat.

Anxious villagers frequently call the dealer to find out when their three lucky days will arrive. After accounting for travel and missing a day at work – either the rural employment guarantee scheme or rare but relatively well-paid other work – the estimated loss is Rs 170-Rs 300 per day.

Once these elusive dates are confirmed, the villagers make an arduous trek on dusty, unpaved roads to the ration shop, an hour away on foot. Once there, they encounter serpentine queues and never-ending delays. After enduring all of this in Rajasthan’s grueling heat, they are often turned away and return empty-handed. For instance, Chotulal was unable to obtain any ration allotments last month.

Falling short

Teekel Purohitan is a microcosm of the infringement on the right to food in India, which is guaranteed under law. Under the National Food Security Act, subsidised rations are a right for all eligible households, which comprise Priority households (entitled to 5 kg of food grains per person per month) and Antyodaya households (35 kg per household per month). The state government specifies the eligibility criteria. In Rajasthan, an estimated 69% of the rural population and 53% of the urban population are to be covered.

In late January, the People’s Union for Civil Liberties human rights organisation and I carried out a house-to-house survey in Teekel Purohitan to evaluate the implementation of the food security legislation. Based on the state government’s criteria, 91% of the 177 surveyed households were eligible for subsidised foodgrains. Their ration cards, however, were still based on obsolete Below Poverty Line and Above Poverty Line categories.

Each family was asked whether they received their quota of foodgrains over the preceding two months – November and December 2015 – and their answers were cross-checked with ration card entries.

Nearly 60% of the eligible families had not received any ration in December, while 48% did not get rations in November. Only 23% of the eligible families were able to avail of ration for both months, and 28% did not get ration in either month. Excluding people who had stopped visited the ration shop for various reasons and those in the process of getting a new card, 17% of the eligible families did not get rations for either month.

The main reason for these figures is that foodgrain allocations were not in line with the requirements of eligible households. Rajasthan has multiple and confusing criteria for defining a “priority household” that makes a lot more households eligible for free rations than the central government provides for. Moreover, ration dealers are unaware of the priority households, causing confusion among both beneficiaries and dealers.

Suspicion and helplessness

More than two years after Rajasthan started implementing the National Food Security Act, the ration dealer in Teekel Purohitan had still not received the list of priority households from the state government. The dealer favoured households with a Below Poverty Line card, frequently turning away Above Poverty Line card holders or giving them rations every other month, even though they might qualify as priority households as per official criteria.

It’s unreasonable to expect the ration dealer to decide eligibility unless the state government issues a clear marker. Follow-up enquiries revealed that a new, pruned list of priority beneficiaries is being prepared at the block level. According to a circular issued by Rajasthan’s food department, the priority criteria will be “changed from time to time”. The confusion is unlikely to end anytime soon.

The introduction of the new Point of Sale biometric identification machines is an added complexity in this already chaotic system. Villagers reported being turned away because the internet was not working, or sometimes because the machine failed to identify fingerprints.

Villagers seemed to be torn between suspicion, helplessness, and borderline anger at the arbitrary nature of the government machinery. Given people’s willingness to wait in long lines while sacrificing daily wages, it was clear that subsidised foodgrains made a huge difference to household budgets. Most inhabitants of Teekel Purohitan are marginal farmers with little school education, so wrapped up in survival that they barely have time to understand their rights, let alone protest or demand.

On a positive note, almost all respondents who managed to get ration got the full household quota at the designated price. However, many of them had complaints about the poor quality of wheat distributed at the ration shop. A sample of the subsidised wheat turned out to be coarse, with around 20% needing to be sifted away.

Rajasthan was one of the first states to implemented National Food Security Act, soon after the legislation was passed in 2013. Well-intentioned enthusiasm aside, the government clearly did not prepare the ground adequately. Three years on, there is still much confusion about eligibility criteria and beneficiary lists. Sorting out this chaos is all the more important as drought undermines people’s livelihoods.