Two months ago, Bhimabhai Chhaiya made a hopeful trip to the government ration shop near his village of Sumri in Gujarat’s Jamnagar district.
After three consecutive years of poor rainfall, the cotton farmer was heavily in debt. Food prices, meanwhile, seemed to be at an all-time high. Wheat, which had cost Rs 20 to Rs 25 per kg three years ago, was being brought from Madhya Pradesh and sold at Rs 40 per kg. It had been six months since anyone in Sumri had bought tomatoes.
Chhaiya had been classified as “above poverty line” under the National Food Security Act, and was not eligible for special subsidised food rations. But in early April, Gujarat declared 623 of its villages to be affected by “semi-scarcity” and started distributing subsidised fodder and food rations to everyone in those regions – even to those with "above poverty line" cards.
At the ration shop, wheat is priced at Rs 2 a kg and rice at Rs 3 a kg. Chhaiya lined up with other villagers for his quota of five kg of grain per person per month. But the queue didn’t seem to move.
“They were giving rations only after putting our thumbs on those scanning machines,” said Chhaiya. "And after some time they told us, tower nahi mil raha hai, ghar jao." The thumbprint scanners to verify their identities couldn’t connect to the local internet network, so the villagers were asked to go home. “We had to make another trip to the shop the next day to get our rations.”
‘No Internet, no ration’
Since April, after several months of prodding by the Supreme Court, the number of Gujarat villages declared “semi-scarcity” has risen to 1,100.
Jamnagar, in western Gujarat’s Saurashtra region, is among the districts worst-hit by drought-like conditions. Harvests have been poor for the past three years and this month, even though the monsoon has arrived, villagers here continue to face a severe scarcity of drinking water, fodder and affordable food.
Villagers in Jamnagar are upset with the state government for terming their plight “semi-scarcity” rather than a drought. For one, they feel that the government has failed to acknowledge the drought distress they have faced for three years now. In addition, the terminology has material consequences. When a state officially declares drought, it is required to roll out a series of contingency measures in order to mitigate its effects. These include providing food and drinking water, and fodder for livestock (which the state is providing after declaring “semi-scarcity”) as well as crop-loss compensation, mid-day meals with added protein supplements and employment under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act.
Amidst this distress, villagers cannot fathom why the state has chosen to make thumbprint scanning necessary to avail of rations within the public distribution system.
“For us, the nearest ration shop is eight km away, and we spend a lot of time getting there,” said Ashwin Aahir, a groundnut and cotton farmer from Sowarada village. Here, special ration distribution began in May instead of April, and villagers have already made numerous trips to collect their ration quotas because of poor internet connections, and thumb scanners that don’t work.
At the Jamnagar district collector’s office, officials explained that the thumb scanning system, introduced this year itself, is not connected to the Aadhar card that stores biometric data of citizens. “It is a separate system we introduced to distribute food rations in a smooth and easy manner,” said a clerk in the tehsildar’s office, who did not want to be named. “But I admit that many of the thumb scanners we bought from private contractors have turned out to be of poor quality.”
Jamnagar’s district collector, RJ Makadia, did not answer too many detailed questions about the origin and use of the fingerprint scanning machines. He did, however, offer an assurance that faulty scanners or the lack of internet do not come in the way of people getting their rations.
“We have informed all ration shop owners that if the scanners don’t work for any reason, they must manually look for the names of applicants and provide them with rations,” said Makadia. “That way, no one misses out on the rations they are eligible for.”
On the ground, however, it was working differently for Chhaiya, Aahir and other villagers. “No matter how much we protest, it always boils down to this – no Internet, no ration, try again tomorrow,” said Aahir.
The missing mid-day meals
In May, in its historic order on drought relief, the Supreme Court among other mitigation measures had ordered 10 states, including Gujarat, to provide mid-day meals to primary school children throughout summer, even during the school holidays.
According to Makadia, the local government in Jamnagar district has diligently followed this directive even though a “semi-scarcity” region does not require anything more from the authorities other than the provision of rations, drinking water, fodder and employment. “Mid-day meals were provided in all government primary schools all through the holidays, along with additional cartons of milk,” the collector said.
Once again, the reality on the ground did not bear this out. In village after village that Scroll.in visited, residents claimed that mid-day meals had either not been served during the May holidays, or had been served on just two or three days a week.
“In our village school, government officials came on two occasions in May, but with local media channels,” said Mansukhbhai Mungra, a farmer from Theba village and the Jamnagar district head of the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh, a non-profit farmers’ collective. “They fed the children mid-day meals, took photos and were not really seen again.”
Animals starving, dying
If humans have been so easily ignored, the plight of animals in Saurashtra is expectedly worse. It’s hard to find drinking water for cows, bulls and buffalos, who typically consume more than 100 litres of water a day. Fodder is just as scarce, with its market rate soaring to Rs 200 for 20 kg – twice the normal rate.
The local government is supposed to provide heavily subsidised dry fodder – at Rs 2 a kg – across drought-hit regions, but cattle owners claim the supply has been far from uniform and the quality, uniformly poor.
“We have one government fodder depot in our region that is meant to serve 40 villages, but in the past two months the depot has received barely 2,700 kg of fodder from the forest department,” said Ramshibhai Chawda, the sarpanch of Vadatra village in Dwarka district. Given that an average cow eats at least 20 kg of fodder a day and a buffalo eats 40 kg a day, based on his estimates of the number of cattle in each village, Chawda believes that the fodder sold at the depot throughout the season is actually one day's requirement of just two villages.
In Jamnagar’s Bhelsan village, fodder was distributed just once, in May. In neighbouring Sumri, there has been no trace of subsidised fodder all summer. And in Sowarada, villagers claim the quality of government-provided dry fodder is so poor that their animals spit out most of it without swallowing it.
With cattle starving, milk production has dropped significantly, robbing several villagers of an alternate source of livelihood.
At the Jamnagar block development office, an official in charge of supervising fodder distribution claimed that all villages in the block were being supplied with fodder, albeit irregularly. “We ask for our supply of dry grass from the state government’s forest department, but their stock itself is not regular,” said the official on condition of anonymity. “So we can’t help it if some villages are left out every now and then.”
For cattle owners, however, the consequences of being left out are drastic. “In the past three years, at least 40% of the cattle in Sowarada have either died or been abandoned,” said Ashwin Aahir. “We know that the abandoned ones eventually end up at the butcher’s, but what can we do?”
All photographs by Aarefa Johari.
This is the second story of a series on drought in Gujarat. You can read the first here.