Even though few in eastern Uttar Pradesh’s Baksha village have ever seen the internet, every man, woman and child there knows the word online. Online for them means standing in a queue outside a computer shop with a bundle of documents that the shopkeeper consults as he types away into the computer. At the end of the exercise, people hope, as an old woman said, that their requests “have reached the government”.
Young men often go online for jobs. Recently, young women did it to get smartphones under an official scheme. But what got everybody in Baksha hustling to go online was something rather basic: food.
Food is a preoccupation in Baksha.
According to the 2011 census, 40% of the village’s main working population of 923 people is engaged in agriculture. This is an underestimate because the census counted only 24 women as cultivators, while in reality, more women than men can be spotted working in the fields. Taking just the male working population, the proportion of those engaged in agriculture is as high as 60%.
And yet, the people of Baksha often scrimp on meals.
That’s because land ownership is skewed – a handful of families own large estates while the majority of cultivators have small farms that don’t yield enough to feed their families. Those who do adhia kheti or sharecropping (in which a landowner allows a tenant to use his land in return for a share of the crop produced) have to part with half their produce. Muslims don’t own any land. Dalits, at best, have tiny patches. “Enough to grow garlic and coriander,” said Bhole Nath, a resident of the Harijan basti.
Through January and February, potatoes with rotis and rice was the staple in most kitchens.
In July 2013, the Centre passed the National Food Security Act that guarantees subsidised foodgrains to two-thirds of the country’s population. The Uttar Pradesh government woke up to it in September 2015.
Under the law, the Central government bears the cost of providing five kilos of foodgrains per person per month to 79.6% of Uttar Pradesh’s rural population and 64.4% of its urban population. To implement the law, however, required the state government to identify those eligible for the grains. If the case of Baksha village is anything to go by, this required administrative skills that Uttar Pradesh lacks.
Nearly a year after the state implemented the law on March 1, 2016, chaos still prevailed in Baksha’s ration shop. It was the second week of February and the shop had just opened for the month. Sacks of wheat, rice and sugar were being upturned, and people were lining up with bags to collect their share.
One group complained of not making it to the list of beneficiaries. “We have applied several times, but our forms have been ignored,” said Dayashankar, who identified himself as Dalit. “Likhiye Harijan ek dum kat gaye hai.” (Please write, Harijans have been left out.)
Another group of people was livid at not getting their full quota of foodgrains despite being on the list. “We are starving,” said Mohammad Majid, a short wiry man who towered over the ration shop dealer, his voice loud and angry. Referring to the Muslims of Baksha, most of whom live in the bazaar, he said: “Harijans at least have 2-5 decimals of land. Hum bazaar waalon ke paas ek inch bhi nahi hai.” (Those of us who live in the bazaar, don’t have an inch.)
What was the confusion all about?
In the old public distribution system, ration card-holders could buy 35 kilos of foodgrains every month. The price varied from Rs 6.60 per kilo to Rs 2 per kilo, depending on the type of ration card – higher for yellow cards for Above the Poverty Line families, lower for white cards for Below the Poverty Line families, and the lowest for red cards for the poorest of the poor under the Antodyaya Anna Yojana.
The National Food Security Act made some important changes. For one, it introduced a flat price of Rs 2 per kilo for wheat and Rs 3 per kilo for rice for all beneficiaries. Two, it retained the Antodyaya category but replaced the other two with “priority households”. While Antodyaya card-holders continue to be eligible for 35 kilos of foodgrains per family, priority households are entitled to five kilos of foodgrains per person – 3.5 kilos of wheat and 1.5 kilos of rice. A family of five, for instance, can buy 25 kilos of foodgrains, while a family of two gets 10 kilos.
Earlier, Baksha had 96 Antodyaya cards, 154 Below the Poverty Line cards and 198 Above the Poverty Line cards. After the law was implemented, the number of Antodyaya families did not change but the number of other families eligible for the grains, or the priority households, fell to 107.
The residents of Baksha first heard about the changes in 2015, when the ration shop owner asked them to submit identity documents and photographs for new ration cards.
“We did so,” said Sushil Vishwakarma. “We filled the forms.”
On paper, the kotedaar, the manager of quotas as the ration shop owner is called, is a Dalit woman, Sushila Devi. But Baksha’s residents identify her late husband, Dhoopchand, as the kotedaar – much like Bharat Yadav is seen as the pradhan of the village even though his widowed sister-in-law Shanti Yadav is the elected head.
In practice, it is Sushila Devi’s son Nitin Kumar who runs the shop. The 20-year-old claimed he took all the applications to the food and civil supplies department in the district headquarters, where they were uploaded on the internet.
The first list of beneficiaries was released on September 9, 2015 – according to Kumar, the number of priority households on that list was 322 and the total number of beneficiaries 1,666. Based on this list, when the law came into force in March last year, the shop was assigned 5,830 kilos of wheat and 2,499 kilos of rice. This was more than double the allocation for the Below the Poverty Line quota for the previous month.
But the new list had several erroneous entries – including families from another village. Since they did not show up to draw their share, Kumar was left with surplus foodgrains, which he continued to comfortably distribute among even the old Below the Poverty Line card-holders who had not made it to the new list.
In October, however, the allocation fell to 1,596 kilos of wheat and 1,064 kilos of rice. Officials who had verified the list had slashed the number of priority households down to 107.
Kumar initially tried to limit the foodgrains to these households. But large-scale protests erupted in the village and the officials advised him to spread the foodgrains over all old and new beneficiaries. This came to just six kilos of wheat and four kilos of rice per family.
That’s when the alarm set in and the people of Baksha began to desperately queue outside computer shops to apply for new ration cards.
“Ek baar, do baar, teen baar, chah-saat baar ho gaya,” said Sushil Vishwakarma. The middle-aged daily wage worker has applied for a ration card six to seven times, spending Rs 150 in the process.
First, he filled out the form that Kumar handed out. Then, he stood in a queue outside the village ration shop a couple of times. When his name still did not appear on the list, he went to a shop in Nauperwa, a nearby village, in the hope that its computers would do the trick. “Wo receiving diye lekin aaya nahi,” he said. (They gave me a receipt but my name has still not come.)
Rakesh Prajapati, a 31-year-old mason, finally got fed up and went to Jaunpur, where he met the galla inspector, an official in the food and civil supplies department, and urged him to come to the village for a spot check. “You will see how little land I have and what is the condition of my house,” he told the official.
“Jitna kata hai gareeb ka kata hai, ameer ka ek bhi nahi,” he lamented. (The names of the poor have been cut, not of the rich.)
Government norms expressly deny certain people access to food rations: those who pay income tax, who have an annual income of Rs 2 lakhs, and owners of five acres of agricultural land, four-wheelers, tractors, harvesters and arms licences.
But on the list in Baksha are large farmers, one of whom has a rotavator machine parked in his garage. Also listed is a government school teacher who easily earns more than Rs 2 lakhs in a year.
So who is responsible for the mess?
The kotedaar, Nitin Kumar, pleaded that he did what was expected of him. “I submitted the forms in the supply office in Jaunpur, and made sure they were uploaded,” he said. The verification of the forms was the responsibility of the pradhan and the secretary, he claimed.
The defacto pradhan, Bharat Yadav, distanced himself from the process. “Government officials do the verification,” he said. Asked about the complaints about the well-to-do being among the beneficiaries, he said, “If anyone has complaints, they should go to the block office.”
In the block office, the secretary assigned the task of verifying the names of Baksha’s applicants was away on election duty. The assistant block development officer, Rajendra Yadav, declined to comment on Baksha in particular, but admitted to widespread mistakes across villages, and attributed them to local politics. The pradhans might not be officially responsible for vetting the list, he said, but their word prevails.
“The pradhan is the people’s representative,” he said. “He knows all, he watches all. Of two people, one is his supporter, the other is not. Whom will he choose as eligible? The one who stands with him, right?”
He added, “There is pressure on government employees. Even if they want to, they cannot bring transparency to the process.”
From next month, the situation might ease up in Baksha, since another 200-odd names have been added to the list of ration beneficiaries. Many poor families, however, have still not made it.
“Around 45 Harijan families have been left out,” said Nitin Kumar, who alleged the pradhan was discriminating against them.
In the Prajapati quarter, Rakesh Prajapati was among those still excluded. The young mason takes great pride in his ability to work hard. “I never sit idle,” he said. Despite all the hard work, he cannot buy nutritious food for his family. “We cannot afford chicken and fish,” he said, “but I spend Rs 1,200 a month on milk for my son.”
Over the last few months, the cutbacks in the government rations has meant he has had to buy wheat at Rs 17 per kilo in the market. This has reduced the money available for buying dal. One kilo of urad dal was used by the family of four over two weeks. “Compromise karke thoda thoda daale,” he said. (We used it sparingly.)
There is considerable anger in Baksha over the botched-up beneficiary lists. But few expressly blame the state government, partly because the public distribution system even in previous regimes underperformed, partly because governance failure is seen as a local problem, and possibly because people in Uttar Pradesh still think twice before speaking up against the government.
Asked about Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav, Prajapati initially expressed his ire. “So many people are upset over the mistakes in the ration lists,” he said. “There are so many reports in the media. Yet, you haven’t said a word in your speeches.”
And on the ruling Samajwadi Party, he added, “How can we approve of them? But if we say we disapprove of them, kahenge tapka do isko. They will say kill him.” He laughed weakly.
Voters like him might silently express their views in the polling booth.
All images by Supriya Sharma.
As Uttar Pradesh is gripped by election fever, Scroll.in’s ‘A Village Votes’ series will bring readers glimpses of how the residents of Baksha, a village of 2,500 people in the eastern part of the state, are making up their minds about who to support. The other parts of the series can be read here.