Munna from Jamui in Bihar wanted to know how he could apply for the relief amount of Rs. 1,000 being offered by Chief Minister Nitish Kumar for families that do not have ration cards. He had gone hungry for many days and had not been able to access facilities for free food.

Munna was just one of thousands of people who have called Mobile Vaani, our mobile radio platform for residents of hard-to-reach communities, to discuss how the government’s relief measures had been working since Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a nationwide lockdown on March 25. The restrictions were aimed at halting the spread of the coronavirus – but brought all work to a standstill, resulting in daily wage earners across India losing their means of livelihood.

With lockdown extended a second time until May 17, a survey we did on April 11 and 12 of 1,700 people from Bihar, Jharkhand and Madhya Pradesh gives a sense of the steps that urgently need to be taken to ensure that help gets to the people who need it.

The survey respondents were from 25 districts across these states. Farmers and agricultural labourers comprised over 50% of the respondents to the survey. Others were daily-wage earners or contract labourers (25%), were self-employed (20%) or salaried employees (6%).

Deprived of dignity

A few days into the lockdown, the Central government announced free rations for three months for all ration cardholders. States such as Bihar and Jharkhand topped this up with schemes of their own. But at least six in ten of our survey respondents had not received rations, and respondents did not seem to be getting cooked food being distributed by government or civil society initiatives, either.

In Jharkhand, which started “didi kitchens” – community kitchens run by women in self-help groups – nearly one in three respondents had eaten food from these facilities. But the numbers for people who had accessed cooked food were lower in Bihar (12%) and Madhya Pradesh (21%).

In the days before and after the survey, many people have told Mobile Vaani that their ration card applications had been pending for years. Several families from marginalised castes had not even been covered in enumeration surveys that were started in some states to identify families without ration cards.

In some cases, people with ration cards reported that ration dealers were eventaking villagers’ fingerprints but not giving them the provisions. Some retail shops were selling provisions and vegetables at escalated prices.

Stop-gap measures

Wherever possible, our volunteers and community reporters have been putting callers in distress in touch with the local administration or to civil society organisations. However, we know that these are stop-gap measures for problems that should have been addressed by now, over a month into the lockdown.

While civil society efforts are laudable, they are not sustainable. The lives of the millions who are starving now were not perfect before the lockdown, but they were doing their best to earn a living and eating what they could with their earnings. The lockdown has exposed the country’s inability to grant all its citizens dignity, established by rights bestowed by the Constitution.

A migrant worker family that returned to Madhya Pradesh from Delhi. Credit: Danish Siddiqui/Reuters

Given this situation, we are glad to hear the loud calls for universal public distribution from economists, politicians and civil society. This is a sensible approach, notwithstanding oft-heard concerns about utilisation by those who do not “deserve” this benefit. India must do this – both because we have enough buffer stocks of grain, and because, to quote economists Amartya Sen, Raghuram Rajan and Abhijit Banerjee, “The cost of missing many of those who are in dire need vastly exceeds the social cost of letting in some who could perhaps do without it.”

Direct Benefit Transfers

The Central and state governments also announced a range of financial relief measures covering the widowed, the elderly, those with disabilities, farmers, the poor, and women with Jan-Dhan accounts. Forty percent of survey respondents from Bihar had received some kind of financial relief. So had 34% from Madhya Pradesh. But only 19% for respondents from Jharkhand had got any help.

Bihar’s stronger performance in this area probably reflects the higher socio-economic profile of its constituents, as compared to other states where we ran the survey, to have better direct benefit transfer linkages.

A significant reason for why people did not receive these cash transfers was the the oft-heard problem of their Aadhaar cards not being linked properly to their bank accounts. This problem is not easy to rectify, requiring trips to the bank and filling out forms. In fact, problems of overcrowding at banks and ATMs (wherever working) were reported widely, as people are desperate for cash, and rumours are doing the rounds that if the cash was not withdrawn the money would be taken back by the government.

Many people had to make several trips because of internet problems at the bank branches as well as rural Customer Service Points that facilitate last-mile banking services for people in villages.

Curtailed banking services

The easing of lockdown restrictions or restarting basic economic activity had yet to translate into improved circumstances for those in India’s heartlands, going by what we hear. Fear of infection or police action against those not wearing masks, and confusion about lockdown provisions, is likely to impede free physical movement for a few more weeks.

In this situation, banking services will continue to be affected, curtailing access to cash. Critical to helping people access relief measures will be ATMs, Common Service Centres – panchayat-level hubs that enable local people to access government services online – and business correspondent models, in which designated individuals take banking services to people’s doorstep, helping them avoid long travel to bank branches. This is the time to resort to door-to-door delivery of cash transfers – literally putting cash in the hands of people – with assistance by gram panchayats.

Besides, cash transfers alone will not work. Therefore, the Public Distribution System and other government-led efforts to provide cooked food for marginalised groups will continue to be a lifeline and must function seamlessly. Many states have taken steps to universalise the Public Distribution System to ensure that it reaches even those without ration cards, and it remains the most critical means to prevent starvation. Anganwadi and midday-meal provisions will become even more important in coming weeks to prevent malnutrition among children.

Vani Viswanathan is a communications consultant with Gram Vaani.