Huddled under a tree in Pahadgarh at half past noon on May 2, the women seemed to be waiting patiently for their turn. Perhaps there was a bank around the corner, I wondered, and they were waiting to withdraw the Rs 500-coronavirus lockdown allowance that the central government had sent to the bank accounts of women under the Jan Dhan Yojana.

“No, we are waiting for raashan paani,” said a young woman cradling a toddler on her knee.

But there was no government food ration shop in sight.

Pointing in the direction of a single-storey, dull-looking building across the street, she explained: “We are here to ask for raashan paani.”

The building was the office of the Pahadgarh block panchayat.

A rugged scrubland bleached of colour by the summer sun, the block lay at the far end of Morena district in Madhya Pradesh, 400 km south of Delhi, in the Chambal region. The women were Sahariya Adivasis, a community that makes up nearly a third of the 1.65 lakh population of the block, as recorded in the 2011 census.

They lived in the village of Khadariyapura, 3 km away. They usually trekked to Pahadgarh to sell firewood in the bazaar, but after the lockdown began on March 24, they had been deprived of these meagre earnings, the women said.

Worse, the lockdown had coincided with the rabi harvest – the main season of agricultural work for the Sahariyas. Between March and May, farmers of the region showed up in the Adivasi villages to hire workers to harvest wheat, mustard and garlic. Some Sahariyas from Pahadgarh went as far as Agra in Uttar Pradesh – a distance of 150 km – to dig potatoes.

But this year, the women said they were unable to travel to even nearby villages. Pooja, the young woman who like most Sahariyas goes by one name, said: “Police ne khadedh diyaa.” The police chased us away.

This had not only deprived them of income, more devastatingly, the Sahariyas had lost out on the only window in the year to replenish their granaries.

Unlike Punjab and Haryana, where agricultural workers are paid in cash, in the Chambal and Bundelkhand regions of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, they are often paid in kind – they are given a part of the wheat harvest. “For one bigha, you get three and a half mann [150 kg],” said Shanti, a middle-aged woman. On average, a group of five workers would take a day to harvest one bigha of wheat, which means each would get about 30 kg. Over 10-15 days of the harvest season, a working couple could bring back 600 kg of grain, creating the foundation of basic food security for the family.

But this foundation has been washed away in the pandemic this summer. The Sahariyas are now at the mercy of the government for the rest of the year.

This is why the women were waiting outside the block office: they wanted the administration to give them food support. “Kachhu kamaiyi kuchhu dhando nahi ho paa raho, bhukhe pyaase ghar mein baithe hain,” said Shanti. There are no wages, no sales. We are sitting at home hungry.

But the administration’s ability to help them is entirely dependent on New Delhi. The Narendra Modi government unveiled a relief package on March 26 in the first week of the lockdown, but six weeks later, it is evident it needs to do more, specially for vulnerable communities like the Sahariyas.

Among the women waiting near the block panchayat office in Pahadgarh was Pooja. Her toddler should get regular nutrition support from the village anganwadi. But the lockdown led to its closure. It was only in the last week of April that it reopened to distribute dry rations among mothers and children.

Extra foodgrains

As part of the March 26 relief package, the Modi government announced that it would send double the quota of foodgrains free of cost to states. Instead of 5 kg of foodgrains per person – the usual monthly quota – states would be able to distribute 10 kg among those enrolled in the public distribution system. The Centre also said it would send monthly 1 kg of pulses per person.

Following up, on April 4, the Madhya Pradesh government passed an order, acknowledging that it had received the additional allocation of rice for three months from the Centre. There was, however, no word on pulses. The state government said ration shops would distribute the additional rice for two months – April and May – at one go.

But the rice hasn’t reached the villages of Pahadgarh.

“We have not received it,” said Shanti, emphatically. “No one has received it in our village.” She would know – she was a member of the village panchayat.

Twenty km ahead, the Sahariyas of Dhobini village echoed the same complaint: no one had received the extra rice. Neither had villages of the Rajak community, counted among other backward classes. Small farmers, the Rajaks often migrated long distances to work as casual labour in the cities. The lockdown had significantly impacted their earnings, making them more dependent on food rations.

Madhya Pradesh officials said the distribution of the additional rice was underway. “For the state as a whole, we have distributed 51% of the two months of rice,” said Avinash Lavania, director of the state food and civil supplies department. “In Morena, we have distributed 44%.”

Why was distribution taking so long, given that it was more than a month since both the central and state orders had been passed? “Mostly because of transportation problems,” Lavania said.

Despite the delay in the additional foodgrains reaching rations shops, the villages in Pahadgarh had escaped hunger by a stroke of good luck: on February 28, Madhya Pradesh had announced it would distribute three months of regular food rations sold at subsidised prices in March itself. This had nothing to do with the coronavirus epidemic. It was done to empty out warehouses ahead of the rabi harvest season when the government buys newly harvested wheat from farmers and needs space to store it.

As a result, when the lockdown began, most of the state’s rural population had buffer food stocks to fall back on. Under the food security law, 80% of the state’s rural population as per 2011 census is eligible for food rations.

But the buffer is now running thin.

“How long will 1 quintal of grain last?” said Saajende, a resident of Khadariyapura. Like many Sahariyas, she had an Antyodaya card, which aims to give a higher measure of food security at lower costs to India’s poorest families. While regular ration card holders are eligible for 5 kg foodgrain per family member per month – which translates to 20 kg for a family of four – Antyodaya card-holders get 35 kg of foodgrain for the entire family, regardless of its size.

Over three months, Saajende’s quota of 35 kg added up to 105 kg – a little over one quintal. “But for a family of six, tell me do you think this is enough?” she asked.

Drop in wages

In Dhobini village, Laxmi, 21, showed the meal she was serving her family: wheat rotis with onions and chillies. Occasionally, she would stir up a dish of chana grass gathered during last year’s harvest.

This, when her family was relatively secure: they had five bighas of land. The yields were low because the land was dry, yet the family was at least able to build some grain stocks.

Most other families did not even have this safety net. They depended heavily on seasonal work on the farms of other cultivators. And this year, the pandemic had swept that away. They could not travel to farms on their own. Farmers from distant villages, who in previous years would pick them up in tractors, could not come to fetch them either. All they could do was look for work within walking distance of their village. The result was a drastic fall in wages for those paid in cash. “More workers in the area, less work to go around,” said Nihal Singh, a resident of Dhobini village, succinctly.

In the agricultural mandi in Kailaras, 40 km away, farmers reluctantly validated this. Some had used harvester combines, where available, further reducing the need to employ workers. “Wages used to be Rs 300. This year, they dropped to Rs 250,” said RC Sharma, a farmer from Kanhar village. A man standing next to him contradicted him. “No, the wages ranged from Rs 300-Rs 400, and this year fell to Rs 200 in some places,” Amar Yadav said. He was a palledaar, or porter, in the mandi. “The farmer is getting a better price than last year,” Yadav continued, “it is the worker who has been badly affected by the lockdown.”

Safety nets

A group of Sahariya Adivasis had gathered outside Laxmi’s house in Dhobini. The conversation turned from the lockdown to the future – what did the year ahead look like?

“Even if the government does not send us more food, we won’t let our children starve,” said Ramrati, a middle-aged woman, unfolding her saree pallu to show tendu fruit she had gathered from the forest. The lockdown had also coincided with the season for collecting tendu leaves, used to roll beedis, another important source of income for the Sahariyas. While the government had exempted forest produce collection from lockdown restrictions, the traders had not been able to come to the area.

Still, Ramarati smiled as she bit into the fruit.

The community’s natural perseverance apart, how could the government help them, I asked.

“Kuch achcho kaam karau. Start a big work. Let us build a dam,” said Nihal Singh. “We will get paid for the work. And we will create a source of water which we can use to bring more land into farming.”

He was essentially suggesting that work be created under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. The law, passed by the Congress-led government in 2005, gives rural families the legal right to demand 100 days of manual work from the government every year. If the government falls to provide the work within 15 days, it must pay them an unemployment allowance.

On the ground, of course, the law doesn’t work as smoothly: the Sahariya Adivasis, for instance, have no idea that they can legally demand work. They believe it is the government’s discretion to open work sites. And yet, it is significant that they identify paid NREGA work – not plain cash transfers – as a solution to tide over their pandemic losses.

“For rural India, there is no denying that the PDS [public distribution system] and NREGA work well together as a form of social support, a lifeline even,” said Reetika Khera, an economics professor at the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad. “Access to the PDS provides food security, without people having to worry about market prices or market access and the NREGA provides them an opportunity to earn cash, with dignity.”

An elderly resident of Dhobini village returns home after a day foraging in the forest.

Crucial role of Centre

Even as the lockdown eases up, this lifeline is necessary – given the scale of the food distress.

Manoj Kulshrestha, a volunteer with the health department in Morena, counsels migrant workers who have returned to the district and have been asked to stay in home quarantine on phone. “They say bhaiya, all this talk on fever and cough is fine,” he said, “but tell us what is the government doing about food.” Many of the workers told him they did not have ration cards.

Even among the dozen-odd Sahariya women waiting outside the block panchayat, when asked how many did not have ration cards, five raised their hands. One of them was Pooja, the young woman who was breastfeeding a toddler. Her mother-in-law had a ration card, she said. As a young couple, she and her husband were entitled to a separate card. But they were yet to get it.

Shanti, the member of the village panchayat, claimed she often asked the authorities why new cards were not being issued. “They say upar se nahi aa raha hai. They are not coming from the top. I don’t know what the top is.”

The top is the Central government.

Under the National Food Security Act, passed in 2013, the Central government must give 5 kg foodgrains at subsidised prices to 75% of India’s rural population. But the coverage is frozen based on the 2011 census. The rise in population over the last decade has simply not been factored in. As a result, more than 100 million people, who are otherwise eligible for rations under the law, are not getting them, data analysis by economists Jean Drèze, Reetika Khera and Meghana Mungikar shows.

The economists have argued that the central government must not wait for the next census to update the ration coverage. With a pandemic raging, it must send extra food stocks to the states free of cost so they can help people who need them – for instance, the women outside the Pahadgarh block panchayat office.

Some of them did not have ration cards, but even others who did, needed more food support – the double rations promised by the Centre were yet to reach their village. The previous day, a non-profit organisation had distributed 400 kits in the block, packed with 5 kg flour, 2.5 kg rice, 1 kg dal, mustard oil, jaggery, soap, masks and sanitary napkins. The women had come to the block panchayat in the hope they could get them.

While the administration might not have complete kits to supply, why not give emergency foodgrains to the women who did not have ration cards? When I asked the chief executive officer of the block panchayat about this, he did not have a response initially. When I insisted that he respond to my questions, he instructed his subordinates to bring in the women waiting outside. One woman, Ram Gilasi, showed up.

“Why haven’t you made a ration card?” the CEO asked her. Ram Gilasi looked baffled. “I have repeatedly asked for one,” she said.

Another official intervened: “Her mother-in-law has a card, sir.”

But this explanation did not hold, I pointed out. Ram Gilasi is in her late thirties. By every yardstick, she qualified for a separate ration card. The CEO nodded to show his agreement and mumbled something incoherently about ensuring that she gets help.

However, local administrations can only help people if they get extra foodgrain allocations from states, and states, in turn, depend on the Centre.

“Most of the creative thinking for providing relief has been visible at the state level, but states do not have resources,” said Khera, emphasising that the Centre must release extra food stocks piling up in government godowns. These were already 3.5 times more than the buffer the government was supposed to maintain. With procurement of freshly harvested wheat underway, these stocks would rise further.

“Where will the government store the wheat it is currently procuring?” asked Khera. “With the onset of the monsoon, stocks may start rotting. It is not clear what the government is waiting for.”