Kalloo spent every morning in two months of lockdown walking in search of a free meal. On the days he was lucky, he would find it within a kilometre of his village. But sometimes he would have to trudge 6 km to the other side of the Ganga river, to the Dashashwamedh ghat in Banaras city. “What to do, the soul is not satisfied without food,” said the 55-year-old single man. “Khaaye bina aatma nahi manta hai.”
Mala, a single mother, had six souls to take care of. After her employers stopped paying her during the lockdown, the domestic worker made furtive trips to Banaras, in the hope that she would find some odd jobs or gather alms to buy food for her five children. She often failed. “We would sleep on chai and roti, sometimes not even that,” she said.
Neither Kalloo nor Mala’s experiences are exceptional: lockdown hunger bore down on millions of vulnerable Indians who did not have ration cards.
But what makes their stories starker is the fact that they live in a village adopted by the prime minister.
What happens when a new virus enters one of India’s oldest cities and poorest regions? We bring you a week of dispatches from eastern Uttar Pradesh, as Varanasi, Banaras, Kashi, finally emerge from two months of lockdown.
Domari lies across the Ganga from Banaras city. In 2011, the census counted about 5,000 residents, a number that has swollen, say villagers, not only because families have expanded as the young marry and have children, but also because of an influx from the city. Many families have moved here from Banaras since homestead land is cheaper to buy. At present, 3,561 residents are registered in the public distribution system that gives them access to subsidised foodgrain every month.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi adopted the village in 2018 under the Sansad Adarsh Gram Yojana, the model village scheme for members of Parliament. This was the fourth village Modi had adopted in the Varanasi constituency, which had elected him to the Lok Sabha in 2014, and again in 2019.
In February this year, Modi visited the area to inaugurate a 63-feet-tall statue of Deen Dayal Upadhyaya, a leader of the Jana Sangh, the precursor of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.
Neither the association with the prime minister nor with the Sangh helped many residents of Domari, who lack ration cards to access emergency food support.
In Ranju Devi’s palm were a folded currency note of Rs 20 and a coin of Rs 5. She was headed to the grocery store to buy two pouches of milk for her 10-month-old baby and one packet of biscuits for her children aged five and three.
“Before the lockdown, I used to buy milk worth Rs 60 every day,” said the diminutive woman, who looked malnourished herself. “Only then was I able to feed them all.” Now, she is able to spend just Rs 20 on milk. The older children go without it. Sometimes she makes them a drink out of sabudana (sago) instead.
Her husband, a mallah or boatman, used to earn Rs 300-Rs 500 in a day ferrying villagers across the Ganga. But the lockdown kept him at home for two months and now the monsoon will put him out of business for another three. The family has nearly exhausted their savings buying food. “Whatever we had earned, drowned,” Ranju Devi said.
The family does not have a ration card that would allow them to access grain at the government ration shop. After they had moved to Domari five years ago from a slum in Banaras city, Ranju Devi had tried several times to get one made, but failed.
During the lockdown, she saw ration card holders line up outside the government ration shop twice a month. At the start of the month, they purchased their regular quota of subsidised grain, about 5 kg of grain per person for Rs 2-Rs 3 per kilo. Then, mid-month, they were given another 5 kg of rice per person and one kilo of chana per family for free. The free food rations were distributed under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana, the relief package announced by the Central government on the day the lockdown was imposed.
Desperate for food, keen to get a ration card, Ranju Devi made two or three trips to the panchayat office. “But they chased me away,” she said. “Bhago bhago, ration card nahi milega, kuch nahi milega.” Run, you won’t get ration cards, you won’t get anything.
Kalloo went to the ration shop directly to ask for grain. He used to have a ration card in the village, but it was struck off after he went away to work. For ten years, he made a living by catching fish in Mathura and selling it in Faridabad. When he moved back to Domari six years ago, he tried to get his ration card revived, but without any luck. He had reconciled himself to buying food from the irregular wages he earned from manual labour. But the lockdown put a stop to that.
When he heard on TV that the Uttar Pradesh government had announced that even those without ration cards would be given rations during the lockdown, he was overjoyed. On April 17, Uttar Pradesh government had indeed announced universalisation of the public distribution system till June 30. “It should be ensured in all rural and urban areas that every needy person gets rations, even if they don’t have an Aadhaar card or ration card,” it said.
Kalloo rushed to the ration shop, but he was chased away. “The shop owner said, ‘Jao, humko nahi pata hai. Go away, I don’t know about this,’” he recalled. He felt so humiliated, he shot back: “Hum duniya se bheekh mangenge, lekin ture paas aayenge nahi.” I will beg from the world but not come at your door.
Mala literally went begging on the streets of Banaras. She lived on the outskirts of Domari, in a cluster of Dalit homes built on the Ganga floodplains. Her mother had a ration card, she said, but she did not. She said she had raised her five children by doing jhadu, pocha, bartan – cleaning homes and utensils. Six months ago, things looked up when her son found contractual work cleaning sewers – “Rs 6,000 salary,” she said. Far more than the Rs 2,500 she made. But the lockdown threw both mother and son out of work.
When she heard the government had waived the requirement for ration cards during the lockdown, she went to the ration shop. She was told: “Ration humare budget mein nahi hai, wo pradhan apne ghar se de raha hai.” We do not have any extra ration, the village head is directly distributing from his home.
Varanasi officials claim they did everything they could to ensure no one went hungry.
The district supply officer, Deepak Varshney, said his staff worked overtime during the lockdown to ensure smooth distribution of foodgrain, not once but twice every month. Apart from existing ration-card holders, 37,766 new beneficiaries were enrolled in the public distribution system between March 20 and June 7, he said.
“This is a small number seen against the total number of PDS beneficiaries in the district, which is about 25 lakh,” he said. “But at the grassroots level, this amounts to a huge capacity addition in a very short time.” He pointed out that the district had distributed more than 99% of the grains allocated to it by the central government.
In Domari village, only eight people of two families were added to the PDS list during the lockdown. Varshney said it was the task of the village pradhan and the gram panchayat to enrol more people.
But what about those who could not be enrolled? What about the April 17 announcement of the universalisation of the public distribution system?
“At the ration shops, we can only distribute ration to those who have ration cards, since we use e-POS machines [point of sale machines that authenticate users using Aadhaar],” Varshney said. He claimed the April 17 announcement was subsequently followed by a government order that clarified that those without ration cards would not be given grains at the ration shop, instead they would be identified by village and ward level representatives and given food kits.
“But the media did not wait for the government order and created a hype which sent the public running around,” he said. “I blame the media for creating this confusion.”
So how many food kits were distributed in Domari village?
The pradhan of Domari village, Chote Lal Patel, has no idea. “Hum logon ko koi kit nahi mila, lekhpal bant rahe the,” he said. We did not get any kit, the village revenue officer was distributing them.
The lekhpal did not respond to phone calls.
In the village, those in desperate need of food support – people like Kalloo, Mala, Ranju Devi – went without any kits. Scroll.in came across several destitute people in Banaras city who did not get the kits either.
This reporter met one family in Domari that had received the kit. They said a former village pradhan had given it to them.
The former pradhan, Nathu Lal Patel, who proudly displayed his political affiliation to the Bharatiya Janata Party by flying the party flag on his rooftop, claimed he had distributed 100 kits. Were these the so-called Modi kits that the BJP was distributing on its own? He claimed they had come directly from the office of the sub-divisional magistrate’s office.
But if these were kits supplied by the administration, why had the current pradhan been left out of the process?
The current pradhan did not know. Incidentally, he too is from the BJP.
In Domari, those who went hungry during the lockdown harbour no anger towards Prime Minister Narendra Modi. They believe he sent food for them which got lost in a bureaucratic maze.
What they do not realise is that the central government needs to increase the allocation of foodgrains to states to enable them to enrol more people in the public distribution system to ensure the poor get steady food support through the year.
Nearly two months into the lockdown, as hunger rose across India, the central government finally announced additional foodgrains for eight crore people who do not have ration cards under the Atmanirbhar Bharat package. But this will be used for migrants from other states living in Varanasi, not for the residents of the district, said Deepak Varshney. “We have so far identified 9,000 migrants who will be given temporary ration cards,” he said.
For the people of Domari, who neither have ration cards, nor got food kits, these details don’t matter. What matters is even as the lockdown is easing up, there isn’t much work available and they are still going without food.
Corrections and clarifications: In the caption of Radha Devi’s photograph, her mother-in-law was incorrectly identified as Rajamani Devi. Her name is Nagina Devi.