In mid-May, when Janardhan Singh’s meagre savings had dried up, an announcement by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman filled him with hope.

The Central government, under its Atmanirbhar Bharat economic package, would provide 8 lakh metric tonnes of free foodgrains to 8 crore migrant workers whose lives had been upended since the Covid-19 lockdown was suddenly enforced in March.

The scheme was announced for just two months – May and June – but it offered at least 5 kg of grain per person and 1 kg of pulses per family every month for migrant labourers who did not have ration cards and were not covered by the Public Distribution System.

Singh did not have a ration card ever since his family moved from Uttar Pradesh to Mumbai 12 years ago. He had lost his job as an imitation jewellery maker with the lockdown, and had to rely on charity to feed his wife and four young children. Around him, hundreds of his neighbours in Malvani’s Ambujwadi slum were in the same throes of economic despair.

The Atmanirbhar package promised some much-needed food security, and Singh did everything he could to ensure that his family was registered under the scheme.

“I submitted our names and Aadhaar numbers to the local ration office, the [municipal] ward office and even the Collector’s office,” said Singh. The ration office, according to the procedure, allotted a government-run ration shop for Singh to collect his rations from. “But at the ration shop, they checked my Aadhaar and told me my old ration card was still active, so they could not give me any rations.”

Singh was flummoxed. His old ration card, registered in his village of Pratapgarh, had been unused for a decade. He did not know how it came to be linked with his Aadhaar number. “I had submitted my old ration number while getting my Aadhaar made,” he said. The other possibility, he said, was that his brother may have taken the old ration card and linked it to his Aadhaar. “So he could use it there,” he said. “But why should all that matter?”

Singh claims dozens of migrants in his slum were denied foodgrains under the Atmanirbhar scheme because they had active ration cards back in their villages. “The cards may be there in the village, but we are starving here in Mumbai, aren’t we? Why can’t we get rations here?” he asked.

Janardhan Singh has not received any rations under the Atmanirbhar scheme. Photo courtesy: Janardhan Singh

Never properly implemented

Singh is not alone in his despair. Across the country, state governments failed to effectively implement the Atmanirbhar scheme, leaving millions of migrant workers hungry even as foodgrain stocks lie unused in central government warehouses.

This month, data from the central government revealed that only 13% of the 8 lakh metric tonnes of food grains have reached migrant workers so far, even though states have collected 80% of the grains from the warehouses. Only 2.13 crore workers have benefited out of the 8 crore that the Atmanirbhar package aimed to reach.

States like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar collected almost all of the food grains allocated to them under the scheme, but eventually distributed just 2% of the grains to beneficiaries on the ground. Maharashtra, Gujarat, Jharkhand, Tamil Nadu and six other states distributed less than 1% of the grains allocated to them. Other states, like Madhya Pradesh and Odisha, did not even collect 5% of the grains allocated to them.

Since the scheme officially ended in June, the Centre has now given states an extension up to August 31 to complete the distribution of the grains allocated to them. But the scheme as a whole has not been extended – no additional foodgrains have been allocated each month for distressed migrant workers.

In contrast, the Centre has extended the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana – which provides ration card holders with double the amount of their regular rations – up to November 30. This aims to offer food security to Indians as they cope with the economic uncertainty spawned by the pandemic, but it completely overlooks the population that does not fall under the purview of the Public Distribution System.

This working class population – including migrants like Janardhan Singh in Mumbai – are more vulnerable and are likely to be affected the most as several parts of India go into a second wave of Covid-19 lockdowns.

When Rajasthan did it right

One of the few states that successfully implemented the Atmanirbhar Bharat package was Rajasthan, which not only collected nearly 100% of its allocated food grains from the Centre but also distributed 95% of it in May and June.

One of the reasons for this success rate, according to activists, was the state administration’s willingness to listen to feedback from the ground and attempt to act on it.

“When registrations for the scheme first began on May 22, the government had insisted that beneficiaries must have Jan Aadhaar cards,” said Komal Srivastava, the Rajasthan state representative of the Centre for Equity Studies. Jan Aadhaar is the new name for cards given to beneficiaries of Rajasthan’s Bhamashah welfare scheme. Srivastava and other activists alerted the state government to the fact that many potential beneficiaries did not have those cards.

Based on their feedback, the government extended the deadline for registration and allowed people to directly register at ration shops with their Aadhaar numbers.

Rajasthan also widened the pool of beneficiaries by allowing intra-state migrants workers – those coming from other districts within the state – to collect grains under the scheme, even if they were not officially counted among Below Poverty Line population.

“The state seemed to have made a decision early on that it would give rations beyond those who are eligible for PDS rations,” said economist Reetika Khera, pointing out that many families above the poverty line were also left struggling without jobs and incomes during the lockdown. “When the Atmanirbhar scheme was announced, the state started using those grains to give to APL [Above the Poverty Line] migrants too.”

A flashback to 2005

Despite Rajasthan’s efforts and relative success at implementing the Atmanirbhar scheme, some vulnerable sections of the population still fell through the gaps.

“Many homeless people, who usually don’t have any identity cards, got left out of the distribution,” said Srivastava. In Jaipur itself, there are more than 70,000 homeless people, she added. “There were also people whose phone numbers linked to ration cards that were inactive or were back in the village, and ration shops did not give them food.”

Such exclusion of rightful beneficiaries occurred in several states, often due to the whims of local administration and ration dealers. In Mumbai, for instance, several ration shops insisted that each member of every eligible family had to come individually to collect their grain, instead of allowing one person to collect grain for the whole family.

“This was not feasible for old people and young children, and it also created crowds at the ration shops, throwing social distancing out of the window,” said Mohammed Jamil Sheikh, a volunteer with the non-profit Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Andolan that has been distributing dry rations and cooked meals to hundreds of needy families in the city’s slum areas all through the lockdown.

The distribution system does not need to be so complicated, and Sheikh points out that Mumbai had set a precedent for a better distribution system 15 years ago, when the city was crippled by unprecedented floods.

“After the July 2005 floods, the city authorities gave out coupons to all needy people and allowed them to take rations without bothering about ration cards or registration,” said Sheikh. “If they could do it then, why can’t they do the same thing now?”

Workers load sacks of wheat onto a supply truck at the Gharaunda Grains Market in Karnal, Haryana, India, April 24, 2020. Photo: Reuters /Mayank Bhardwaj

A need for universalisation

Besides the Atmanirbhar scheme, other state-government initiated schemes to provide food security to people without ration cards have also suffered from implementation hurdles.

Uttar Pradesh announced the universalisation of the Public Distribution System in mid-April, up to June 30, so that any needy person without a ration card or Aadhaar card could get rations. But last month, in Varanasi’s Domari village, met several impoverished residents who were dismissed and turned away by ration dealers without any explanation.

The district supply officer claimed that ration shops could only give grains to those with ration cards, and that people without cards were to be identified by village and ward representatives and given food kits. In Domari, this distribution of kits was not streamlined either, leaving many to grapple with hunger through the lockdown.

In April, the Delhi government announced the one-month Mukhya Mantri Corona Sahayta Yojna through which it aimed to provide rations to 10 lakh people outside the purview of the Public Distribution System. After a surge of applications by hopeful beneficiaries, and interventions by activists and the Delhi High Court, the scheme was extended to May to cover 54 lakh beneficiaries who were given e-coupons to collect their rations.

“But the coupons given were for one-time use, and the state government discontinued the scheme after May,” said activist Anjali Bhardwaj, whose organisation, the Delhi Rozi Roti Adhikar Abhiyaan moved the Delhi High Court to demand a continuation of the Delhi government’s scheme for those without ration cards. “The economic impact of the lockdown is being felt strongly on the ground – people are finding it very difficult to get jobs, and they still don’t have food. So this scheme needs to be restarted.”

Bharadwaj and activist Harsh Mandar have also petitioned the Supreme Court to appeal for an extension of the Atmanirbhar Bharat scheme for at least 12 more months, or alternatively, ensuring that all those not covered by the Public Distribution System so far are brought into its fold.

This appeal for the universalisation of public food distribution in India is not new – food rights activists have been campaigning for it for years. But it has taken a pandemic and a brutal lockdown to highlight just how vulnerable the lives of millions of Indians are. Short-term schemes and one-time ration distribution cannot address prolonged hunger and acute economic distress.

In Rajasthan, migrant workers in touch with Komal Srivastava have been echoing the same concerns. “I have been getting calls from many workers who say that the grains they received under Atmanirbhar scheme in June is now over,” said Srivastava. “Now how will they survive the next few months?”