The Jharkhand government on Wednesday issued instructions to immediately end the direct benefit transfer scheme for food subsidy in the state’s Nagri block. It also announced that the earlier arrangement, wherein users of the public distribution system would get subsidised rice at Re 1 per kg, would be reinstated after the Centre approved its request, which was made in May.
In October 2017, the Union Food Ministry had launched the pilot cash transfer scheme in Nagri, near state capital Ranchi. Under it, poor households had to collect their food subsidy in cash from the bank before using it to buy rice from the ration shop at Rs 32 per kg. Earlier, they were able to buy rice from the ration shop at Re 1 per kg.
A letter, written by the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution to the Secretary of Jharkhand’s Department of Food and Civil Supplies on August 6, said the scheme was being withdrawn “after considering the problems being faced” by the state government in implementing it.
While the Right to Food Campaign welcomed the move, the group also said it was “unfortunate” that it took almost a year of popular protests to push the government. “The DBT pilot caused enormous hardship to the people of Nagri, especially vulnerable groups such as single women and elderly,” the campaign’s convenor Asharfi Nand Prasad said. He added that the Jharkhand government should abstain from further experiments of this sort and, instead, attempt to improve and consolidate the PDS.
A social audit of the DBT scheme, conducted by the state’s rural development department, found that most households in Nagri preferred subsidised grains over cash transfers. Over 97% of the respondents said they faced a lot of trouble while withdrawing cash and accessing subsidised food.
Since the launch, gram sabhas in Nagri have protested on numerous occasions. In February, student volunteers conducted a survey in 13 villages, showing the scheme was leading to hardship. Later, residents marched to the governor’s house in Ranchi to demand that the scheme be revoked.
The state government had said that it would come to a decision after conducting its own social audit of the scheme by the end of March. The audit, completed in April by the state’s Rural Development Department, confirmed the earlier findings, where 36 of the 38 gram sabhas unanimously rejected the scheme and demanded a return to the old PDS. Following this, the state wrote to the Centre in May seeking permission to withdraw the scheme.