Weakening state apparatus fails workers and farmers in Jharkhand and Rajasthan

People queue at a fair price shop of the public distribution system in Odisha’s Rayagada, to collect rations. The systemic failures in lower-rung government planning and bureaucracy, especially with regards to public distribution, employment guarantees and banking, show that the humanitarian disaster that has accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic was a long time in the making. Manish Swarup / AP Photo
23 April, 2020

On 2 April, 65-year-old Somaria Devi, a resident of Jharkhand’s Garwa district, breathed her last. Her death was one of three starvation deaths that had been reported from the state since 25 March when Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a nationwide lockdown to slow the spread of COVID-19. Reports of mass hunger among daily-wage labourers have arisen from other states too, caused by unemployment at an unprecedented scale, a crippled public distribution system and heavily red-taped relief measures by state governments failing on the ground. The systemic failures in lower-rung government planning and bureaucracy, especially with regards to public distribution, employment guarantees and banking, show that the humanitarian disaster that has accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic was a long time in the making.

In the past, district officials from Jharkhand have stridently denied claims of hunger deaths in the state. One of the key poll-planks of the Hemant Soren led state government during his election campaign was ending starvation deaths in the state. The state is known to have one of the highest rates of malnutrition in the country, with 56.5 percent of children under the age of five being undernourished according to government data. However, a recent survey carried out in Jharkhand by the members of the Right to Food campaign—a network of food-rights activists—suggest that the hunger deaths that emerged during the lockdown are symptomatic of a more systemic problem in the state’s PDS.

In the first week of April, surveyors from the RTF campaign studied over 50 blocks in 19 districts assessing various government institutions where grain was being distributed. This included ration shops, dal-bhat kendras, which are food distribution centres, and anganwadis—mother and child-care centres. Of the 50 blocks surveyed, observers found that dal-bhat kendras were operational in 42 blocks but were heavily under-utilised. This was largely because the state government had not adequately informed migrant labour communities about the whereabouts of these kendras. Surveyors also found that in some of these kendras, the needy were being asked to pay for food at a time when all avenues to earn a livelihood had been shuttered. In others, social distancing norms were being flouted. Additionally, some members running the kendras complained that they were spending their own money in procuring food as government funds were falling short.

Vipul Paikra, a volunteer with the RTF campaign, pointed out that underpinning the failure of the administration in addressing the needs of the workers is the cumulative impact of two forces. Firstly, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act has become increasingly ineffective in addressing the needs to workers from the state. Secondly, the PDS system of the state has progressively been watered down to become deeply inefficient.

“Jharkhand’s rate of out-migration is one of the highest in India,” Paikra said. “This is because MNREGA’s record of performance in the state is far from impressive. The demand for work under MNREGA has gone down by quite a lot because dues for work done earlier have not been cleared. The worker ends up feeling that it is no use working under MNREGA, if he is not going to be paid for his work.”

Over the years, MNREGA’s popularity amongst workers has plummeted in the state. According to James Herenj, convenor of NREGA watch—an NGO focusing on ground-level efficacy of employment guarantee schemes in the state—in the three financial years ending in 2019, nearly seven lakh NREGA job cards have been deleted by the state government. Herenj said that many of these job cards belong to people who had worked under MNREGA and were kept in the dark about the deletion of their job card. Additionally, Herenj has also claimed that between the financial year 2015 and the financial year 2019, close to one hundred and seventy crore rupees in payments for wages were rejected, while close to one hundred crore rupees was pending as payment to workers.

On 26 March, Soren had declared that as an emergency measure his government would provide two months worth of ration  in advance to PDS beneficiaries in the state. Soren claimed that this would benefit close to ninety percent of the families in Jharkhand.

The RTF campaign survey noted that the distribution of “double rations” seemed to be erratic. “Among 50 observers, 21 reported that many cardholders in the area were still waiting for their April rations,” the survey report stated. “Among the remaining 29, only 15 reported that double rations had been distributed in April. Dealers gave a variety of excuses for giving a single month’s rations, e.g. some said that they had not received the May quota, others (said) that they would distribute it later.”

Jharkhand has over seven lakh households who have applied for ration cards but not received them yet. The survey report stated that only very few such families were receiving the ten kilograms of foodgrains promised by the chief minister. “No effective arrangement has been made for this, other than asking mukhiyas”—or village chiefs—“to give 10 kilograms of foodgrain to needy households using their Rs 10,000 relief fund,” the report stated. “This fund is insufficient even for a one-off grant of 10 kilograms to most of these excluded households.”

Paikra also said that another failure of the system was local dealers eating away into the foodgrains allocated by the government before they reach their intended beneficiary. “In Jharkhand, katauti”—the pilfering of foodgrains—“has become the norm,” he said. “Everywhere I have been, I have asked people if they have faced katauti and the sense I got is that on an average, anywhere between two to five kilograms is pilfered. That this pilfering is happening during the time of a pandemic is a matter of extreme shame.”

Paikra pointed out that in such a broken system it was those who needed welfare the most that often got written off. “In the survey that we conducted, it emerged that in a number of places people were not receiving rations or food to eat,” he said. “We found that people without any land holding, old people, Adivasis and landless labourers don’t have any rations to consume.”

Workers in other states too find themselves abandoned without any social security or income assurances. In late March, Jan Sahas, a Delhi-based labour-rights group, surveyed 3,196 migrant workers from north and central India. 90 percent of those they surveyed had lost their source of income since the beginning of the lockdown, while 42 percent did not possess a day’s ration. 31 percent of those surveyed said that they had taken loans and would now find it increasingly difficult to repay them.

In Rajasthan, the same stories of hunger and unemployment caused by a teetering government system arose. Kamlesh Sharma of the Aajeevika Bureau—a trust based in Rajasthan that works towards addressing economic and socio-legal problems of migrant workers—spoke to me about the Kushalgarh block. Nearly sixty cases of COVID-19 had emerged in this rural pocket of southern Rajasthan’s Banswara district. This, Sharma said, had terrorised villages in the surrounding region and brought all movement to a halt.

“Work under MNREGA has come to a halt since the last one-and-half month,” Sharma said. “Because of this, people have a cash crisis on their hands.” With cash in hand depleting, people are thronging banks and to withdraw their money, effectively increasing the possibility of the spread of the virus. Sharma said that the area often experiences trouble with internet connectivity, causing people to step out time and again to execute the same banking transaction with bank correspondents. Sharma said that cases were being reported where bank correspondents cheated illiterate depositors out of their money.

“Whatever foodgrains that they have right now, it is because of the PDS,” Sharma said. “Besides this, they don’t have any food grains. This wasn’t the case usually. People, otherwise, would work and buy foodgrains from their wages.” Sharma said that the region had always been deeply underdeveloped, with a welfare system that was failing at multiple levels. Any trigger could cause a humanitarian crisis.

Efforts by the local administration to improvise a quick system for rations have not been very successful. Officials at the block level were being asked to furnish a list of people to whom rations should be given. Block development officers, then communicate this message to the sarpanchs of villages who in-turn pass on the word to the Corona Teams—volunteer teams at the village level. This entire system works in a highly top-down manner and struggles to reflect the needs at the local level. As a result, only a limited list of people is given to the top tier of the local administration, which then further snips off names from the list. “To give you an idea, in a panchayat that would have a population of close to 5,000 and would have 1,100 to 1,200 households, relief measures in the form of rations are reaching only about 10 to 15 households, on an average,” Sharma said.

Sharma said that in Banswara district a substantial section of the informal workforce earned most of their income by migrating out of the district for work. The remaining income of the villages came from agriculture. During the peak of the Kharif and Rabi seasons—the two cropping seasons in north India—migrant workers would return from cities and double up as agricultural labourers. Ashok Dhawale of the All India Kisan Sabha—the peasants front of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)—said that migrant labourers doubling up as farm workers in villages was common. However, this too was often possible for those who had land to fall back on. “There is nothing in the city for them,” Dhawale said. “These migrants are not likely to have a ration card. All the conditions that this bureaucratic government is laying down for the workers to be able to access free rations is creating trouble for lakhs of people on the ground.” Dhawale was speaking about the need for the universalisation of PDS. Nobody should be precluded from accessing rations for want of a ration card or registration in any state’s PDS database. He further noted that many of the problems landless agricultural labourers face now is because the central government has actively tried to undermine the MNREGA system for the past six years.

On 27 March, Nirmala Sitharaman, the union finance minister announced that the MNREGA wage was being increased by Rs 20—from Rs 182 to Rs 202. During a press conference she said that NREGA workers would get Rs 2,000 more per year. Dhawale pointed out that these numbers were dubious and misleading. “Less than seven percent of the workers in the country get work for 100 days of work a year,” he said. “Not just that, there are massive arrears that have built up for the work done under MNREGA in the last two-three years. Therefore, the announcement by the finance ministry is very cruel.” He pointed out that with MNREGA work almost entirely coming to a standstill a temporary wage increase was meaningless.

Dhawale added that if no means was found to ensure the smooth functioning of the Rabi harvest, which usually occurs in April and May, rural areas already reeling under the impact of the lockdown, would collapse. “Naturally, for harvest, labour is required but labour is currently very hard to come by because of the lockdown,” Dhawale said. “Transport is a very big problem. Trucks and tempos are not available and there is a lot of police interference.” Farmers would also struggle to sell their produce as most mandis, or wholesale markets, remained closed. Dhawale also pointed out that the food pricing mechanism had gone haywire. “Whatever little produce is sold, it is sold at such a low price that making two ends meet is out of the question,” he said.

In Jharkhand and Rajasthan, the spectre of the current crisis was years in the making. The systems attempting to address employment and food distribution, the cogs of rural economies, were poorly executed and overseen and had either failed or been actively undermined at the local level. In both Jharkhand and Rajasthan, quick-fix solutions to address the humanitarian crisis that arose alongside the COVID-19 pandemic were also failing because they relied on the same malfunctioning local government apparatus. Sharma said all the signs of an impending crisis were visible in rural Rajasthan. “Situation on the ground is such that people are on the brink of starvation,” he said. “Soon you will get to see unfortunate news emerging from the region.”