From pillar to post

A survey conducted earlier this year finds that the direct benefit transfer project is exacerbating the problems of hunger, food insecurity and poverty in Nagri block, Ranchi district, Jharkhand.

Published : Apr 11, 2018 12:30 IST

People have to make repeated visits to banks, business correspondents and ration shops to buy their PDS rice. Crowded premises and long queues are the norm at banks and customer service centres.

People have to make repeated visits to banks, business correspondents and ration shops to buy their PDS rice. Crowded premises and long queues are the norm at banks and customer service centres.

“DIRECT benefit transfer” (DBT) is the odd name for an experiment with the public distribution system (PDS) that was introduced on October 4, 2017, in the Nagri block of Ranchi district, Jharkhand. In practice, DBT involves a long marathon as people have to make repeated visits to banks, business correspondents and ration shops to buy their PDS rice. This can take days and costs daily wage earners their livelihood.

Under the DBT system, the food subsidy is transferred to the bank accounts of PDS cardholders, who are supposed to use it to buy rice at Rs.32.60 a kg at the ration shop after adding Re.1 a kg from their own pockets. Earlier, the ration shop used to sell subsidised rice at Re.1 a kg.

While Nagri block’s headquarters are situated almost 15 kilometres away from the State capital, Ranchi, the villages that fall under this block start at a distance of just 8 km from the city. Despite the proximity to Ranchi, most of the block’s 12,500 cardholders are relatively poor Adivasi families. All of them are now covered under the DBT system. To understand the problems they face under the new system, a household survey was conducted in Nagri between January 27 and February 4. It covered 244 households, randomly selected from the list of ration cards, spread over 13 randomly selected villages.

It was observed that poor people are now forced to make multiple trips to get their PDS rice. First, they are supposed to visit banks to check whether the DBT money has been credited into their accounts. Then, they visit the customer service centres, known as Pragya Kendras, to withdraw the money. Finally, they have to visit the ration shops to buy the rice. At banks and Pragya Kendras, crowded premises and long queues are the norm.

Most banks do not let people withdraw amounts below Rs.10,000. Instead, they just help people check the balance in their accounts. This is because banks try to reduce their work burden by sending people to Pragya Kendras to withdraw their DBT money. This causes a lot of trouble for poor people, especially those who are old or disabled. As the transport facilities are poor, many people walk all the way to banks or Pragya Kendras, which are located at distances of up to 10 km from their homes. Others visit banks and Pragya Kendras on market days, when finding transport to Nagri is easier.

The last leg takes people to the ration shop. This is typically much closer, but biometric authentication is required, another hurdle for many cardholders. If they pass the biometric test, they are finally able to buy PDS rice. Many people ask when “Bawa” rice (a better quality of rice than PDS rice) is available in the open market at Rs.25 a kg, why they should be forced to buy lower quality rice at Rs.32.60 a kg from the ration shop.

Among other questions, we asked the respondents whether they preferred the DBT system or the earlier system of cheap rice at the ration shop. An overwhelming majority (97 per cent) opposed the DBT system and demanded a return to the earlier system. On an average, respondents spent 12 hours to withdraw the previous month’s DBT instalment and buy rice.

Unable to get rice This DBT project exacerbates the problems of hunger and food insecurity in Nagri. Many families have not received the food subsidy in their bank accounts even once since the DBT pilot was launched. Similarly, every month many families are unable to get their rice from the ration shop. Others buy their rice somehow with their hard-earned wages or even by borrowing money as the PDS dealers have told them that their ration cards may be cancelled if they do not buy their rice for three months. The hardest months are between July and September, when most people have no cash because they are busy with farm work and have no time for wage employment. At that time, more than any other, the PDS is a lifeline for many rural families in Nagri.

The government uses the Public Fund Management System to transfer the DBT money to beneficiaries’ bank accounts, but it has many flaws and a poor success rate. According to the Food Secretary, Jharkhand, only 9,100 out of 12,500 beneficiaries’ bank accounts were credited with DBT money in October 2017, and even by March 6, 2018, the bank accounts of 731 beneficiaries were yet to receive DBT money.

The stated goal for the introduction of the DBT scheme is to reduce PDS leakages. However, when biometric authentication is in place, it is not clear what purpose the DBT system serves.

In the course of the survey, and of preparations for the padyatra mentioned below, we visited almost all of Nagri’s 44 villages.

Domestic violence In several places, we found that domestic violence had increased after the DBT system began. One example is Katarpa village where it is mostly women who run the DBT marathon from bank to Pragya Kendra and ration shop. Banks and Pragya Kendras are approximately 6 km away from the village, and the women usually walk all the way. No one in the village ever completes the entire DBT process within a day. This usually takes three or four days, said Anju Devi, who had just got back from Nagri after spending the entire day standing in line and walking back home. This was her third day visiting the bank.

It was while conversing with her and other women in Katarpa that we found out about the domestic violence. Subhashi Kachapp said: “The 100 rupees I earn in a day are gone when I go back home, then lathi danda se mar khao apne aadmi se [I have to take blows from my husband]. When I go to the ration shop to buy rice, the dealer asks me for Rs.1,230. If the government doesn’t send me the money, how am I supposed to buy rice?” Subhashi Kachapp has received DBT money only twice in the past four months.

We heard a similar story from Anita Mundian: “I only have 10 or 20 rupees with me that I spend on auto fare. When I come back home, my son asks, ‘Did you get any sweets for me?’, but I have no money left and I missed wages worth Rs.200. My husband beats me up with a stick and says, ‘Where do you go all day? Why do you have to go to Nagri every day?’” Anita Mundian has received DBT money just once in the past four months. We talked to Subhashi Kachapp and Anita Mundian separately, and sadly, all the other women with them echoed what they said. This is the harsh reality of India’s patriarchal society: the husband does not bother to get the food rations for his family, and he may even be drinking during the day, but then he beats up his wife when she comes back home after standing in queues and running around the whole day without food. How are women supposed to bear this?

When you see how people live in Nagri, so close to Ranchi, you realise how poor Jharkhand is. Even visiting the villages in Nagri once makes you understand why launching the DBT pilot there was a bad idea. Many people in Nagri are struggling to feed their families. When people do not even have Rs.10 or Rs.20 for auto fare, how can they be expected to pay more than Rs.1,100 for their PDS rice (in the case of an Antyodaya cardholder) when they do not get their DBT money? The duty of the government is to help poor people, but instead the DBT project in Nagri aggravates their miseries.

On February 26, more than 2,000 people from different villages of Nagri marched to the Raj Bhavan in Ranchi to protest against the DBT system and demand that the old system of cheap rice at Re.1 a kg be reinstated. For us, this march was an instance of solidarity among poor people who came together to oppose a system that was making them suffer. They did not sit at home waiting for change; instead, they came out and demanded in one voice that the earlier system be reinstated.

Aninjit Pakhale is an independent scholar based in Ranchi.

Barun Barnwal is a research scholar at the Central University of Jharkhand.

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