Is India’s food security scheme discriminating against Dalits? | Food News

New Delhi, India – There is a lot in common between Devanti Devi and Soni Devi. Both are in their mid-thirties, come from the same district in the eastern Bihar state, live in the same neighbourhood in New Delhi, and their husbands pick rubbish in the sprawling capital.

When Soni got married in 2004, her name was added to a government document, called a ration card, that ensures essential food items to the poor at subsidised rates under the Public Distribution System (PDS).

“There was no hassle. Someone came, filled our form, took our family photo and after a few days, I got my name added in a joint ration card with my in-laws,” Soni told Al Jazeera.

Last year, amid the coronavirus crisis, Soni also received subsidised food grains in New Delhi for a few months under the government’s One Nation, One Ration Card scheme which allows a ration card holder from any state to access PDS schemes across the country.

Like Soni, Devanti also inherited a ration card from her in-laws. However, within a few years of her marriage, her family’s name was taken off the card.

“I remember, when my second child was two years old, an official came to our house to ask how many people get food grains here. He told me that ‘people like us’ take all the ration in the name of one family,” she told Al Jazeera.

“I didn’t understand what he meant by that sly remark. After a month, when I went to the fair price shop, I found that our entire family’s name had been cut off with a red pen in the register. The shopkeeper said our names had been removed from the list.”

While Soni identifies herself as a Verma, a surname often attributed to privileged caste groups among the Hindus, Devanti is a Dalit, “the former untouchables” falling at the bottom of India’s complex caste hierarchy who have faced discrimination and persecution by privileged caste groups for centuries.

India Dalits food security
Soni Devi, left, stands outside Devanti Devi’s house in a New Delhi neighbourhood [Srishti Jaswal/Al Jazeera]

Though both the women fall in the same income group, it is telling that Soni lives in a cemented house that has a second-hand fridge, an air cooler and a TV while Devanti, a Valmiki Dalit, lives in a shanty with some utensils in the name of belongings.

“We have tried everything to get a ration card made. In every visit, we were asked to give 300 to 600 rupees ($4-8) as a bribe, a big amount for us,” she told Al Jazeera.

“But to this day, we do not have a ration card. Ration cards cannot be made by just giving bribes. It can only be made if we know some officer of our caste.”

‘There is caste prejudice’

There are many such instances of India’s huge PDS scheme never reaching Dalit households because they do not have documents to prove they are poor.

In many cases, it is plain discrimination when Dalits are not issued the document despite eligibility. In other cases, they are cancelled without the consent of the families. At times, Dalits, even women, are also beaten and abused when they demand their right to food.

In 2020, five-year-old Sonia Kumari, a Dalit, died of starvation in Uttar Pradesh state’s Agra district, leading to huge outrage in the country.

It was later found that 2,000 other Dalit households in Sonia’s village did not have a ration card as they reeled under the financial burden of the pandemic.

The state government, headed by the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), issued a ration card to Sonia’s family only days after her death.

In urban areas, according to the Dalit Bahujan Resource Centre, nearly 33 percent of sanitation workers, manual scavengers and waste pickers – professions mainly involving Dalits – do not have ration cards.

Prashant Kanojia, national president of Rashtriya Lok Dal party’s Dalit and tribal wing, says the “very basis of caste system in India is rigid hereditary occupation”.

“Who are the rag pickers, crematorium workers or street dwellers? They are mostly Dalits,” he told Al Jazeera. “If they identify Dalits as Dalits, the government will not be able to close its eyes so easily.”

Since coming to power in 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has not released any official data on caste, ignoring Dalit and other marginalised groups’ demands.

Al Jazeera reached out to India’s food ministry officials and several BJP spokespeople but they refused to comment on the issue.

India’s National Food Security Act (NFSA), passed in 2013, provides legal entitlement to the government’s Right to Food scheme through a targeted PDS. On paper, the law guarantees food to every citizen, but not everyone is eligible to get rationed food grains.

While “targeting” of the poor under the NSFA is based on poverty indicators, it does not include caste as one – despite every third Dalit being poor, according to a UN index on poverty published in 2018.

Only two-thirds of India’s population has ration cards, according to the 2011 census. The beneficiaries are identified on criteria that vary from state to state.

In such a scenario, who gets the benefits is often dependent upon the local officers responsible for identification.

Caste dynamics play a role here, leaving room for discrimination, say the activists.

Dipa Sinha, who teaches economics at New Delhi’s Ambedkar University, says the “very nature of targeting in itself leaves scope for caste-based discrimination” in the NSFA.

“Targeting with strict quotas leaves a lot of room for discretion at the local level. With most of the decision-makers being from the dominant castes, and in absence of transparency, there is scope for discrimination,” she told Al Jazeera.

Economist Sukhdeo Thorat, who has worked extensively on caste, says there are “general inefficiencies” with the government which every poor has to deal with.

“For instance, corruption. However, there is caste prejudice, beyond those general inefficiencies, which is not faced by every poor. The prejudice reflects in attitude and behaviour but is not easily quantifiable. That is why Devanti is still struggling for a ration card while Soni Devi has it,” Thorat told Al Jazeera.

Al Jazeera reached out to India’s food ministry officials and several BJP spokespeople but they refused to comment on the issue.

‘I am often put last in line’

Rani Devi is 64, according to her Aadhaar card, a biometric document issued by the state. It is the only official identity card the New Delhi resident possesses. However, her wrinkled face, bent back and weak vision clearly show she must be older.

Nearly six years ago, Rani lost her son to alcohol poisoning. Her daughter-in-law left her three children with Rani and never came back. Three years later, Rani lost her husband too. Now the widow had to fend for her grandchildren as well, without any source of income.

Poverty is not the sole misfortune in Rani’s life. She is also a Valmiki Dalit.

As per NFSA provisions, Rani belongs to the “poorest of the poor” category of Indian citizens. It is therefore her fundamental right to get food grains at subsidised rates. She is also entitled to a widow or old age pension while her grandchildren are entitled to free school lunches.

However, all this is on paper. In reality, Rani or her grandchildren have not received any of the above-mentioned government schemes.

“How many times do we need to apply for a ration card? I filled out the forms so many times, but has anything happened? When officers know who I am, I am often put last in line,” says Rani’s 16-year-old grandson Kunal, brimming with anger.

“I do not have anyone who belongs to my ‘caste’ there. Can you imagine an upper-caste family going through this?”

India Dalits food security
Rani Devi’s grandson Kunal [Srishti Jaswal/Al Jazeera]

Beena Pallical of the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR) says Rani and her grandchildren not getting ration cards is an “outcome of caste”.

“It is not that Rani does not want or need a ration card, but the system has made it so difficult for a Dalit widow to get what her rightful right is.”

The chronic hunger has punished Rani’s grandchildren more than her. Since she was too weak to work, Kunal was forced into child labour at 13. In 2020, Komal, Rani’s eldest granddaughter, was married off when she was only 16.

An analysis of three decades of the National Family Health Surveys of India showed how generational malnutrition has prevailed among India’s Dalit children. The study found that while 58 percent of Dalit children were stunted in 1992, that figure only came down to 50 in 2016.

Dalit scholar and activist Suraj Yengde says the exclusion of Dalits from the PDS leads to “generational hunger” that passes from one generation to another “along with caste”.

“Poverty index cannot be disassociated from caste. Caste is nothing but deprivation of all resources that can make life better. It ensures that they who are born poor are meant to live and die in poverty,” he told Al Jazeera.

The NFSA has a provision for a food commission to monitor the implementation of the law. The commission should have a Dalit and a tribal member to ensure proper representation of the two marginalised communities.

However, the Delhi state government has not yet constituted a food commission and has instead asked the Public Grievance Commission to look after the NFSA.

“It is not just Delhi. Multiple states across India have not constituted food commissions. Along with the lack of funds, there is a lack of will too,” Amrita Johri, an activist associated with the Right to Food campaign, told Al Jazeera.

India Dalits food security
Suryakali, right, and Sushil with their daughter at their home in New Delhi [Srishti Jaswal/Al Jazeera]

A Dalit couple, Suryakali and Sushil Kumar, came to New Delhi in 2013 from Uttar Pradesh’s Pratapgarh district in search of work.

They used to go back to their villages during harvesting seasons. In 2015, the couple got a rude shock when they learned that their name had been taken off the ration card rolls in Pratapgarh.

“When we inquired, we got to know that our village head, who was from the Thakur caste, claimed that we were getting ration in Delhi, so our names should be cut here,” Suryakali told Al Jazeera.

“He did not even ask us or our family for our consent. Just because we are Dalits, he easily removed our name. If we were Thakurs, he would not have dared to do so.”

Sushil said he tried everything, “from confronting to pleading”, but it did not work. “In 2018, I also went to senior officials. Even then my card was not made. When the [coronavirus] lockdown was announced, we were caught off guard. We had nothing to eat in our house,” he said.

“In 2020, we again applied for the ration card, this time in Delhi. However, it has been two years and there is no response to our applications.”

This report was done by the author as part of the Global Nutrition and Food Security Reporting Fellowship offered by the International Centre for Journalists and the Eleanor Crook Foundation.

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