COVID-19 Relief: Access to food remains a struggle for Mumbai’s poor

With their livelihoods and income compromised, people’s food insecurity will only magnify.

This is the first story in a multi-part series on the pandemic and its impact on people in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region, YUVA, a non-profit organisation, attempts to understand the challenges they face in accessing relief and assesses the rights-based approach to benefits.

Savitri Tai is a migrant worker living in the Vashi Naka rehabilitation and resettlement colony. “Our work has stopped, we have no food. The government should either provide us food or let us resume work,” she said.

Her vulnerabilities are echoed by almost every informal sector worker, continuing to fight everyday battles not just with the coronavirus but also hunger. 

Marginalised populations feel vulnerable and betrayed, with the health crisis intensifying into a massive humanitarian disaster which sees no end. 

With their livelihoods and income compromised, people’s food insecurity will only magnify. 

No food even for ration card holders

In March 2020 the Central Government announced the Pradhan Mantri Gareeb Kalyan Anna Yojana (PMGKAY) to support families with free ration over the existing food subsidies received at the PDS.

But as Savitri Tai explains, access to ration still remains challenging. “I am a saffron ration card holder but I still have to buy ration at Rs 8/kg for rice and 12/kg for wheat. The shopkeepers are told not to give free ration to people whose ration card states an income of INR 60,000 or above. We have no income now. Why is nobody seeing that?,” she asks. 

For those getting the grains, the struggle is slightly different. “How can I feed a family of seven with a ration quota that is meant for two? I even visited the concerned office to get the remaining names included but was told that the government is not accepting requests to add new names to the card now,” says Chanda Tai from Jogeshwari. 

Checking the online status of ration received (when was it collected, what was collected, who collected it from the PDS shop, etc.) through the Ration Card number is a useful exercise to ensure that people receive their rightfully entitled quantities. 

Rani is thankful to the online status checking exercise which helped her identify gaps. “When the online status of the ration I collected was checked, I found that the quantity I received was less compared to what I should have received. I then approached the ration shop with the YUVA team to get the complete food quota,” she said. 

In some cases, if the RC number is not displayed on the ration card clearly, it becomes a reason for refusal. By entering the Aadhaar card number (in case the ration card is linked to it, which in most cases it generally is) online, the RC number may be verified. 

Community leaders (who have been a part of earlier YUVA-led facilitation processes) helped prepare, verify and submit lists of non-ration card holders to the ration office, expediting the process. Community members also submitted letters to the ration office for cases where the ration card was not linked to the Aadhaar card, to help address this issue.

As Neeta shares, “I was refused ration for the past six months as the officer said my RC number is incorrect.” She checked the status online and found that the RC number was correct and her card was functional.

Empowering marginalised groups by making them aware of their rights, helping them develop and strengthen community leadership, goes a long way in altering their situation rather than merely giving out relief. Facilitating a community’s access to the Public Distribution System (PDS) by identifying gaps and redressing them and calling for the universalisation of the Targeted PDS is our ultimate goal. So that, ultimately, the community’s collective efforts pressurise authorities. 

Relief for non ration card holders

YUVA’s upcoming August 2020 report reveals how, among 14,133 surveyed urban poor households across the Mumbai Metropolitan Region, only 45.49% reported having ration cards. 

On 14 May, the Central Government announced free grains for the next two months for migrant workers who did not have ration cards in their current city address. To implement this, the Maharashtra Government Resolution (GR) of 19 May 2020 under the Atmanibhar Anna Yojana was aimed at migrant workers and contractual workers without ration cards who would be allowed to get ration as declared by the Central Government on the basis of their Aadhaar cards at the PDS shops. 

Recent data released by the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution reveals that only 13% of the 8 lakh metric tonnes of food grains have reached the beneficiaries; Maharashtra has distributed less than 1 per cent grains allocated to it. This deadline has now been extended to August, but no extra food grains have been allotted to it. 

Ground up efforts across communities where YUVA works have helped 1,064 people access ration via their Aadhaar cards and lists containing 2,301 names are pending with the ration officers in three cities of the Mumbai Metropolitan Region (Mumbai, Navi Mumbai and Vasai-Virar). 

With the guidance of the YUVA teams, the leaders have also continuously worked to build knowledge and awareness regarding various government legislations, resolutions and circulars among the community. The necessary details of schemes have been broken down in a way to help people best understand this information, and further share it with their networks so that access may be furthered. 

People’s groups are also working to demand the extension of the Maharashtra Government Resolution  till November 2020 in the backdrop of the PMGKAY extension, and taking forward the demand for temporary ration cards for non-ration card holders to bring all beneficiaries under PMGKAY ambit. At the local level, continuous communication with the PDS shopkeeper continues to ensure that the ration quota reaches the rightful beneficiaries.

Given the pace at which such processes for access proceed, efforts often take months before visible outcomes are seen. Persistent efforts and follow-ups pay rich rewards when families are able to access food, thereby being able to access their rights. 

While we tackle these current issues, a recent article in the Indian Express articulates another emerging concern, “even with smooth access to rations, those out of work and with little or no savings will find it hard to cover their households’ full caloric needs,” it says. 

With people eating less, the long-term impacts of this on their health and immunity is worrisome. 

*all names have been changed  to maintain confidentiality

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