Living on the edge

20 Jan


I never got to meet Guru Bhuian, a Dalit. He died three days before I reached his village. All I knew about him was that he was old, didn’t have any family, was suffering from an unknown infection, and died because of it. The people who looked after him in his last days, took him to a doctor, tried getting his old age pension and BPL benefits, and in the end, some money for his cremation. They failed, so he was buried instead of being cremated.

I was in Mohanpur village, just 12 Km from Katihar town (Bihar) to visit people who were going to Delhi to participate in a protest to remind the government of its promise to enact a National Food Security Act. This experience brought home to me some stark truths about people living on the edge: the importance of social support to them as well as the harsh realities of the manner in which India’s social support system is implemented in rural India.

Urmila Devi is a widow in her mid-fifties whose husband died 25 years ago. With 2012 almost over, Masomat Urmila Devi’s total income during the year added up to not even Rs. 3,000. The numbers were ridiculously low. She lives on what she earned and by scavenging the fields for leftovers of the paddy crop. I asked her repeatedly about where she had worked: 10 days at Rs. 70/day during maize harvest, two weeks during paddy harvest for a share of 10 kg of rice (worth Rs. 200 at market rate), about a week of NREGA work for Rs. 500 (only 12 days of employment was made available in the village), and some odd manual labor every now and then. That comes to about Rs. 10/day, well below the Rs. 26/day “poverty line” that is often in the news. However, the government’s “below poverty line” (BPL) census classified her as “Above Poverty Line” (APL). Before such surveys began to be conducted (in 1997), she was “lucky” as she was able to get on the rural housing scheme (Indira Awaas Yojana) through the MLA quota.

However, she does not get a widow pension, as she is classified APL. Being APL has also denied her access to PDS ration, forcing her to buy from market. As her age started limiting her employment opportunities, and after her sons moved into a separate household, she started making regular trips to the block office for a pension. “Bring an income certificate”, “bring the BPL list”, she has been given the run for nearly five years. She does not understand what she can do. No BPL. No ration. No husband. No pension. No support. Not enough MNREGA work.

I wondered where the APL-BPL distinction came from? Can we not afford even this basic level of social security for the disadvantaged of our society? Instead of achieving its stated goal, i.e., of reaching the poor better by targeting benefits to them, it seems, the attempt to target the poor has become the single most important source of exclusion of the poor. This impression was reinforced when I met Jaitun Khatun.

Masomat Jaitun Khatun is late Mustakim Mian’s wife. She is only 38 years of age. She has no land, yet she was not classified as “BPL”. She is a widow, but she doesn’t get any pension or subsidized rations. “Most of the time, I collect this saag and sell it in the market for Rs. 8/Kg.” Unfortunately, her saag has more volume, less weight, and hardly brings any money. She also labors on farms during the harvest, looks for the elusive NREGA work, does odd jobs, and when all fails, she begs. Though she can get a pension under the Laxmibai Samajik Suraksha pension, she needs to provide an income certificate (certifying that her income is below Rs. 60,000 per year) but people like her find such certificates elusive. Her only daughter is married, so she does not have any support. Like many others in her situation, she has been left by the state to wage a lonely battle for survival.

Upendra Prasad Mandal 42 years of age, is barely four feet tall. He has been classified as BPL,and on account of his disability gets a disability pension as well as subsidized rations from the Public Distribution System.

Upendra Mandal has not let his disability dictate his life, finds his life held hostage by these schemes. His disability pension of Rs. 300/month is only paid only once in six months. The PDS dealer steals at every given opportunity. In Bihar, BPL households are issued coupons which state the quantity and price that they are entitled to. These coupons have to be deposited with the dealer each month at the time of making their purchase. But some coupons remain unused every year; the dealer undersells – instead of getting 25kg each month, Upendra gets only 23kg. Further, the official price of PDS rice is Rs. 6.78/kg and Rs. 5.22/kg for wheat. (It seems that the Government of Bihar is unaware that India stopped coins of denomination less than 10 paise many years ago; in fact, it is hard now to find places where 50 paise coins are in circulation). This is a recipe for cheating – 15kg at Rs. 6.78/kg is Rs. 101.7 and 10kg at Rs. 5.22 is Rs. 52.2. That makes it Rs. 153.90. (I had to use a calculator to make these totals, so you can imagine how many barely literate people will be able to do so.) To save everyone the trouble of these calculations, the dealer charges a uniform price of Rs. 7/kg for wheat and rice. (The story for kerosene is the same.)

In spite of all this, he wants the PDS to function and is excited to participate in the Right to Food campaign dharna. Upendra is full of fight, and resourcefulness (his phone is set to cut outgoing calls after a minute). He is one of the rare high school graduates in his community. People call him “master” as he used to be a tutor before going for small electrical jobs. He would like to do something about the corrupt system, but there is not obvious place for him to complain and requires taking time away from work which he can ill afford. Meeting him shows how, that what seems like a pittance, can be a huge source of support for the poor.

Arun Yadav (son of Rishlal Yadav) is 41 years old. He has no land, has been classified as BPL. Arun Yadav works as a rickshaw puller. As there isn’t much money to be made pulling rickshaws in a village, he is always on the lookout for other employment opportunities. Though the government guarantees 100 days of employment under NREGA, only 12 days have been provided in this financial year. Getting paid after working is yet another struggle. He is supposed to get monthly ration under PDS. But this year five coupons were not honoured by the dealer. (Last year too, three coupons were not honoured). “There is no supply”, is the regular excuse. Arun thinks that the same ration ends up being sold in the local market in “black”. Lack of transparency makes it hard to find the real answer. Will this cheating stop if everyone is entitled to PDS?

Arun’s answer is yes. Urmila, Jaitun and Upendra agree and express their opinion with a slogan they have picked up from friends of Right to Food Campaign – “APL-BPL Khatam Karo Sabko Rashan Pension Do” (end the APL-BPL classification, give rations and pensions to everyone). Twenty hours of a difficult train journey to Delhi is not going to stop them raise their voice for a better National Food Security Act.

vibhore is a volunteer with Jan Jagaran Shakti Sangathan (JJSS)


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