Control and delete: Lack of data updating has left millions of poor Indians hungry; here is how

The government’s reliance on decade-old data due to a delay in census has resulted in exclusion of millions from the safety net of the National Food Security Act, 2013 and downsized the number of beneficiaries entitled to subsidised foodgrains

By Raju Sajwan, Himanshu Nitnaware, Shagun
Published: Sunday 05 February 2023
Anar Devi and Sitaram Bhuiyan, residents of Sarhua village in Jharkhand
Anar Devi and Sitaram Bhuiyan, residents of Sarhua village in Jharkhand, have been struggling for food for seven years since their names were removed from the PDS beneficiary list (Photograph: Vikas Choudhary) Anar Devi and Sitaram Bhuiyan, residents of Sarhua village in Jharkhand, have been struggling for food for seven years since their names were removed from the PDS beneficiary list (Photograph: Vikas Choudhary)

This was first published in the 16-31 January, 2023 print edition of Down To Earth

As one travels through the rural areas of Palamu, Chatra, Khunti and Ranchi, which are among the country’s 150 poorest districts, it is difficult to miss the intense conversations at various places with repeated mention of the word “delete”. Though not all those engaged in the conversations understand the meaning of the English word, it has over the past few years become synonymous with hunger and starvation in these parts of Jharkhand.

Anar Devi of Sarhua village in Ramgarh block of Palamu district, heard this word for the first time in December 2015, at the local fair price shop she visits every month for procuring foodgrains provided under the public distribution system (PDS). Categorised as the poorest of the poor, Anar Devi and her family of seven have been receiving foodgrains at highly subsidised rates for as long as she can remember. It has been a major source of sustenance until that day in December 2015, when she visited the PDS centre for adding extra pages to the ration card. “The centre in-charge told me that my name has been ‘deleted’ from the beneficiaries list without giving a reason,” Anar Devi tells Down To Earth (DTE).

Since Anar Devi has been listed as the head of the family on the PDS beneficiaries list, deletion of her name dropped her entire family off the PDS list. “My five sons have since migrated to other places with their families fearing starvation,” she says. Anar Devi and her husband, Sitaram Bhuiyan, own a farmland of less than 0.4 hectare (ha). This past year, they could not grow a single crop as Jharkhand has been under the grip of a severe drought. Her husband has taken to collecting and drying wild herbs from the forest, which he sells in a nearby market to arrange just one meal a day on which the couple survives. For seven years, Anar Devi has been on a relentless pursuit to get her name back on the list, but to no avail. This is despite the fact that under the National Food Security Act (NFSA), 2013, she is legally entitled to subsidised foodgrains.

Enacted with the aim to protect people against food insecurity, hunger and mal-nutrition, NFSA legally entitles 75 per cent of rural and 50 per cent of urban population—two-thirds of the country’s total population—to subsidised foodgrains. NFSA brings all the old PDS schemes under its ambit and categorises beneficiaries of subsidised food into two groups: the poorest of the poor population under the Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY) and the remaining under priority households (PHH or population below the poverty line). Beneficiaries in PHH category are entitled to receive foodgrains of 5 kg per person per month at the prices of `3, `2, and `1 per kg for rice, wheat and coarse grains, respectively. For AAY beneficiaries, like Devi, the entitlement is 35 kg of foodgrains a month at the subsidised rate irrespective of family size.

But when DTE travelled across Jharkhand and Rajasthan, family after family narrated their brush with hunger, as they did not receive the legally guaranteed entitlement under NFSA. In Sarhua village, eight of the 80 families have had their ration cards deleted; those who do receive ration, say it is not according to NFSA provisions.

Faguni Devi, a 70-year-old resident, who belongs to the particularly vulnerable tribal (PVT) community Korba, says, “I have received ration only twice since January 2022.” Ration under PDS has been the only assured source of food for Faguni Devi, who lives alone and cannot take up manual work. These days she survives on food donated by others. Members of a PVT community are given a yellow ration card under NFSA, with same entitlement as AAY beneficiaries. “Many people belonging to PVT communities in Ramgarh block say that their PDS cards have been cancelled; I have information of about 380 such cases,” says Lucas Korba, a resident of Sarhua and member of the farmers’ group Jharkhand Kisan Mazdoor Morcha. What’s worse, people are not even informed about their cards being cancelled, says Lucas Korba. “They get to know about the cancellation only when they do not receive any ration. Upon approaching officials, they are told to apply for green ration cards issued by the state,” he says. The Jharkhand government in 2020 decided to issue green ration cards to people outside NFSA’s purview. The green card has provisions similar to NFSA. But Korba says applying for the cards ends up costing R250-300; many families do not have this money.

Some 80 km from Sarhua, Dhumkhar Tola village in Manatu block of Palamu district is mostly inhabited by PVT community Parhiya. When asked, Rambha Devi, a resident, said she did have a ration card but could not produce it as it had been “deleted” and taken for correction by social workers seeking to help her case. Her family consists of her husband Amresh Parhiya, who works in Rajasthan as a daily wager, and two children. They do not own any land but have been farming on a vacant land nearby for years. Social worker Naresh Kumar says another family in the village has also had its ration card cancelled. The two families are able to avail foodgrains as social workers intervened and asked officials to refer to digital copies of the families’ old ration cards. Similar complaints are being heard across the block, says Naresh Kumar, adding that officials say they do not know the reason for the cancellation.

My husband works in Rajasthan and we have two small 
children. We have 
a ration card, but
it has been 
‘deleted’ from the PDS list. A social worker has taken it for correction  
— Rambha Devi Parhiya, Dhumkhar Tola village,
 Palamu district,Jharkhand (Photograph: Vikas Choudhary)

In Satbahini village located under the Sidki gram panchayat between Palamu and Chatra districts, resident Ajay Kumar says his father has a ration card, but the family has not been able to get a separate card for Ajay’s wife and children. “If we had a ration card, I would not worry that my children would starve,” says Ajay, who lives and works in Sirsa, Haryana. “I send a part of my income to the village every month so that they can buy foodgrains,” he says.

Brothers Sudhir Kumar, Santosh Kumar and Mithilesh Kumar, also residents of the village, face the same fate. While two of their other brothers were able to get separate ration cards after they got married, the three of them have not been able to do so despite years of efforts. “Our father, Babbu Yadav, has a ration card with names of all brothers. We have been trying to get separate cards since we got married, but our appli-cations keep getting rejected,” says Sudhir. “We were told that the state quota is full.”

Akhilesh Kumar, who runs the common service centre (that provides e-services in rural areas) of Pratapur in Chatra district, says the centre is visited by at least a dozen people every day. “Some applicants come for renewal of cancelled ration cards and many are fresh applicants. But officials say that ration cards cannot be made due to non-availability of quota.”

Two of my brothers and I have been trying to get separate cards for our families since we got married. Our applications keep getting rejected
— Sudhir Kumar (standing second from right), Satbahini village, Palamu district, Jharkhand (Photograph: Vikas Choudhary)Quota as per old census

A pattern emerges in the deletion of names of PDS card holders from the beneficiaries’ list.

Provisions of NFSA could have a role in this. The Act’s guaranteed coverage of 75 per cent rural and 50 per cent urban populations adds up to 67 per cent of the total population. According to Census 2011, the country’s total population was 1.21 billion; hence, the quota was set to cover 813 million people. However, the Centre fixed a separate state-wise quota based on population and poverty data. In Jharkhand, for example, the quota was 26.42 million. Till 2021, over 26 million or 99.95 per cent of the cards have been made, according to data submitted by the Centre in 2022 to the Supreme Court in an ongoing case on ensuring “right to food” to the country’s poorest populations.

But while the population has increased since 2011, the quota is yet to be adjusted accordingly. A 2021 estimate by economists Reetika Khera, Jean Dreze and Meghana Mungikar shows that over 100 million people are excluded from PDS under NFSA, including two million people in Jharkhand.

“Officials often say that due to the quota in NFSA, new ration cards are not being made. But when there is pressure on the leaders and officers to make new ration cards, they delete the old ones before even checking whether the beneficiaries are eligible or not,” claims James Herenj, convener of Jharkhand NREGA Watch, a civil society organisation that monitors activities under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), the Centre’s employment guarantee programme.

Note: Figures as of August 31, 2022
Source: Documents submitted by the Union government to the Supreme Court According to NFSA guidelines, the state government is responsible for identifying eligible households under the Act and for preparing guidelines to determine which households need to be prioritised. But the identification has to be aligned with the 75 per cent and 50 per cent ceilings fixed by Centre. Government data suggests that there is still scope for accommodating needy and vulnerable people, as many states have not met their quota. However, this view does not provide an entirely correct picture.

As per the data submitted to the Supreme Court, there is a 2 per cent margin left from the national ceiling—14 of the 36 states and Union Territories have exhausted their quota, while most of the remaining ones such as Odisha, Jharkhand, Assam, Rajasthan, Telangana, Tripura and Uttar Pradesh have covered 98-99 per cent of the eligible population.

“The 1-2 per cent margin will hardly cover one million out of the 100 million people currently excluded from NFSA. The states have very little breathing space left. Putting such an onus on them is a diversionary tactic.

The main point of focus should be to revise the population estimates,” says Khera, also an associate professor at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi.

Hunger pangs

In Rajasthan, exclusion of people from PDS has turned into a political fight revolving around NFSA ceilings.

On February 16, 2022, Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi informing that 7.4 million people in the state are still unable to access ration “due to the ceiling imposed by the central government”. Gehlot’s estimate was based on India’s population projection for 2021—some 1.36 billion—published by the National Commission of Population under the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. Gehlot appealed to Modi to raise the ceiling by 15 per cent.

Take the case of septuagenarian Noji Devi, who lives on the outskirts of Barmer town along with her 40-year-old daughter Mangidevi and son-in-law Jodharam. “My daughter suffers from mental illness and my son-in-law has cancer. They cannot earn or take care of themselves, and depend on me for survival,” Noji Devi tells DTE. She owns two cows, which are her only source of income. She also receives 40 kg of wheat under PDS (35 kg through NFSA and 5 kg from the state government’s provisions).

But it lasts barely 15 days as all the three people in the family share it. While her daughter and son-in-law are eligible for a below-poverty-line ration card under PDS, their requests for one keep getting denied. “We have a blue ration card, which indicates that we are above the poverty line.

We have provided the necessary medical records and documents, but all efforts have been futile,” says Jodharam. He claims to have visited the district collector to raise his concerns, but in vain. On the other hand, when DTE approached Barmar district collector Lok Bandhu, he denied having any information about this situation.

In Baramsar village of Hanumangarh district, about one-third of the households have not received any ration in the last few months. Visits by government officials and even a member of the state legislative assembly are yet to bring any relief for the residents. Baramsar has 250 households, says Chattaram, former member of the village gram panchayat. “At least 80 families are not receiving foodgrain from the government, despite being eligible,” he adds.

Devki, a 62-year-old resident, is one of the beneficiaries suffering due to this situation. Although she has a red ration card for the below-poverty-line population and is eligible for 35 kg of foodgrains a month, she receives only 10 kg from the local fair price shop. She often consumes just one meal a day to stretch her food supply. “The shopkeepers refuse to give me the entire quantity of foodgrains, saying that my fingerprints do not match with their records,” says Devki, who also relies on works under MGNREGA for income. “But even the amount of work available has been low for the past two years,” she says. Her age and low stamina also make it difficult to carry out much MGNREGA work.

Devki’s situation was not always so dire. When her husband and mother-in-law were alive, the family received the entire quantity of foodgrains they were entitled to. Her husband passed away about 25 years ago and mother-in-law around 2015. Devki also has a son, Deedaram, who is married and has a ration card. But he lives away from the village. Devki has approached all avenues for help, travelling even to Jaisalmer 15 km away, but to no avail.

Apart from the meagre 10 kg ration I get under PDS, I rely on income from works under MGNREGA. But even 
the amount of work available has been low for the past two years
— Devki, Baramsar, Jaisalmer, Rajasthan (Photograph: Himanshu)

Residents of many villages DTE visited in Rajasthan say the high expenditure on foodgrains is driving them into indebte-dness. Most of them have not received rations under PDS for years.

Rana Ram, a below-poverty-line ration card-holder from Baramsar village, has not received any benefits since 2015. “After getting married, I removed my name from my father’s ration card to apply for a new one. I received a card but do not receive subsidised foodgrains,” says Rana Ram. His family of three—which includes his wife and four-year-old child—depends on his father’s share of ration. Being a daily-wage worker, Rana Ram says his earnings are not enough and he constantly seeks odd jobs just for his family’s food requirements.

In Bandha village, Jaisalmer district, Lakshmi narrates a similar story. She used to be a homemaker. “My family stopped receiving ration in 2016 after the procuring process went online,” she says. Adverse financial conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic has forced her take up daily wage jobs. Adds Birdharam, another resident, “The majority of the people here are landless farm labourers or cattle-rearers. Free ration is the fine line between survival and starvation for us.” Many others from his village who are deprived of the PDS scheme have started selling their cattle. “The herd size has shrunk from 200 to 150 to even 50 in some cases,” he adds.

People left uncounted

NFSA enters its 10th year in 2023. So far, its estimate of beneficiaries has been based on population data from Census 2011. With the next census postponed, new estimates are not available.

Simple calculations suggest that more than 150 million people are currently excluded from PDS. To give a sense of exclusion due to use of the decade-old data, consider the Union government’s latest population estimate, 1.36 billion, or the projections by the World Economic Forum, which says that the country’s population currently stands at 1.417 billion, 207 million more than 2011. This means the 813 million people currently covered under NFSA form just 57 per cent of the total population, much lower than the mandated 67 per cent.

Going by the projected population provided by the World Economic Forum, the number of beneficiaries would be 950 million. This indicates 137 million people are excluded from NFSA or have not been given the foodgrains to which they are entitled. Add to this, those being excluded from within the two-thirds ceiling. According to the Centre’s own data, as of August 31, 2022, only 797 million people are receiving ration—16 million others are left out. This brings the total exclusion to 151 million. Delhi, for example, has 0.3 million pending applications with the food department for new ration cards. This would cover 1-1.2 million people, as per data accessed under the Right To Information Act by activists.

Updating the NFSA beneficiary list is now at the centre of the Supreme Court case, which was initially focused on struggles faced by “migrant workers” while accessing ration but has now expanded to the overall food security of the poor population. On June 29, 2021, the Supreme Court directed the Centre to re-determine the number of beneficiaries so that it is not restricted in accordance with the Census 2011. On July 18, 2022, the Centre filed an affidavit saying that Section 9 of NFSA requires coverage to be updated on the basis of latest census figures and that any change in the beneficiary list would only be possible either after an amendment in Section 9 passed by the Parliament or after the overdue census data is published.

The Union government admitted that dates for the initiation of the next census have not been finalised yet. Going by that logic, millions will continue to be excluded from the ration list indefinitely.

The apex court reiterated its stand on July 21, 2022 and asked the government to use population projections, following which, the government on October 10, 2022 said, “Once dates (for conducting census) are finalised and survey will complete, provisional census data will be published. However, publishing of final data of census will take more time and it may also vary with provisional one. After completion of census it will take three more months for the state-wise data.” This year, 2023, is the penultimate one before the Union government begins preparing for the 2024 general elections. So it can be said that the next census will take years to come.

On December 6, 2022, the apex court reiterated its order of updating the beneficiary list by observing: “It is in our culture to ensure that nobody goes to sleep empty stomach”. “Not using population projections goes against the spirit of the court judgement as it clearly said that government must re-determine the number of beneficiary card -holders under Section 9 of NFSA,” says Anjali Bharadwaj, one of the petitioners in the case. The government continues to tell the court that any exercise undertaken to re-examine NFSA coverage and alter the upper limits of the rural and urban ceilings, without the necessary census data, is “bound to be fraught with inaccuracies/assumptions and would be counter-productive to the entire exercise to identify the eligible and deserving beneficiaries to be included in the food safety net of the nation.”

“The delay in conducting the census is a government failure. Using the population projections is a no-brainer. The problem is that the government does not want to commit to adding another 100 million people to PDS,” says Khera.

We have a blue ration card, which indicates we are above the poverty line. We have provided necessary medical records and documents to obtain a below-poverty-line ration card, but all efforts have been futile
— Jodharam, Barmer, Rajasthan (Photograph: Himanshu)

Flawed reasoning

Then there is the issue of names being deleted from the official PDS list. The Centre does admit that there is large-scale deletion or cancellation of ration cards in the country.

According to data submitted by the government in the Supreme Court on October 10, 2022, some 2.2 million ration cards have been deleted or cancelled in 2021 alone. Since 2013, some 47.4 million cards have been deleted or cancelled; the highest being in Uttar Pradesh (17.3 million), followed by West Bengal (6.8 million) and Maharashtra (4.2 million).

On April 27, 2022, the Supreme Court also pulled up the Telangana government for reportedly deleting 1.9 million ration cards without giving the beneficiaries a chance to defend their cases. Following this, the state government decided to conduct a field verification of the cancelled cards.

The Centre claims names are constantly being removed from the list due to people not meeting the eligibility criteria, while new names are being added. It also claims that 47 million ration cards, equivalent to coverage of 180-190 million individuals, have been added under NFSA in 2013-21.

The logic behind deleting ration cards is that first, per capita income has increased since 2013 and lesser people will need subsidised ration; and second, it is part of the process of weeding out ineligible, duplicate, fake or ghost beneficiaries. The government told the apex court that since 2013, per capita income of population has increased in real terms by 33.4 per cent. This data was attributed to government think tank NITI Aayog. This rise is bound to have taken “a large number of households to higher income class” and that they may not be as vulnerable as they were in 2013-14. “One of the primary concerns while fixing the ceiling was that as standard of living would improve over a period of time the coverage may be gradually reduced. However government has consciously not reduced the coverage from the current ceiling of 75/50 per cent,” the government submits in the affidavit.

But experts opine that an increase in national income would not be distributed equally across the population. “We know that per capita increase does not mean everyone is benefitting.

Most of the increase is going to the better off,” says Khera. “This argument is misleading. Using increase in income as a metric for determining perc-entage of people who require rations under NFSA is inappropriate as it does not take into account the deep disparity and inequality in the concentration of income and wealth. The national income might have increased due to the income of certain individuals and families, but to take an average of that would be a disservice to those whose incomes have stayed the same or those who have slipped below the poverty line,” says Bhar-adwaj. The “State of Inequality in India Report”, commissioned by NITI Aayog and released in May 2022, highlights this as well. The share of the top 1 per cent earners accounts for 6-7 per cent of the total income earned. The periodic “Labour Force Survey 2019-20” by the Union Ministry of Labour also says that a monthly salary of R25,000 is amongst the top 10 per cent of the total wages earned.

India has not declared its poverty figures since 2011, measured on the basis of consumption expenditure surveys by the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO). Expenditure on consumption is accepted as a proxy for measuring income and income level is used to measure poverty. A cons-umption expenditure survey by NSSO in 2017-18 was to be released, but the government stopped its publication. The survey showed that poverty had increased in India. In the apex court, the Centre said it was not published “due to quality issues”. The new survey began in July 2022 and field work will be completed by June 2023. Data will be published six months later.

Moreover, the quotas in NFSA are not based on poverty estimates. “It was completely an arbitrary number and basically it was felt that time (2013) that this is the amount of food subsidy the government can afford, but poverty numbers were used during apportioning the number of ration cards across states,” explains Khera. “Coverage under PDS in rural areas is not 75 per cent throughout the country. In states like Bihar, Jharkhand and Odisha, it is more than the national average and that is where the government applied the poverty rate. Thus poorer states got more coverage and richer states got lower coverage,” she says.

If the government is serious about providing ration to the excluded vulnerable population, there is another source it can look towards: its own data from the e-shram registration portal.

The portal was launched in August 2021 by the Union labour ministry for registration of unorganised workers in the wake of the COVID-19-induced lockdowns. The portal has 284 million unorganised workers. In the ongoing case, the Supreme Court asked the government why ration cannot be provided to people without ration cards on the basis of registrations on the portal. The government said that it did not capture data on ration cards. But on the portal, two important datapoints captured are Aadhaar cards and income category. “The Aadhaar numbers must be seeded with the ration cards for the registered population. So it is quite simple for the government to figure out who has a ration card and who does not. The court has asked the government the purpose of this data-collecting exercise if not for providing right to food,” observes Bharadwaj. Similarly, data on income level shows that the self-declared annual income of over 90 per cent of those registered was less than R10,000 per month, which is the lowest slab on the portal. The income data, however, has now been pulled down.

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