New Delhi: “Hum yahaan subhe 8 baje se khade hain, itne log abhi aaye jaa rahe hain, itna bheed ho raha, bimaari toh yahaan ho jayega (We have been standing here since 8 in the morning. So many people are coming, it is so crowded, there is definitely chance of Covid infection here).”
Standing in the queue for ration outside the Greater Kailash (GK) 1 police station Saturday, Seeta Devi was tired, angry and anxious, finding herself sandwiched between two other women with social distancing going for a toss.
Seeta, 36, who works as a domestic help in East of Kailash, was one among the approximately 250 women waiting there for ration items, being distributed by local NGO Empowered Women’s Association (EWA).
An extended lockdown to beat the second surge in Covid cases in Delhi has left the underprivileged and daily wage earners in the city struggling to arrange food.
In Sundar Nagri, where Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal had once worked as an activist and drew the then government’s attention to grievances against the public distribution system (PDS), people said they feel let down by the government and the chief minister.
“Vote lene waqt ek ek jaane ko aake party ke karyakarta mile thhe picchle saal, par ab ration ek ko nahi mila (Last year, leaders from the party came and met each of the residents here while seeking votes for the Delhi assembly elections. But not one person has received ration here now),” said Komal, 35, a mother of four.
It has been four weeks since Kejriwal announced on 4 May that free food grains will be distributed to all ration card holders in the national capital in May and June. But many of those eligible for such relief told ThePrint that no such distribution has been made to them yet.
The situation is worse for those without ration cards. On 18 May, the CM announced free ration even for those who do not have a ration card and said the scheme would be implemented with “three-four days”.
In a letter to Kejriwal last week, NGO Delhi Rozi Roti Adhikar Abhiyan (DRRAA), which has repeatedly raised the issue of shortcomings in the PDS in Delhi, reminded the CM that the distribution of food grains to people without ration cards was yet to begin, despite the Delhi government’s announcement and even directions from the Supreme Court to that effect. The absence of ration distribution by the authorities, said the NGO, was “forcing people to rely on private charities and neighbours for food and in many places people are being forced to beg for food”.
Earlier last week, the Delhi HC heard a plea moved on behalf of seven families who claimed that though they didn’t have ration cards, they had lost their earning members to Covid or lost jobs owing to the pandemic and were in desperate need for relief as they had no other sources of livelihood.
According to an announcement on the Delhi government website, the authorities would soon start food grain distribution for those without ration cards. An Aadhaar card is all that will be required as proof of identity. But the people in this category ThePrint spoke to said they were yet to receive any such aid from the government.
A link on the Delhi government website to apply for a temporary ration card wasn’t working either, when ThePrint checked.
In Sundar Nagari, Kejriwal once fought against PDS woes
A small working-class colony in Dilshad Garden, on the margins of the capital, Sundar Nagri is inhabited mostly by families of weavers and bangle makers, who live in jhuggis (slum). The area is densely populated and little adherence to social distancing and Covid-appropriate behaviour can be seen.
Kejriwal had once worked here for an organisation, Parivartan, which was into grass roots activism. During the 2000s, Parivartan had successfully used the Right to Information (RTI) Act to address grievances related to PDS, before Kejriwal and other leaders of the organisation, including now Deputy CM Manish Sisodia, went on to launch the Aam Aadmi Party in 2012.
Sundar Nagri resident Komal’s husband, a driver, has been unemployed for a while. To make ends meet, Komal rents out bicycles to children in the colony, charging Rs 5 for a 15-minute ride. “I earn about Rs 50 a day, some days Rs 75. That’s how I have been buying food for my family,” said Komal, adding that people here were yet to receive the free ration promised by the chief minister.
There’s a lot of anger and frustration, and a sense betrayal, among the people here against the Delhi government.
Thirty-six-year-old Sonu, a shopkeeper in Sundar Nagari’s J Block colony, lost his father to Covid last month. He doesn’t have a ration card.
“We are a family of five, but we have no idea when the government will start distributing ration to us. We only have our Aadhaar card,” said Sonu, adding that he always voted for Arvind Kejriwal but was not sure if he will do so the next time.
Another resident of the area, weaver Safid Ahmed, told ThePrint that he had gone to the sub-divisional magistrate’s (SDM) office in Dilshad Garden three times in the past two months to apply for a ration card, only to return empty handed. “I was told it (his ration application) was cancelled. Now where else do I go,” he said, sitting despondently on the stairs leading to his one-room home in H Block Colony.
Ahmed and his wife have been surviving on ration received from Action India, an NGO operating in the area, he said.
Another resident, Azher and his two brothers share a small house in Sundar Nagari with 16 other members of the family. The only ration card they have is that of their mother, who died a few years ago. But the family continues to use it, to get ration meant for one person.
One help from the government that the people here have is a camp distributing cooked food — it was rice and dal Monday — organised by the Delhi government. Many people were seen queuing up for the food when ThePrint visited the area Monday.
Delhi govt’s promise are ‘words on paper’
According to the Delhi government’s estimates, approximately 2 million people who don’t have ration cards will be eligible to receive 5 kg food grain at 100 per cent subsidy, as part of its lockdown relief measures.
“The distribution will be done at 280 government schools,” Delhi Food and Civil Supplies Minister Imran Hussain told the media Friday.
“Needy people who don’t possess ration cards, including unorganised workers, migrant workers, building and construction workers, domestic helps, are eligible to receive food grains under this relief initiative. Ration will be provided to a maximum of 2 lakh beneficiaries in the initial phase,” he said, adding that the initiative could be extended later to cover up to 20 lakh beneficiaries depending on demand and after need assessment from the field.
When ThePrint questioned him about the delay in the implementation of the scheme, Hussain said Monday: “We had selected the schools where ration was to be distributed to those without ration cards, but we are having to relocate some of these centres.” He added: “We also sent our requirement details to FCI (Food Corporation of India) today (Monday) and they will get back to us soon, so we hope to start ration distribution by the end of the week.”
Meanwhile, according to an audit of ration shops conducted by DRRAA, 40 per cent of the shops visited by volunteers of the NGO were found closed during working hours. Of the 110 shops visited across Delhi, only 44 were found to be distributing grains to ration cardholders between 15 and 29 May.
DRRAA member Anjali Bhardwaj said: “Lockdown was imposed in Delhi six weeks ago and this has resulted in ceasing income and earning opportunities for the working poor,” adding: “Many people weren’t even in a position to receive two meals a day.”
Bhardwaj told ThePrint that her NGO had received 1.8 million SOS requests for ration in the May.
According to data shared by the Housing and Land Rights Network, a Delhi-based NGO, there are 17 lakh homeless people in India. In Delhi alone, there are 1,50,000-2,00,000 homeless people.
The Delhi government had distributed food grains and other essential commodities to nearly 60 lakh people without ration cards during the first Covid wave, but this time it seems to have faltered on its promise.
Meanwhile in GK 1
Meanwhile, in Delhi’s upmarket GK 1, many women like Seeta Devi could be seen gathering at the local police station Saturday afternoon as word had spread that ration will be distributed here.
“Mujhe toh pata nahi, mere malkin ne bola yahaan aaj ration milega toh main aa gayi (The owner of the house where I work as domestic help told me that ration will be distributed here today, so I came),” said Manju Rani, standing with her 6-year-old son waiting for her turn.
The ration camp had been organised by the NGO EWA for the women who work as domestic help and do the jobs in the area.
Though the ration distribution was to start at 12.45 pm, people had started gathering from hours before. Many were accompanied by their children, as they waited under the hot sun in the queue that stretched around 2.5 km.
“Arvind Kejriwal bolta rehta hai ration dega, humein toh aaj tak kuch nahi mila. Mere chaar bachhein hai, main kaha jayega, yahaan itna bheed hai, kya fayda hua (Kejriwal keeps promising ration, but we have got nothing. I have four children. Where do I go? This place too is so crowded, what’s the point),” said Santosh Singh, holding on to a copy of her Aadhaar card. “Kejriwal paper mein ad badi badi deta hai, par humein toh aaj tak ration nahi mila (Kejriwal gives big ads in paper, but we haven’t got ration till date).”
(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)