At 9 am, Harlal Bhil, 60, is in his neighbour’s hut to prepare his first meal of the day. He grinds a paste of garlic, onion, and a few leaves of coriander that he and his wife, Tulsibai then eat with a ‘roti’ leftover from the previous evening.
Their small hut at one end of Ganpatkheda hamlet in Bhadesar in Chittorgarh district, Rajasthan, has two pots, and four kilos of wheat flour stacked away in a corner. “We manage to eat a vegetable like potato about half the month. The other 15 days we eat rotis with chillies,” says Bhil.
The years of working as a ‘hali’, or a bonded labourer, and a diet that verges on starvation, has robbed Bhil not just of his energy but his youth. He is pre-maturely old and frail. All his life he worked for a local landlord. Then, a few years ago, the landlord found that he was too weak to work long hours and turned him away. Today, Bhil ekes out an existence through daily wage work. This means he can only work when he is able to do so. For the last week or so, he was too unwell to work – harvesting groundnuts on a local farm – but he hopes to go back to the fields soon.
If life has treated Harlal Bhil badly, Tulsibai has also not been spared. She once tended cattle on the farm of the same landlord on whose lands her husband had slaved for so many years. But today, every move Tulsibai makes is excruciating for her. She has arthritis. In the absence of treatment, her fingers have got deformed and she is now unable to work. With the wages Bhil manages to earn once every few days, the family buys groceries to last for a few days.
Officially, Bhil and his wife do not exist on state records. They have no ration card – or an MGNREGA job card for that matter. So they procure foodgrain from other ration card holders in the village, who are willing to sell a share of their rations cheaper than the market price.
A few huts away from Harlal and Tulsibai live Ratni Bhil and her sister, Nari Bhil. They are fortunate to have youth on their side, being in their late 20s. But their lives too are circumscribed by the fact that their husbands work as bonded labourers and their households, too, are not on the radar of the government’s Public Distribution System (PDS). So they have to run the household on very little. Ratni explains how she does this, “Over the last few weeks, I have been able to get ‘methi’ leaves (fenugreek) from our landlord’s fields once a week. I dry them and keep some aside to boil. This we eat on days we cannot afford vegetables,” she says. ‘Methi’, incidentally, is only freely available in winter. So, with summer, this source of nutrition comes to an end.
Not having a ration card, Ratni’s family depends on the landlord from whom they borrowed Rs 35,000 (US$1=Rs 48.7) five years ago to procure foodgrains in bulk to keep the household going. “My husband works without wages on the farm in lieu of this debt; I go to work on the same farm three-four days of the week, too. The landlord gives us wheat once every few weeks,” she says. Rotis and black tea – milk is not available because the family does not own any cattle – is the staple diet, not just for her and her husband, but for their three little three children as well.
Both Ratni and Nari did find some work under the MGNREGA in 2010 but they express their disappointment that they did not get paid for their labour until a few months after the work got over.
In the absence of credit and any social security, they cannot but depend on the local landlords for loans to tide over expenses incurred over an illness or to meet expenses for a wedding in the family. Working on the farms from morning until evening, and often being required to live on the farm as well, these families are the first to slip through the cracks. In May 2010, the Rajasthan government began PDS reform – increasing foodgrains subsidy, delivering grains straight to ration shops to reduce scope for pilferage during transportation by ration shop dealers, fixing a week every month when ration shops must stay open, and creating a ‘state BPL list’ to extend the benefit of ration cards to a greater number of rural families. Despite improvements, groups like these Bhil families working as bonded labourers continue to be left out of social security nets.
“In the 2007 PDS survey, a government team came and collected information on 13 counts through a questionnaire. At the end of the survey, they recorded only three families as BPL in Ganpatkheda when at least 25 families should have been BPL going by the same criteria,” says Khemraj of Khetihar Khan Mazdoor Sangathan in Bhadesar, Chittorgarh, adding, “We got the district officials to revise the list but some of the poorest families are still out of it.”
The deaths of 47 Sahariya tribals due to malnutrition and hunger during the drought of 2001 had triggered a Public Interest Litigation by the People Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) in the Supreme Court. That case went on to become the basis for civil society’s demand for the right to food. But, today, over a decade later, the most vulnerable within the Sahariyas remain in a state of near-starvation.
The government has, with some prodding from the Supreme Court, tried to put a safety net in place for the poorest of the poor, but the interventions continue to be patchy. For instance, Brahmapura village in Kishanganj block of Baran district where seven Sahariyas died of starvation in 2004 now has a functioning anganwadi and local residents say they are able to claim the 35 kilos of grain they are entitled to under the Antodaya scheme. But less than 10 kilometres away, in Sevni village, families living at the edge of the village, lack even ration cards.
“We eat a vegetable two to five days every month. I try to give it to the children,” says Vimla Sahariya, whose husband Ranbir has worked as a bonded labourer on a Thakur landowner’s farm for 10 years now. Her son, Raju, 10, became a ‘hali’ last year after the family borrowed Rs 3,500 from the same landlord. The family pays interest on the cash loan as well as the wheat they take from the landlord from time to time.
It is the poorest who get left out of the distribution of public rations, which is why the argument for universalising PDS – that states like Tamil Nadu had introduced years ago – is so convincing. “The biggest concern with respect to the draft National Food Security Bill pertains to PDS entitlements. Classifying households into APL-BPL has been a disaster in both 1997 and 2002, half of the poor did not get BPL cards,” says Reetika Khera, an economist and author of a recent study on PDS. She points out that “general” and “priority” households under the proposed food act will boil down to continuing the same categories with new names.
The question – who gets left out of the PDS? – should inform policy making on this crucial front, if Harlal, Ratni and innumerable others, are to be spared the daily desperation of having to stave off the spectre of starvation.