New Delhi, India – Tabassum Nisha lives in a shanty in a cramped corner of New Delhi’s Malviya Nagar neighbourhood with her five children.
The 38-year-old widow, who worked as a housemaid, used to survive on a monthly income of $50 when she needed more than twice that amount to feed her children.
Barely able to make ends meet, Nisha lost her job when a sudden lockdown was announced by the Indian government in March last year to contain the coronavirus pandemic.
She somehow fed her children during the months-long lockdown, seeking small loans from neighbours and shopkeepers. When they stopped helping her, she sought help from charities in the city.
It became increasingly difficult for Nisha to feed her children, and she married off her 18-year-old daughter in December last year to reduce her burden.
Nisha thought the lockdown would not last longer than 2020. But another one was announced in April this year as the country faced a brutal second wave of the virus.
This time, there were no charities around to feed her and her children. She said she survived the second lockdown on one meal a day.
Now the anticipation of a third COVID lockdown leaves her in fear of starving to death.
Nisha is among millions of India’s poor who have been excluded from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s flagship food security scheme, the Pradhan Mantri Ghareeb Kalyan Ann Yojana (PMGKAY). Reason: they do not own a ration card.
The ration card is a document issued by various state governments to households eligible to purchase subsidised food grains from the public distribution system under the National Food Security Act (NFSA).
Ration cards based on 2011 census
Since 2013, Nisha has applied for a ration card – three times. Despite her eligibility, it was never issued.
The PMGKAY, which boasts of being the largest food security programme in the world, aims to feed India’s poorest during the pandemic. It provides five kilogrammes (11 pounds) of free rice or wheat and one kilogramme (two pounds) of pulses per person to each family holding a ration card, in addition to regular entitlements that come with the card.
However, Nisha cannot get one because Delhi state, where she lives, has exhausted its quota of the number of people who can be issued a ration card.
In 2021, 22 out of 29 states in India had less than 5 percent of their quota remaining.
That is because the quota is based on the 2011 census, making it a gross underestimate. The next census, scheduled to be completed this year, has been delayed indefinitely due to the pandemic.
Meanwhile, in a decade, there has been a substantial increase in the number of people not covered under the NFSA.
Consider this. When the Delhi government in 2020 announced it would give food grains without ration cards as a temporary pandemic measure, on top of the 7.3 million people who had ration cards, more than 6.9 million others who did not have a card also turned up.
“Such is an underestimate of ration card quotas that almost half of Delhi’s population that needs food security in a pandemic is excluded from the primary food security scheme,” Amrita Johri, a member of the Right to Food campaign, told Al Jazeera.
Like Nisha, 51-year-old Rahela, who goes by one name, applied for a ration card in 2018. Radha, 37 applied in 2019 and Haripyari, 22, in 2021. All of them are waiting to hear from the government.
Others like Rani Devi, 60, and Nuzat Bano, 22, are unable to apply at all because of the complex requirements of eligibility, such as a proof of residence, electricity bills and other documents.
“If this is the condition in the national capital, what would be the state in India’s rural areas?” Johri asked.
‘We also might die of hunger’
The direct outcome of a defective public distribution system is the exclusion of India’s most vulnerable, people already reeling with hunger and joblessness during a pandemic.
The phenomenon has even led to some people starving to death.
Last year, five-year-old Sonia died in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh state’s Agra city because her family had nothing to eat for 15 days during the coronavirus lockdown. The girl’s family was issued a ration card after her death made headlines.
“If we do not get a ration card before the third wave, we also might die of hunger,” Rahela, who has a family of four to feed, told Al Jazeera.
The NFSA covers 50 percent of India’s urban and 75 percent of the rural population, providing them subsidised food grains under the public distribution system through ration cards.
The distribution of cards by state was last determined by India’s Planning Commission, using National Sample Survey (NSS) Household Consumption Survey data for 2011-2012.
More than 10 years have elapsed since the publication of that data, with experts such as Dipa Sinha, assistant professor of economics at New Delhi’s Ambedkar University, calling it “policy blindness”.
“The government is aware of this huge gap on paper and on the ground. They don’t want to increase the subsidy on food grains because increasing the subsidy would directly increase India’s fiscal deficit. This despite surplus grains available in India,” Sinha told Al Jazeera.
Currently, India’s granaries, controlled by the Food Corporation of India, are overflowing with a record 100 million metric tonnes of grains – about three times the norm for buffer stock.
‘Fine line between death and life’
In May 2020, when visuals of a massive exodus of migrant workers walking down highways started playing on television screens, India’s Supreme Court took action, unprompted.
The top court acknowledged that most migrant workers suffering from hunger and extreme poverty were excluded from the public distribution system since they did not have ration cards.
“Facing flak, the government in May 2020 announced that it would provide ration to 80 million people who do not have ration cards, but only for the months of May and June,” said Johri.
“However, even this was not implemented properly. Data shows that government could identify and distribute food grains to only 28 million beneficiaries.”
Johri said states such as Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat and Uttarakhand distributed less than 3 percent of the food grains sanctioned to them.
When a similar situation arose in 2021, the government told the top court on June 9 that its 2020 scheme had only been valid for two months and that it had told states to set up their own schemes according to needs.
Some states gave no grain to those without ration cards while some states provided a one-time relief.
In the absence of a job, Nisha said she often starves herself to feed her children.
“I want to educate my kids. That is why I have not forced them into child labour. I don’t remember when I last fed them milk or eggs. We mostly eat potatoes as it is the cheapest to get,” she told Al Jazeera.
India was ranked 94th – or “alarming” – in the Global Hunger Index 2020 of 107 countries.
“The government is not accepting that people are starving. There is a general notion that lockdown causes hunger, while all is well after that. There are no jobs, the informal economy is hugely impacted by the pandemic and the government refuses to see it,” Sinha said.
When Al Jazeera visited Rani Devi’s shanty, she had nothing to eat except frozen fat and salt. The 60-year-old widow is responsible for feeding her three grandchildren.
Her 14-year-old grandson is a rickshaw puller and the sole earner in the family. He earns between $4-5 a day.
“The government does not realise that exclusion error is more serious than inclusion error. Often, the poor quality of cereals and grains that are provided under the public distribution system is a fine line between death and life,” Sinha told Al Jazeera.
“If Sonia’s family had a ration card, she might still be malnutritioned but alive.”
In 2016, the Supreme Court ruled that food grains should not be denied in absence of a ration card to those who need it.
This year, the top court reiterated its order, adding that the quota should be revised to the current estimates of the population. The court also directed all state governments to provide dry rations to the hungry for as long as the pandemic continues in India.
“However, no such scheme has been devised so far by the state governments,” activist Anjali Bhardwaj told Al Jazeera. She said she has sent legal notices to several states, asking why they failed to comply with the direction of the Supreme Court.
In a reply to Bhardwaj on August 24, the federal ministry of consumer affairs, food and public distribution said any revision in quota estimates will be possible only after the publication of the next census.
“Most likely, the next census will be published once the pandemic is over. What will these people do during the pandemic? Will they starve?” asked Bhardwaj.
“Time and again, the courts have upheld not just a citizen’s right to life but also citizen’s right to live with dignity. What dignity is left when a person is forced to beg for food?”