As those in power will continue to use Covid 19 as a tool and excuse to further deprive the already deprived, there is an urgent appeal to use the Covid 19 crisis to highlight the crisis of our democracy.
The Right to Food & Work Network (RTFWN) in the Time of Covid
Since the past 6 months the country has entered different phases of lockdown and unlock, however, as big businesses are set to re-open and flights are ready to take off again; with shopping malls opening but not schools; with no flattening of the curve of Corona cases while the curve for the economy turns into a “K” hence widening the divide between the rich and the poor, we as a Rights based Network have much to worry about.
The Right to Food and Work Network has been striving to advocate and secure the fundamental rights of life- food and work for the most vulnerable in our society since the past 20 years. The lockdown brought with it a fresh wave of deprivation and hence vigour to the Network’s efforts. The violations of the provisions under the National Food Security Act and the MGNREGA, became glaring as we undertook preliminary analysis of these public welfare systems and keep getting distressing stories from the grassroots.
In the initial months of the lockdown from April-May we personally experienced thousands desperate to return to their ‘homes’ in West Bengal. We worked closely in co-ordinating and providing support to all without questioning for a moment what was it that they were even returning to. Four months down the line and those very same labourers are restless to get back to work while many have already set-off. What the governments have to say about Corona does not seem to matter to them anymore. Many returned home with little or no savings remaining and the thought of having to endure a festive season with nothing to offer their families, is worse than the virus they feel. Perhaps if the festivities were declared to be cancelled, their pain would be of a lesser intensity.
Shocking Experiences & Findings since Nation-wide Lockdown
PM Modi famously stated as a justification in the beginning of the lockdown “Jaan Hai to Jahan Hai” (We save our lives , We save our world ) But can a hungry person be saved? asks the Right to Food and Work Network , West Bengal.
The most shocking deprivation has been the theft of food from children and pregnant and lactating mothers. The National Food Security Act, 2013 (Section 8) promises a food security allowance of cash and food grains in lieu of a hot cooked meal to children in schools and anganwadi centres. A closer look at the Midday Meal Scheme and ICDS has shown that children, pregnant and lactating women, have only been distributed potatoes and rice after the lockdown. The
shortfall between what they should have received in schools and what they actually got is almost 24000 tonnes of food grains and Rs. 269 crores in cash. In the anganwadis under ICDS, the shortfall is of 10726 tonnes of pulses, over 2000 tonnes of food grains and 383288976 eggs. At state level then, in terms of financial unaccountability, a massive sum of Rs 424 crores and 75 lakhs, has been stolen from the rightful share of the ICDS beneficiaries up until now. In addition, as per field reports and Government websites, we could not find a single pregnant woman who has received Rs.6000 as maternity benefit after lockdown, which is the right of every pregnant woman under the NFSA.
In monetary terms, the State Government has thus received its rightful share of funds for ICDS and MDMs from the Central Government, but has deprived children and mothers of at least Rs. 693.75 crores in this time of hunger, unemployment and deprivation.
The National Food Security Act requires the Central Government to cover 67% of West Bengal’s population under Central schemes. The number of people covered were based on the 2011 Census and have remained at 6.01 crores since the inception of the Act in 2013. However, today with a population of 9.6 crores, this amounts to only 62% of our State’s population. Thus, a huge number (38% or 3.5 crores) remain uncovered. With food grain stocks at 94.42 million tonnes as on July 1, the Central government continues to sit like a hoarder on a huge pile of food grains which have been bought from our tax payers’ money, while our people go hungry.
The results of such negligence are visible on the ground. We have received heart-wrenching reports of a starvation death of a 10 year old boy in Purulia, because the family did not have ration cards. Similarly, extremely vulnerable sections of the population like sex workers, differently abled and senior citizens, migrant labourers, survivors of domestic violence and acid attacks continue to be without ration cards and on the verge of starvation. A quick survey of 18 tea gardens highlighted that more than 3500 people did not possess ration cards of any sort. A food aid program in April, 2020 showed 263 people with no ration cards and amongst them were beggars, senior citizens. disabled people etc. Repeated attempts by people to get temporary food coupons in Naihati and Maheshtala have fallen on deaf ears. We as a Network have repeatedly made Representations to the concerned Departments of Food & Supplies, Women and Child Development and the Chief Secretary but have not received a single response or acknowledgement yet.
The PM announced extension of free grains distribution (under PMGKAY) till November 2020 and the CM raised our hopes by further extending this to June 2021. However, recent news reports show that West Bengal is one of the laggard states in distributing the allocated pulses. The state has distributed only 59 per cent of its quota of grains till June 30. And more than a month later, the situation has not improved with latest news showing that only 6% of the chana dal has been distributed and 61% beneficiaries have received their allocations.
In addition to this, even those in possession of a ration card are being deprived their rightful share. In the tea gardens of Siliguri sub-division, Darjeeling district, not a single Antodaya Anna Yojana card holder received the promised additional ration of 5kg/person for a period lasting three months under NFSA.
The most recent blow comes as the State Government instead of rectifying these injustices, has announced a deduction in Rajya Khadya Suraksha Yojana II (RKSY II) allotments. While free rations till June 2021 were promised by Smt Mamata Banerjee on 1st July, in August itself RKSY II holders have all of a sudden been allotted only 1 kg rice and 1 kg atta free of cost, instead of the 5 kgs of free rice per head that they got from May to July.
It is ironic that despite such blatant disregard for people’s rights, both Central and State Governments are carrying on wasting valuable public money to advertise their great efforts to provide food to the people. These advertisements ring hollow when compared to the ground reality.
The Action Week
In this situation the RTFWN along with its member organisations called for a state wide campaign to raise our grievances and exercise our right to question our very own elected government for claiming our very own legal entitlements.
After State level virtual meetings at the North Bengal and South Bengal levels, the Network decided to call for an observance of an Action Week from 8th-15th September as the last day would also coincide with the International Day of Democracy.
Throughout the week, member organisations of RTFWN held localised demonstrations in small numbers maintaining physical distancing and raising socio-political questions. In 15 districts from the tea garden workers in North Bengal to the weavers in Nadia and beedi-workers of Murshidabad, from the sec-workers in Kolkata to the erst-while enclave dwellers of Cooch Behar, thousands raised their grievances and put forth their demands. Posters were stuck and leaflets were distributed, as ‘voices’ could not be raised too much through masks and in small numbers. Walls were painted, silent rallies went through villages and small meetings held to discuss and organise for future a course of action. Deputations were submitted to concerned government authorities and social media campaigns run. On the last day, a virtual discussion was organised to bring together these voices of deprivation and struggle from different quarters of the state and fields of work.
Is talking about even ‘hunger’ now a crime?
On 9th September, the second day of the Action Week being organised by the Right to Food and Work Campaign, West Bengal, a group of women holding peaceful and silent gatherings in suburban East Kolkata were heckled and forced to break off their meetings. Their fault? They were distributing and discussing about their very own rights to food security.
An organisation, working with homeless women/pavement dwellers in some of the most difficult spots of the city had decided to distribute some leaflets and hold some posters in the sweltering heat of the afternoon because they knew they were the worst affected form the pandemic induced lockdown. They knew it not because any of the news channels had spoken about it but because they were living it. The opportunity to unite and express your grievances in a genuine manner without political party overtones, is rare in our state. These women did not want to loose this opportunity. But they had to pay a price for it. The organisers, many of them being young girls, were picked up and taken to the Borough Chairman’s office. What followed was a volley of intimidating questions and threats.
This incident is not in isolation. A number of other member organisations and their activists have been facing difficulty in trying to bring people together in this lockdown situation, not for the lockdown but due to the mounting political part rivalry that chokes any ‘free’ voice. ‘When we went to ask for MGNREGA work form the Department, since we have been without any work since lockdown, the local party people stop us and even a woman was beaten up’ says a distraught old-time activist referring to an incident in Uttar Dinajpur. A female activist from Howrah, working with the zari workers of the region, expresses similar anguish as she faces opposition again from similar forces which are of course male. She had initiated some food relief packages for the most vulnerable in the locality but the Panchayat Samiti had a number of unnecessary questions in store for her. We, at the Right to Food and Work Campaign, are afraid of this growing reality especially in a state ruled by not the Central political party and hence apparently non-conservative in nature.
The Pujos are in the air instead of Corona
With the CM making it clear that the major festival of the state will be held as always with a number of unclear precautions in place, the fear of the virus seems to have taken a backseat. As the people of Bengal venture out to shop and prepare for their revelry, one can only hope that the virus gets afraid with the hullabaloo and cacophony of the city, following our PM led nation-wide ‘thali bajao and Corona bhagao’ experiment. One wonders why the BJP led Opposition in the state does not seem to have any problem with this decision, and the explanation is not too difficult. With the Assembly elections next year, an event like the Durga Pujas (Dussera) cannot be sacrificed, not so much for the millions squeezing a meagre livelihood out off it but rather for the enormous opportunity and platform it provides political parties to campaign and buy/woo supporters and votes. While the CM has already announced a package of Rs 50,000 for each organising committee of the Puja, we do not want to venture into that enormous calculation. After all, it is public tax-payers money and why not ask if they would rather have it spent on the millions lying unemployed and broken by the consequences of this global pandemic. While we steer clear of asking moralistic questions of whether the right to enjoy /to entertain/to practice one’s religion is greater than the right to work and the right to food, but we cannot stand back from demanding that the least the government can do is right the wrongs already committed. Or will the festivities ‘mask’ not only Corona but also the injustices done to the marginalised women and children of the state who have been deprived of their legal entitlements during the lockdown, to those promised free rations, to those who are entitled to a minimum wage job guarantee?
It seems the entire democratic machinery prefers the fifth and most crucial pillar- its citizens, to rather fold their hands and prey to the divinity of goddess Durga, than ask questions and demand their rights from their elected human representatives.
Mrinalini Paul is pursuing a Mphil-Phd from TISS. During initial days of the lockdown she volunteered with the Right to Food and Work Network, West Bengal chapter.