The year gone by has seen many firsts. We’ve been fighting an invisible enemy across the globe. It has cost many people their livelihoods, homes and even their lives. Most people have found it increasingly difficult to support themselves financially, and gender and sexual minorities more so. In these situations, many people have become increasingly dependent on social security programmes – which unfortunately are pretty stretched because of the vagaries of governance.
Food security, as a concept, has many facets to it. It’s not about receiving enough food to survive. It’s about receiving adequate nutrition to be able to live a life worth living. The right to food is a human right recognized both under national and international law. It aids in living with dignity. While India produces enough food to feed all its teeming millions, several people go without adequate food.
Since the 1940s, the Indian government has tried to supplement the needs of families through the Public Distribution System (PDS). In order to access food grains through the PDS, a system of ration cards was introduced. These cards made it possible for families to receive a particular amount of varied food grains. This wasn’t meant to be the primary source of food grains, rather, a supplement to what a family put together.
While many middle class and upper middle class people have let go of this supplement, several people who have a low income as well as those living below the poverty line are still dependent on this supplement. Till the year 1997, the PDS provided food grains without taking harsh ground level realities into consideration. Thus, several people below the poverty line were falling through the sieve. Moreover, there was a lack of transparency, and there was a general feeling that the well-off were profiting from the system. Even today, several people who are ineligible for ration cards hold onto them, while others who live in abject poverty don’t have them.
What started in 1997 was an overhaul of the system with a targeted PDS that mapped the people in different states as either above poverty line or below poverty line. In 2000, the Antyodaya Anna Yojana was launched to disburse highly subsidized food grains to the ‘poorest of the poor’. Among other people this scheme also served people below the poverty line who were living with HIV.
Despite being a huge step in the right direction, there were several failures in the new system. A performance evaluation of the new PDS showed that the people below the poverty line actually got less than a rupee of every three rupees or so spent by the central government on the system. This led to the National Food Security Act in 2013 (also called the Right to Food Act), which brought many different food distribution schemes under its purview as not supplements to daily lives but as legal entitlements. Today, it’s one of the largest social security programmes in the world.
Food security and gender inequity
In August 2020, in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, the central government was forced to acknowledge the condition of the migrant labourers who had been rendered jobless. The government started urging the states to unify the ration cards so that the migrant labourers could avail food grains with greater ease. But smooth implementation depended on the states.
Several states have also implemented additional ration cards to safeguard particular populations. In August 2020, the Chief Minister of West Bengal announced the extension of ration cards for the transgender populations of the state under the existing PDS. However, while the ration cards may have reached many of the transgender people who registered for it, the amount of free rations is abysmal!
Mith Mukherjee, a self-identified transgender man from Barasat town in West Bengal shared with me that he got a ration card where he is registered as a transgender person. On applying, he was given a coupon to use till he received the actual ration card. The ration card has been extended under the West Bengal Rajya Khadya Suraksha Yojana I category.
When Mith went to the fair price shop with his coupon, he received two kilos of rice and three kilos of wheat for a month, which is a fraction of what other people were receiving under different categories. On asking the vendor about his eligibility, he was informed that transgender people would be receiving this much assistance and no more! The quality of the rations provided also left much to be desired.
A friend of Mith’s, who is also a transgender man, has been receiving far more rations compared to what Mith has been receiving. Apparently, this is because his ration card has his old gender marker as female.
When it’s a well-known fact that transgender people in India have been historically marginalized, and are still marginalized socially and economically, despite gaining legal rights, how are such limited supplemental rations supposed to help them? The amounts provided would barely cover the carbohydrates required for one person over a week to a fortnight. The bigger question is why should transgender people receive lesser rations than other citizens of India!
Food security in India is an extremely serious issue. While several systems have been put in place, a lack of ground-level checks and a discriminatory notion of the realities surrounding marginalized people still prevent these systems from reaching the people who most need them.
Adequate food is not and should never be a ‘privilege’. As 2020 draws to a close, the coronavirus pandemic still rages across the globe. It’s time India revisits all the systems that are in place which are supposed to come to the aid of its citizenry but have failed so many at this crucial juncture.