On Friday, some fair price shops in Mumbai told customers that wheat and rice are not both available, and customers were asked to return home with one of the other. (Rerpresentational Image)
Nine days into the nationwide lockdown to tackle the spread of COVID-19, the urban poor in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region continue to face difficulties in purchasing subsidised foodgrain under the public distribution system (PDS) despite assurances from the state government that the supply of essential goods will be seamless.
According to residents and activists working on Right to Food, while there is some improvement in availability of PDS supplies, this is insufficient in the face of a rising number of people who are in need of the subsidised foodgrain supplies.
On Friday, some fair price shops in Mumbai told customers that wheat and rice are not both available, and customers were asked to return home with one of the other. According to activists, some shops are closed despite the government order to stay open, while elsewhere shops have put up boards saying subsidised grain will be made available to ration card-holders on a certain date.
“At this point of time when poor people have no income to make purchases at retail shops, how can the PDS foodgrain still not be made available?” asked Mukta Srivastava, Maharashtra convener of the Anna Adhikar Abhiyaan, a pan-India movement.
The situation is the same in large parts of suburban Mumbai, Thane and Vasai-Palghar, said Taruna Kumbhar of the Rationing Kruti Samiti, with most shopowners citing delays in getting supplies or unloading supplies. She added that regional offices of PDS controller have confirmed that it will be a couple of days more before the situation eases. In some places, shops are giving grain from the previous month’s leftover quota.
In the eastern suburbs, in areas such as Ashok Nagar and Adarsh Nagar around Vashi Naka, those with Antyodaya cards, who are entitled to 35 kg of grain per family per month, are getting between 8 kg and 10 kg, said Husna Khan, an activist with the Rationing Kruti Samiti.
“This is a time when people have run out of money and foodgrain. If the government is prohibiting people from working, it should at least make sure that the foodgrain that is the people’s right is supplied to them correctly,” she said, recounting instances of poor card-holders facing verbal abuse at fair price shops if they demand their full quota.
In these areas too, Khan said, there are shops where people have been asked to return after three or four days for their subsidised grain. “There are also instances of black marketing of the grain meant for the poor. The same shops where people are getting less than half their quota of PDS grain are selling grain at Rs 25 a kg or more,” Khan said.
Another problem that is arising is of areas sealed off by the municipality as containment zones due to the presence of one or more COVID-19 patients. “The fair price shopowner in such an area is naturally asking how he should provide grain to a person from such a sealed off space, because there are genuine health concerns. The state has to step in here and make sure that rations for the poor who live inside containment zones is delivered to their doorsteps,” said Kumbhar.
She added that the Rationing Kruti Samiti is seeking identification cards from the government for its volunteers to spread out in different areas in order to assess and report back to the state on the ground reality regarding access to subsidised foodgrain.
6.94 lakh quintal foodgrain given to 28.69 lakh card holders
In the last three days, 28.69 lakh ration card holders were provided a total of 6.94 lakh quintal of foodgrain. In terms of numbers, it is quite low as the total number of beneficiaries under various PDS schemes across Maharashtra is 7.17 crore. Food and Civil Supplies Minister Chagan Bhujbal on Thursday admitted to teething problems due to the lockdown. While indicating there was no shortage of foodgrain, he said reaching the stock to 52,000 ration shops was a mammoth exercise. Of the 6.94 lakh quintal disbursed, 3.83 lakh quintal was wheat, 3.01 lakh quintal was rice and 3,564 quintal sugar.
The government has come under sharp criticism for erratic supply of ration stock. Almost across 36 districts, there is shortage of foodgrain in ration shops. The government maintained there was enough stock to last six months.