As India emerges from a strict nationwide lockdown, it’s clear that neither central nor state governments were able to assess or anticipate the panic that ensued across the country’s very-wide socio-economic spectrum. In Delhi, where the Aam Aadmi Party announced a lockdown prior to the national announcement, the decision translated into a dystopian demonstration of wealth inequality; those at the upper end of the spectrum rushed to stock up essential (and not-so-essential) goods so that they could stay at home for a month without inconveniences, and the ones at the lower end, suddenly and unexpectedly out of employment, did not know how to buy their next meal.

Worse, many had to grapple with living and dying with this reality, since they could not even go back to the relative comfort of their hometowns and villages after being dispersed by the police while waiting for the buses at Anand Vihar Inter-State Bus Terminus on March 29.

I am a legal researcher by profession but one thing led to another… March 28 onwards, I began receiving calls for assistance from migrant workers who said they needed ration because they were ‘stuck’ in Delhi/Gurgaon/Loni/Noida. This is the gist of their plea – “hum Jharkhand ke rehne waale hai aur lockdown ki wajah se Dilli mein phanse hue hain (I am from Jharkhand and I am stuck in Delhi because of the lockdown)”.

Why do people in times of a crisis which is a deadly mix of a pandemic, hunger, unemployment and social unrest prefer dry ration over cooked food?

Those who called the government hunger helpline number were told to go to the nearest government school or the rain basera (night shelter) and have cooked meals provided by the government. However, people say that they prefer getting ration over cooked meals for several reasons. One has to stand in the queue under a blazing hot sun for at least two hours to get one bowl of khichdi. Workers who live with their families ask if it is reasonable to ask one person (usually the men) to stand in the queue for hours and come back with a meal for one and shared by a family of five or six people?

Some said that although cooked food was being distributed barely 500 metres away, the police did not let them get out of their rooms even to eat.

Rain Baseras are shelters for homeless persons where food is provided to them even in normal times. The burden of having to feed a new set of hungry people was clearly too much, and often they were turned away even from there.

A good number of people also said -- and this is something one can be quite confident that the government would have never thought of -- that they do not want to go to schools because they are at a higher risk of contracting coronavirus in crowded places.

When I spoke to a senior police officer in Gurgaon about this, he simply said, “These people are lying. There is enough food for everyone. They ask NGOs for ration so that they can hoard it and sell it in black market.”

Nonetheless, the Delhi government on April 5, ten days after the nationwide lockdown was announced, came up with what it called the “e-coupon” system to provide an opportunity to non-ration card holders residing in Delhi to buy ration from PDS shops for free for a period of three months. This would have benefitted the daily wage migrant workers the most and I believe that was what it intended to do.

This was in addition to free ration being given to all ration card holders. Even so, the food items that ration card holders were being given were wheat (gehu) and rice and the beneficiaries were not sure what they would do with the wheat since all the grinding mills (aata chakki) were closed, but that is another story.

Application process

To apply for an e-coupon, one has to log on to the website jantasamvad-dot-org and do the following:

1. Submit a mobile number on which you will get an OTP
2. Login with Mobile OTP
3. Submit details of all family members with Aadhar number
4. Upload Aadhar card of Head of Family
5. After your e-Coupon is generated, you will receive an SMS
6. Download e-Coupon using the link included in SMS
7. Visit designated Relief Centre with e-Coupon and Aadhar Card to collect ration

A couple of days after the purported relief measure was launched, the website crashed, because of the heavy traffic.

The website was back up a week later on April 12, but it said that pending applications are being processed, and new applications, although being accepted, would be processed only after the applications for the first two days are processed.

After ten days, on April 22, some of the applicants got their e-coupons and were called to a government school near them to hand over the ration, just wheat and rice. Ten days is a long time for a food deprived migrant population, with no support of communal comfort to rely on.

The problems with this measure are not limited to slow process and the technicalities thereof, but are manifold.

The relief network set up by our organisation intended to reach the most vulnerable populations, so when I receive a call, I ask if the caller has a ration card. If not, I ask if they have applied for the state government’s e-coupon initiative. These are some of the responses I have received:

. Ab hum padhe-likhe nahi hai, samajh nahi aa raha ki yeh kaise karna hai [we are not literate, we do not understand how to go about this process]

. Uske liye toh internet wala phone chahiye hoga na? humaare paas toh button wala phone hai [For applying, I would need a phone with internet (smartphone), right? We only have a simple phone]

. Kara tha, didi. 15 din ho gaye abhi tak message nahi aaya [I had applied, sister. It has been fifteen days, and I still have not received the message]

. “Humne toh pehle hi din apply kar liya tha. uske chakkar mein 100 rupay bhi gaye sochke ki ration mil jayega, aur ration bhi nahi mila [we had applied on the very first day. We even gave Rs. 100, because all we wanted was to secure our food supplies. But we wasted those hundred rupees and did not get any ration either]”. Baffled, I asked, “Kisko 100 rupay diye? [Who did you give hundred rupees to?]”. She said, “wahi jinhone humaara number coupon ke liye daala tha [same guy who applied for the coupon on our behalf.]”

. “Jab bahut time ho gaya, toh main pareshan hokar OTP ke saath hi school chala gaya jahaan ration bant raha tha, yeh poochhne ke liye ki yeh kab tak hoga. Khana toh mila nahi, police ka danda aur mil gaya [it has been a long while... since I did not receive the link on my phone, I went to the school where ration was being distributed by the government with only my OTP, to ask how much more time it would take. But instead of giving me any information or food, the police beat me up and chased me away].”

This Kafkaesque process which assumes that everyone in the target demography has a smartphone and access to the internet to begin with, really makes one question if failure of the e-coupon system is an implementation flaw, or if it was ever designed keeping the realities of the most needy and vulnerable in mind.

A delay of half a month on the part of the State government to provide something as essential as food to its people should not have to be so intentionally long winded and difficult. There have been various suggestions by experts on how to plan for universal food distribution but they are never going to see the light of the day if the state governments keep worrying about inclusion errors when people’s lives are at stake in the middle of a national hunger and employment crisis which has already claimed the lives of more than two hundred people.

In a petition filed by the Delhi Rozi Roti Adhikar Abhiyaan, the Delhi High Court, on April 27 2020, ordered that along with proper functioning of PDS shops, the government shall also ensure that those not in possession of a ration card are disbursed grain from PDS distribution centres as well as other centres set up by them, which shall be monitored by the SDM of each district.

The government is also required to place grievance helpline numbers on its website and widely publicize the same. The case is now listed for May 6, 2020.

Hereafter, ration distribution in Delhi would largely be done under the supervision and mandate of the Delhi High Court and it is to be seen how the Aam Aadmi Party government fares, after failing dramatically to ensure food security to its people who had overwhelmingly voted the party to power in the elections held less than three months ago.