23 February 2019 05:50 AM

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DRISHTI AGARWAL / AAJEEVIKA BUREAU | 31 JANUARY, 2019

Citizenship from the Margins in the Age of Technology

Adivasi women are fighting against technology-based barriers to their rights, by using technology.


In the wake of the Supreme Court’s judgement concerning Aadhar, the unique identity number is no more a mandatory requirement to access essential services such as (school admissions, obtaining new SIM cards, opening bank accounts). However, availing welfare schemes and subsidies, is one of the three important things that still require Aadhaar linkage (in addition to PAN card and filing of income tax returns).

As far as the accessibility to the welfare schemes are concerned, a sad reality still remains stark in the rural districts of India. There have been instances of people not receiving work under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGs) simply because the Job Card is not linked with the Aadhar. The non-linkage of Aadhar and bank accounts further hinders NREGA payments. As Reetika Khera puts it, Aadhar in its current form, undermines the right to life. Aadhar seeding was once made a necessary requirement for all the ration cards in the village, without which the family would stop receiving food grains. However, in light of the death of the six-year-old girl in Jharkhand and the lamentable 42 hunger deaths, the Act soon underwent major changes, making Aadhar not compulsory to access PDS. Today, the implementation of the act is still in perils. People in the remote rural areas of India, are navigating through an unending war to access their basic right to food. This article captures an account of the abuse of power by the local officials, people’s relentless struggle and the backlash they face by the poorly thought out digitization schemes.

The state machinery, especially in the rural areas are deeply embedded in power hierarchies and patronage network, otherwise called ‘corruption’. The digitization schemes, as that of the Aadhar, remain poorly though out and does not factor in this reality. They further act to deepen this divide and power gaps, strengthening the powerful and increasing the difficulties that poor face in realising their rights. It is to the credit of the mobilizations from the grassroots, as documented in the cases here, that the poor have been able to challenge such barriers and demand more transparency in the public delivery system. Using simple technologies like Whatsapp and investing in digital education, they have been able to hold the state accountable for its deceptive ways.

Citizens’ network leveraging Whatsapp for connectivity and social action

This account is telling of the power of citizen’s action. If the same technology (that has a disempowering effect) is used by well-informed citizens, in a concerted and organized manner, it can induce a citizen led monitoring system. In a drift of events in Palach, a village in the Rajsamand district of Rajasthan, when an Adivasi woman’s every effort to receive ration from the dealer failed, a Whatsapp group came to her rescue.

When Meera Bai reached the ration shop in Gundali panchayat (her nearby panchayat) to receive her ration for the month of October 2018 (one month after the Supreme Court’s ruling), she was faced with a rude ‘no’, and was asked to go back. As the ration dealer had only kept one day to disburse ration for her hamlet, Meera Bai could not avail her ration anymore. (As per the Food Security Act, a ration dealer is supposed to open his shop every day and distribute ration to the citizens in the first 15 days of the month, irrespective of their hamlet. In the given case, ration dealer’s refusal to give ration to woman was not only unacceptable and denial of her rights but a neglect towards his own duties).

The visit to the fair price shop had cost her Rs. 20, her whole days’ work as well as neglect towards her child, whom she had kept with the neighbors. As she persisted, and refused to leave, she received help by a community volunteer, Pooja. When after a prolonged dialogue with the ration dealer, he did not comply, Pooja decided to extend the issue to her social network, to seek help.

Being an active citizen of Gundali Panchayat and also a volunteer of the local women’s solidarity group, Puja expected an immediate action to be taken up on the matter. She soon decided to raise the issue in her Whatsapp group which comprises of other community volunteers from the nearby village, members from non-governmental organizations. It also had panchayat officials such as the block development officer, the former Sarpanch and Union leaders, along with some local advocates and journalists. The group is meant to be an informal platform for information sharing about citizens’ activism for the betterment of the area. The case was soon noticed by the former Sarpanch in the group and few of the local collective members (Jarda Nirman Samiti) who were also part of the WhatsApp group. It was immediately taken up by the authorities and a momentum was built. In about few hours, the ration dealer was contacted by the former Sarpanch, advising him to mend his ways. This was resulted in the ration dealer voluntarily calling Meera Bai the next day to collect her ration. This further had an effect on the dealer’s behavior towards other citizens as well, as he stopped misbehaving with them.

 

(Meera Bai, stands in front of the ration shop in Gundali. She falls under the Below Poverty Line (BPL) category. She was able to receive her ration through the collective action of citizens in her village, connected via Whatsapp)

The war to claim one’s ration has not been recent in this area. The locally formed women solidarity groups, has been fighting the corrupt system for over five years. The groups (locally called Ujala Samoohs) are known for their fierce women leaders and their innovative ways of fighting the system to claim their public entitlements. What is special about these women leaders and the volunteers associated with these groups is that they do not adopt the oppressive means and the abusive language of the ones subjugating them, instead they collectivize themselves to resist against them.

New strategies to deny public entitlements

Having no check on their functioning, the ration dealers in the area have come to act as petty administrators, making their own rules and devising new strategies to deceive the people.

With fever pitch mania around pet government drives, old ways to cheat the poor of their food rations are giving way to sophisticated new strategies. Below are some examples of how the ration dealers have been coming up with new ways to deny people their ration. (Stories collected between March 2018 to December 2018)

In the villages under Aspur block of Dungarpur district, a well-constructed toilet has been made a mandatory requirement for a rural family to collect ration under PDS. Without a pakka toilet in the house, the family is denied their due ration for the month. Schemes like these are only being enacted at the will of the ration dealer, without any official circular.

Similarly, in another village of Kankarwa panchayat, Rajsamand district of Rajasthan. Ujala Smaooh members were constantly denied ration for three months, because they were told that their ration card was not linked with the Aadhar. Since this was going on since October 2018, women from Naglai fala finally decided to bring this to their Ujala Samooh meeting. Having some knowledge about the center’s reiteration about Aadhar not being mandatory to get ration- the Samooh decided to hold the ration dealer accountable and investigate further. It was found out that the dealer’s Point of Sale (PoS) machine was not working for over three months. Seeing an unexpected backlash from the Samooh members, the ration dealer was forced to fix his machine and disburse ration. This is a common example of complete disregard towards maintaining proper public provisioning by those in charge and administering their own rules to hide their inaction.

Similar stories of deceiving the poor were reported from Saklal panchayat, in Kherwada block, when the Ujala samooh (women solidarity group) tried to confront their ration dealer about the inaccurate (auto generated) text messages regarding ration, the dealer snapped at them saying, “I don’t know. You should go and ask the person who is sending you these messages”.

 

(Kamla, a volunteer of the local Ujala Samooh, recounting her story of being shouted at by the ration dealer. She questioned the inaccurate ration quantity mentioned in the auto generated texts, she was receiving.)

As per the experiences of these women and the rural population at large, technology is used to dupe people out of their entitlements. Here technology is not the pro-poor enabler it is portrayed to be, nor is it the magic pill capable of solving India’s problems. It is rather a mighty tool in the hands of the dominant upper caste members who have a long history of oppressing those belonging to the Adivasi, Dalits and the minority communities.

Taking Action
 

 


In a fit to increase people’s ownership of the schemes, Ujala Samooh members with some help from the local NGO, Aajeevika Bureau, received a training in using the official PDS website for tracking their ration delivery status. Being able to access their own records of the ration delivery acted as a revelation for many, inspiring them to take action against the deeply entrenched corruption. What followed was a pure display of people’s action led by well-informed citizens who would act as ombudsman for the preservation of their own rights. (Collective actions led by Ujala Samooh women, between January 2018- June 2018).

Women samooh members going to the e-mitra to get a print out of their online ration card statements. The efforts were captured by the local media in Gogunda block of Udaipur dictrict as well. This attracted public attention and created the much-needed momentum to a sustained collective action against corrupt ration delivery.

“I haven’t been receiving sugar since last year, as the dealer tells me that I am not eligible any more. But this computer-generated statement shows that I have been receiving 1 kg of sugar every month since the past 1 year”, exclaims Kamla Bai from Tirol panchayat. Shocking results were gathered from the computer-generated ration card statements. Many whose ration cards were declared invalid by the ration dealer, were puzzled to see that almost 60 kgs of wheat had been taken up in their name in the last year, while they did not even receive a grain.

“We printed the ration delivery statement of all the people in the village. Once we had the statement, the dealer could not deny the major gaps in the delivery system”, says, Kishan Singh, a community volunteer from Tirol Panchayat, Gogunda block, Udaipur district. After receiving a training on navigating the official PDS’s website and how to check the government’s Management Information System, Kishan said that he felt more confident in making claims in front of the local officials and calling upon their inactivity.

 

Kishan, supporting a Ujala Samooh meeting in Tirol Panchayat, Gogunda block, Udaipur.

During his samooh meetings, he was confronted with a large number of complaints about the irregular ration delivery and non-delivery, he decided to dig deeper into the matter. Once the online statements of around 200 ration cards were generated from e-mitras, he identified major misreporting in the official MIS. The ration dealer was held accountable for the major gaps in the deliveries and the reporting. The Sarpanch, the District Supply Officer and even the SDM had to get involved. The issue gathered much attention from the local media and the district officials, which forced the ration dealer to comply. He himself started inviting people to collect their ration, keeping his shop open all the time.

The struggles as delineated in the article stands as an example of a deepening democracy. Citizens, especially those belonging to the most marginalized Adivasi communities, themselves got engaged in the processes of democracy. Grassroots mobilization of people with a demand for a more transparent ration delivery system serves as a perfect antidote to corruption, in a country like India where state machinery remains hierarchical and citizens are constantly excluded from the decision-making process at every level.

By engaging in a more creative and political process of checking on their monthly ration statements, ordinary people are coming together to exert their citizenship as equal, responsible and active citizens. As Gaventa argues, they are exerting their citizenship by engaging in the political life of their society to reorganize it on the principles of equality and justice. What is special about these struggles is they are occurring among Adivasis, historically one of the most excluded and exploited groups in the country. Armed with knowledge about their rights, they are using technology to fight exclusions created by technology! The case presented here not only tells about the successes of the citizens’ action against a corrupt political system, but it is also telling of their organized effort against their disempowering experience of confronting technology, and converting it into an empowering one.

(The experiences shared here are from the Aajeevika Bureau’s women solidarity groups. In the past ten years, around 12,000 adivasi rural women have been collectivized in local level solidarity groups in the areas of southern Rajasthan. The groups have been collectively demanding more transparency and accountability in their public provisioning systems.

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