On April 8, the government directed Food Corporation of India (FCI) to provide grains to NGOs and charitable organizations, recognising their role in “providing cooked food to thousands of poor and needy people during this time of nationwide lockdown”. As per the notice, NGOs can lift wheat and rice directly from FCI godowns without going through the auction process. These organisations can buy grains at Open Market Sale Scheme (OMSS) rates—rates at which FCI sells grains to bulk purchasers such as state governments and flour millers.

While the move has been welcomed by the organisations working on the frontlines to provide food to all those in need—for instance, migrant labourers and daily wage workers—a few NGOs told The Citizen they are finding the process to obtain grains difficult to navigate.

Trina Talukdar, co-founder of Kranti, an organisation based in Mumbai that works with the sex workers community and their children, alleged that there has been no communication from the FCI regarding the grains even though they sent in their documents a week ago. “It took us a while to dig up the contacts of the FCI. The process was quite unclear,” she said.

“We sent in the documents required but it's been more than a week now and we haven't heard back from the FCI. We've tried to call them every single day but we still haven't heard back from them,” Talukdar stated.

While waiting for a call from the FCI regarding the approval of their application, Talukdar said she began asking around to see if other NGOs had been able to access the grain. “I didn't find any other organisation all over India who has been able to access this. In Maharashtra, only 9 NGOs have been able to get this grain whereas in Mumbai alone there are two warehouses sitting full oN this grain,” she alleged.

RightWalk Foundation based in Uttar Pradesh stated that while they have not received the grain yet, with the documentation process being “tedious though doable”, they believe they will be able to access the grains soon with their “deeper understanding of government systems and years of past experience in welfare schemes.”

As per the April 8 notice, FCI has a network of more than 2000 godowns across India which would ensure “smooth supply of food grains to these organisations in this hour of crisis.” “Maintaining the quick pace of transportation of foodgrain stocks across the country, FCI has moved 2.2 Million tonnes from the surplus states since the beginning of lockdown. It has already handed over about 1 Million Tonnes of foodgrain to the state governments for free distribution under the PMGKY scheme.”

Seema Prakash, of Spandan Samaj Seva Samiti—a grassroots organisation based in Madhya Pradesh that works to empower marginalised communities, particularly focusing on the Korku tribe—said that when she approached the concerned authorities two days ago inquiring about the grains, she was told that the stock had not reached the godowns yet. “First they said there is no godown at all. Then they said there is a godown but the grains as per the order haven’t reached. Once they do, we will contact you,” she told The Citizen.

“It is difficult, I don't think we will get the grain. They have brushed me off for the time being by saying it hasn’t reached,” Prakash stated, adding that in order to get the grains she would have to chase the authorities and keep waiting outside the offices all day.

Meanwhile, the FCI Divisional Manager for Mumbai and adjoining areas told The Citizen, “Till now, 36 NGOs have already picked up their stock, and daily we are approached by 25-30 people. Their process is ongoing. Generally it takes about 2 days for the process to be completed.”

“In the beginning, the process was completed the same day. However, now the number of NGOs has increased so it takes about two days,” he stated.

According to the Divisional Manager, the process to obtain grains is conducted online, involving an application with required documents to be sent to the concerned email ID. The proposal is then sent to the higher office, and once their approval is received, the party is informed of both the approval as well as the bank details to which the amount needs to be transferred.

An organisation needs to lift a minimum of one metric tonne or 1000 kgs of grain at a time. Wheat is available at a rate of Rs. 21 per kg whereas rice costs Rs. 22 per kg. Once the amount is transferred and confirmation received, the organisation is told to lift their stock from the warehouses. “The party has to arrange its own transportation,” he said.

“Even if we are able to get this grain, the processes are set up in a way that makes it very difficult,” Talukdar stated. “For example, we are to pick up a 1000 kgs of grain at a time. Which means I will need a truck and trucks are unwilling to ply on the roads during the lockdown,” she said.

“Also the wheat they are giving is wheat grain and not milled wheat or flour. And no mills are open for us to be able to mill the wheat into flour,” she told The Citizen.

The Divisional Manager stated that mostly those organisations that “distribute groceries or have the provisions to make flour” pick up wheat. “The community kitchens prefer rice because our rice is ready to cook,” he said.

“After they take it, we also keep an eye on whether it is being properly utilised or not. As per the Government of India directive, the concerned District Magistrate or District Collector will ensure that the grain is being utilised for intended persons,” he told The Citizen.

According to the Divisional Manager, there are five warehouses in Mumbai city with an overall capacity of approximately 3 lakh metric tonnes. “The godowns are full right now. As the stock is picked up, we arrange for more. So all the time our godowns remain full. For the Public Distribution System (PDS), the requirement is 80,000 metric tonnes per month, so I have stock available for four months,” he explained.

Charu, who has been working in her personal capacity to help Kranti obtain grains from FCI stated that while Kranti had sent their request on April 16, the request has still not been processed. Charu explained that she began her efforts by attempting to contact officials through the numbers listed on the FCI website, however was unable to get a response.

Finally, finding an FCI official on LinkedIn who, according to her, is “the main head who passes and approves of the procurement”, she contacted him through the portal. She received a response that explained the organisation had to send the required application via email.

“By that time, I didn't know Kranti had already sent the request. So I messaged him back saying we have already sent the request on April 16 and it still hasn't been processed. I contacted him on the 20th. To which he stopped replying. Since then I haven't heard anything,” she said.

“I am trying to figure out why they are not releasing it. When you hear about people not getting food and then there is this stock which is rotting in these warehouses, I don't know what is stopping them,” Charu told The Citizen.

Meanwhile, the government recently stated that excess rice available with the FCI in central godowns will be converted into ethanol for use in making alcohol-based hand sanitizers and to be added to petrol to reduce emissions.

The decision was reportedly taken at a recent meeting of the National Biofuel Coordination Committee (NBCC) and invokes the National Policy on Biofuels that states, “During an agriculture crop year when there is projected over supply of food grains as anticipated by the Ministry of Agriculture & Farmers Welfare, the policy will allow conversion of these surplus quantities of food grains to ethanol.”

The decision comes amid reports of individuals going hungry during the country-wide lockdown. “The government is sitting on a lot of resources that can really help the citizens. These are resources the government has publicly announced has been allocated for distribution to the poor, to those who don't have any income during this lockdown. However, the processes are set up in a way that it's nearly impossible to access it,” Talukdar stated.

She said that this is similar to the PDS system which provides subsidised grains to people on the basis of ration cards. “You have to have a ration card and a lot of Indians, especially the sex workers community that we work with, is undocumented. They have been illegally trafficked against their wishes from different places and don't have ration cards. They can't access any of it,” she stated.

“Also with the ration card, you can only get rations from the place mentioned on the ration card. Now all sex workers and migrant workers are in big cities like Mumbai or Delhi... they aren’t from these places but from other rural areas or small towns. And their ration cards, even if they have one, have addresses back home. Which means they can't access the PDS system in big cities where they are stuck right now.”

As per an April 20 NDTV report, renowned economist Jean Dreze told NDTV, “Around 4 to 5 million people are out of the Public Distributions System as of today.”

“So basically, where there is social welfare available from the government, the processes for it are set up in a way that is making it nearly impossible for organisations and for individuals to access them,” Talukdar told The Citizen.