For at least two months, Mahendra Hemla has been having the same conversation with the villagers. They come, the entire village of Pipdia almost at once, to his small fair price centre in Gangaloor, having walked over 30 kilometres through thick forests. They show him their ration cards, and ask for the grain that they are entitled to under the Chhattisgarh government’s subsidy schemes. Hemla tells them they need to make Aadhaar cards too, for if they don’t, beginning July 1, they will get no ration if their Aadhaar and ration cards are not linked. “They tell me they can’t. That the Maoists forbid them from making Aadhaar cards,” he says. All Hemla can do is repeat what he knows. The next time, he fears, they will make the long journey back empty handed.
Gangaloor village is inside Maoist-affected territory in Bijapur, one of Chhattisgarh’s and India’s worst Naxal-affected districts. But some years ago, Gangaloor, which has a series of fair price centres, got itself a concrete road from the district headquarters of Bijapur 22 km away. This has meant that the government has access, and the entire village has Aadhaar cards. But villages such as Pidia and Gampur, deep in the forests and with no motorable roads, will now find themselves cut off from one more government benefit – subsidised ration.
Bijapur District Collector Aayaz Tamboli, however, says there are some families in both Pidia and Gampur who have got their Aadhaar made. “As it stands now, after July 1, where ration cards and Aadhaar cards are not linked, government-subsidised ration will not be given. But Aadhaar is consent-based. We cannot force people to get Aadhaar,” he said.
Yet, for villages such as Pidia and Gampur who are caught between government orders and Maoist diktats, “consent” means little. In Pidia, of 485 ration cards, there are 25 that are Aadhaar-seeded. In Gampur, the number is 17 of 283.
Kumari Mann Batti Rana, who administers the fair price shop for Gampur in Gangaloor, said, “Even the few who have made Aadhaar cards have done so secretly. They keep their cards with someone they know in Gangaloor, take the rice back home, and pretend they have bought it at the market at Rs 25 a kilo. If the dadalog (Naxals) find out, they will be punished.”
In Gorna Mankeli village, 15 km from Bijapur, the villagers talk quietly amongst themselves about the need for grain. Near them, children – with prominent ribs and distended stomachs — cling on to mothers. Yet for over two hours, the villagers refuse to talk to “journalists” on record without “clearance”. Motorcycles and bicycles leave the village to “get permission” and then return. One villager, Modiyam Chamru, is authorised to speak. “We want no Aadhaar cards and ration from the government because they commit atrocities on our people,” he said.
Senior officials admit that in these circumstances – Maoist orders, distribution of cards, issues of connectivity – up to 10 per cent people in districts in Bastar may no longer be eligible for ration, even in a “best case scenario”.
Census 2011 pegs the population of Bijapur at 2.55 lakh. As of June 26, 18 per cent of the population still has no Aadhaar card and of those that have both Aadhaar and ration cards, only 71 per cent have at least one family member where the two are linked.
According to government records, Bijapur, one of the country’s poorest districts, has around 56,000 families. Close to 54,000 families qualify for subsidies offered by the state government. Of these, 26,061 are Antyodaya, the poorest of the poor, who are meant to get 35 kg of rice a month at Re 1 a kg.
Collector Tamboli said, “Considering the security and communication situation, it is true that the policy will mean that 10 per cent (of the district’s population) may be left out. Under this scheme, the beneficiary has to turn up (first to make Aadhaar and later to collect ration), which is a massive challenge. We set up Aadhaar centres at marketplaces, weekly haats and deployed mobile vans to collect biometric data. But there have been certain challenges, besides security. For instance, we had to reprint 90,000 Aadhaar cards after it was found that they did not reach the people. And then, there were connectivity issues while uploading Aadhaar data.”
Local activists point out that if people are forced to drop out of the safety net offered by PDS, it could have an impact on health indicators. “One of the reasons the PDS system in Chhattisgarh was lauded was that this was a poor state, and these schemes counteracted starvation deaths and malnutrition. But this new rule could be a blow. There is no guarantee that in the future Maoists won’t influence even more people to give up their Aadhaar cards,” an activist said.
District data of July 2016 shows that the malnutrition rate among children in Bijapur aged 0 to 5 was as high as 39 per cent.
Some in Bastar, counting on the unintended benefits of the linking, say that subsidised rice often went straight to Maoist cadres and this would now come down.
Others, however, argued that villagers would now have to buy rice from the open market and then give part of it to “the party”. “In a land with little government access, these schemes were one of the few things that showed that the government is benevolent. This linkage of Aadhaar and ration cards may have its benefits in other parts of the country, but in Bastar, there are some clear issues,” a government official said.
Back in Gangaloor, Hemla and Rana, their crumbling shops side by side, brace for the day when villagers from Pidia and Gampur would arrive to collect their ration. They speak of turning away mothers, with children in their arms. They have little control over the government order, but they will have to be the faces that say no. Hemla says, “It all seems so heartless.”