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Lockdown relief reveals Purulia secret: PDS cards as loan collateral

Officials said 24 such families had approached them in Surjamata alone, a village of 150 families. Most people here work as daily wagers, owning no land and barely any possessions.

Purulia Bengal Coronavirus lockdown, Purulia PDS ration, Ration cards West Purulia, Purulia Benga Covid-19, covid-19 india Radhika Kalindi shows off the ration card which her family kept as Bandhak and now is retrieved by the administration, at Surjmata village in Purulia distict , West Bengal

Bordering Jharkhand, the district of Purulia in West Bengal has zero cases of coronavirus. However, that is not the only COVID-19 story here. With the state government announcing free ration under PDS for six months to help families tide over the lockdown, officials stumbled upon a hurdle they say they were unaware of: families having handed over their PDS cards as collateral to moneylenders for amounts they borrowed years ago.

Lying on a cot in his house in Surjamata village, an ailing Gour Kalindi, 80, shows the PDS card now back with him after 10 years, when he and his wife Shyamala handed it over as “bandhak (collateral)” to a “mahajan” for Rs 3,000. He needed the money for an illness which never went away.

Neighbour Radhika Kalindi, 60, is hoping their newly returned PDS cards will help his family of seven tide over the lockdown. They gave the cards as bandhak four years ago, for a Rs 7,000 loan.

Namita Sahabr at her home in Nirbhaypur Jorgora village under Puncha block in Purulia district , West Bengal. She is one of the victim of Ration card Bandhak. 

Officials said 24 such families had approached them in Surjamata alone, a village of 150 families. Most people here work as daily wagers, owning no land and barely any possessions. They approached the Block Development Officer (BDO) after the local ration dealers started distributing 5 kg of rice and 5 kg of flour against each PDS card starting April 1, as per the relief announced by the state government for the lockdown. The BDO asked them to give a written complaint.

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While officials said a probe is on, so far no charges have been pressed against the moneylenders from whom PDS cards have been retrieved. Jhalda BDO Rajkumar Biswas said both sides were made to give written undertakings not to repeat this.

Villagers stand near a temple at Surjamata village, in Purulia district , west Bengal. Express photo by Partha Paul.15.04.2020.

Pointing out that PDS cards are not transferrable, Food Minister Jyotipriyo Mullick told The Indian Express, “I was shocked when I heard about it. I told the district magistrate and police superintendent to take immediate action. We have asked officials to check every village.” Mullick said he had also asked officials to register a police complaint.

District Magistrate Rahul Majumder said that “had it not been for the lockdown”, they would not have come to know about the practice.

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Bhagirath, 33, was part of the group that met the BDO on April 8. Along with his brother Nimai, Bhagirath worked at brick kilns in Jharkhand, earning Rs 150 a day. They returned home before the lockdown started.

-Nilmoni Shabar with her family member at Nirbhaypur Jorgora village under Puncha block in Purulia district, West Bengal. One of the victim of Ration card Bandhak.

Bhagirath, who lives with his mother, wife, two children and a brother, says they never thought of going to officials, till the lockdown meant they were left with no food. After their complaint, officials and police raided the houses of five moneylenders to seize the cards. “I borrowed

Rs 7,000 four years ago as my mother was sick, handing over my ration card and my mother’s. After we went to the BDO, we got back the cards and immediately free ration too,” he says.

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Jagabandhu Kalindi, 50, says he took a loan of Rs 10,000 four years ago against his and his wife Sakha’s ration cards as they needed the money for their daughter’s wedding. “It was the norm here,” says Jagabandhu, who has three sons.

The Indian Express found families in a similar situation in two more villages in the district. Both are dominated by the Sabar tribe, still bearing the stigma of being classified as a criminal tribe during British rule, with most of its young now employed as labourers in far-away towns and cities.

In Jorgora village, around 65 km from Jhalda, most of the 72 families claimed to have handed over PDS cards as collateral. Bijay Sabar, 60, who lives with his wife and daughter, doesn’t remember the year all three of them handed over their cards to a “dealer”. “Sometimes when we go to the dealer, he gives us some rice. That is it.”

Sahadeb Sahabr a daily labour with his daughter at Nirbhaypur Jorgora village under Puncha block in Purulia district in West Bengal.

At Kulabahal village, 30 km away, villagers say they have been getting rice and flour but their families are too large for the quantity being given.

Subhas Sabar, 45, who has six children, and two ration cards between his wife and him, says they make do by hunting. “We hunt rats, rabbits, snakes and monitors.”

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DM Majumder says they are doing their best to ensure no one goes hungry. “We have done GIS mapping of all vulnerable households in the 20 blocks of Purulia. They are categorised as nomadic tribes, primitive tribes, large families, daily wagers and so on. We have their locations, cellphone numbers. We make surprise visits. BDOs have also been asked to make random calls every day to check up.”

Jagabandhu Kalindi, 80 at Surjmata village in Purulia distict , West Bengal.

Having sealed the 180-km border with Jharkhand back on March 20, Majumder says they screened every migrant labourer who returned and are tracking them still. “Out of 19,700 people home quarantined, 18,200 are already out. We also have 39 institutional quarantine centres, with 554 people.” The district has kept 3,500 isolation beds and a dedicated COVID-19 hospital ready.

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Back in Surjamata, moneylender Rashu Mahato’s wife Sabita says they have been needlessly maligned. The couple grow vegetables, but have not been able to go to the market, 3 km away, to sell them. Says Sabita, “They took loans from us, that is why we kept the ration cards. Now police have taken the cards. What about our money? I proposed that let us divide the rations since these are hard times for us too, but police refused.”

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First published on: 17-04-2020 at 04:00:16 am
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