“There was a lady in one of the localities who was struggling, despite having a Ration Card,” said Leena, a staff at SNEHA (Society for Nutrition, Education & Health Action). “She called me once and explained that she has a temporary Ration Card, but cannot use it since she mistakenly disclosed her income as more than Rs 60,000 a year. She did not have any information about the process, nor did she know the correct administrative personnel to contact for her Ration Card”
Leena recalled one of the trickier cases she managed, as the country shut during the lockdown. SNEHA and several of its volunteers like Leena manage intricate cases like this day and night, to support women from vulnerable communities access essentials, and opportunities to bloom.
The Centre and State have launched several social security schemes for women, including the Atmanirbhar packages. Recognizing the emergence of financial and social security exigencies in the wake of the first lockdown, the central government announced a slew of schemes targeted at the most vulnerable groups, including farmers, migrant workers, healthcare professionals, and self-employed workers as part of the Atmanirbhar packages. The announcements were made in two parts and consisted of Direct-To-Bank transfers, emergency credit lines, and in-kind distribution of food grains. However, the on-ground reality is different; the distance between announcement and fulfillment is huge.
This was evident in the migrant colony that Leena worked in during the lockdown. “I’m a part of the EHSAS programme that works primarily with adolescents between the age of 10-19 years. The work centers around the theme of sexual, physical, and mental wellness.” Apart from interacting with children, Leena and her team organize meetings with parents and school staff as well to foster a holistic ecosystem for the children to grow up in.
This added rapport with the parents of adolescents came in handy once the lockdown struck. Most of them being casual and daily wage laborers, the priorities had shifted once the government announced the lockdown.
“The first challenge was working in an online mode, and the second was actually connecting with the children and their parents”, said Leena.
It is well known that access to high-speed internet and smartphones, as well as proper digital literacy, are still privileges that casual workers and small self-employed workers can seldom afford, and shifting communications to a digital plane often means the exclusion of at-risk children.
Moreover, the sudden nature of the lockdown had shifted the need of migrant families from mental and emotional health to more primal arenas of basic survival. Leena says, “So, while in touch with these children over the phone, we used to inquire about their physical health and whether they were getting enough to eat or not. Initially, SNEHA arranged for the distribution of food packages, but that was not sustainable for the organization, so we had to stop after some time.”
The solution for this situation was a healthy, functional partnership between public administration and civil society organizations. The team at SNEHA got in touch with the nodal agency and worked in tandem to ensure that no one went hungry.
“The Public Distribution System (PDS) is an area that we have not really worked in previously, so it was sort of on-the-job training for us from the experiences we had. Some of the senior staff members from SNEHA also held workshops for us, and we passed on the information to the volunteers”, said Leena.
SNEHA Foundation relies on its volunteers for effective implementation of programmes, and these volunteers are more often than not the children SNEHA has worked with under the EHSAS programme earlier. “These volunteers had a lot on their plate since PDS was an added responsibility”, said Leena. They ventured into the locality for PDS-related issues as and when they got the time. We had around 50 youth volunteers, of which the majority are women. Not only did they help with PDS-related issues, but later took up other social security schemes and programmes like e-SHRAM and Sukanya Samriddhi Account as well.”
There’s a wide breadth of literature that highlights the evolution and the evident leakages within the PDS system that keep it from reaching its full potential. These issues had manifested in the migrant colony. From the complaints received, most notable were the exclusion of qualified families for PDS, low quality and quantity of foodgrains received, and allegations of black marketeering by Fair Price Shop owners. Already marginalized economically and socially, the residents of the colony dithered from collectivizing and taking action against such malpractices. “The ones who had a Ration Card thought that if they supported others, they’d lose their Card as well.” One of the activities that SNEHA Foundation carried out was to make two definite lists of cardholders and non-cardholders to submit to the nodal agency office. Later, the officer-in-charge helped them identify the nearby Fair Price Shops to direct these families towards.
Leena saw firsthand how little awareness and knowledge there is about the myriad schemes that are being run. “Not only PDS, but people also don’t know about a lot of schemes,” she said.
“Take Sukanya Samriddhi Account for instance. Now that we’ve started letting parents know about the financial assistance that the government offers for a girl child, they have stopped pulling their girls out of school early.”
Implementational issues with government schemes are not unheard of. The PDS itself has a significant exclusion and inclusion bias that misdirects the flow of benefits.
“Linkages between Aadhar Card and Ration Card also complicate issues. Some Fair Price Shop owners refuse to accept Ration Cards based on the migrants’ domicile back at their native place,” Leena said.
The state government in Maharashtra has taken cognizance of implementational challenges and is in the process of designing a new, state-of-the-art database that will address these issues of locality and movement among migrants. Until then, the #COVIDActionCollab and SNEHA foundation is working on the ground to identify loopholes and gaps and take the relevant steps to help the entitled access their benefits through the various social protection schemes.