Struggle For Food Security in Uttar Pradesh

20 October, 2002 Subhashini Ali
THE last two weeks have seen many meetings and demonstrations of women organised by the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) in various villages and districts of Uttar Pradesh, demanding food security by making cheap foodgrains available to the poor. The recent drought, the basically flawed system of rationing in place of the universal public distribution system, and the apathetic and insensitive attitude of the state government to the sufferings of the poor, have created a system where hunger has become endemic in villages across the state.
On October 4, in a militant demonstration in Lucknow, women broke the lock the police had put on the Collectorate gate, pushed their way into the ADM (Civil Supplies) office and had a detailed discussion with him about the disgraceful state of affairs in the state capital. For, among the 810 families the AIDWA surveyed in the city, only 4 had red-colour Antyodaya cards and 355 had no cards at all. After the action, rationing inspectors were sent to the 10 bustees surveyed, where they began to issue forms of various ration cards with the help of AIDWA activists.
Then, from October 5 to 11, AIDWA president Subhashini Ali and general secretary Brinda Karat travelled through more than 20 villages in 5 districts. Meetings of women from several villages were held in all these districts. On two occasions, there were militant demonstrations of women at the tehsil headquarters of Chakiya in Chandauli district and Chunar in Mirzapur district. Altogether, about 5000 women from more than 100 villages participated in these actions; almost a third of them were widows. The women who flocked to these meetings and protested angrily against the government policies have been hit the hardest. Their anger was visible when they shouted Mayavati, Tijori Kholo, Lal Card Nikalo (Mayavati, open your treasury and give us red cards)! Most of these women belong to Dalit communities and their sense of betrayal was palpable.
On October 5, more than 800 women took part in the demonstration at Chakiya even though section 144 was in force and there was a lathicharge on some demonstrators a day before. When we asked them how many of them had red cards, hardly 2 or 3 answered in affirmative. The response was similar to a query about widow pensions. They also said there was hardly any work in the fields because of the drought, while the government had not initiated any food-for-work programme.
The Chunar demonstration took place on October 7; more than 250 women from over 15 villages participated. Women from Behra and Devkali villages told us that not a single family in these villages had a red card. They said the pradhan was demanding a bribe of Rs 300 per head even for widow pension. Women from Dhauhan said some of them had BPL cards but found it too expensive to buy rations with these. Kanti, a young widow from Jafrabad village, who has 3 daughters, showed us her yellow (APL) card. She breaks stones all day to earn Rs 30. We learnt during both the demonstrations that all the widows even in Ambedkar villages were not being given pensions; many of the most destitute did not have red cards.
When we met the SDMs of both these tehsils, they had the same story to tell us --- the rationing system and system of payment of widow pensions were not based on need or entitlement but on arbitrary quotas and criteria fixed by the state government. The SDM of Chakiya (the hometown of former chief minister Rajnath Singh) told us that while the total population was 3,00,000, of which he believed more than half lived below the poverty line, only 3,300 BPL cards had been issued. He said the Antyodaya cards form only 25 per cent of the BPL cards. As far as widow pensions are concerned, he said the quota for these is also fixed and no new pension can be issued unless one of the existing pensioners dies. The SDM of Chunar said the total population is about 7,00,000, about half of whom he believes are living below the poverty line. But here a total of 1,17,328 APL cards, 27,673 BPL cards, 6,325 Antyodaya cards and 1,032 Annapoorna cards had been issued. He also said no money for payment of widow pensions had been received for the last two and half months. Both of them agreed to survey the villages from which the women had come and see that at least some of the complaints were rectified.
On October 6, we visited a fairly remote village, Musakhand, which is inhabited mostly by Dalit families --- all of them landless. They have been cultivating land that supposedly belonged to the Raja of Benares for generations. This year they decided to occupy the land and claim it for themselves. As a result, some parts of it remain uncultivated while the crop on the cultivated area is going to be claimed by these landless labourer families at the harvest time. On September 30, goons sent by the Raja arrived on a tractor to forcibly cultivate the land. But women --- many of them AIDWA members --- stood in front of the tractor, refusing to allow it to move, and forced the goons to leave.
We had a meeting with 127 women of this village. They were all agricultural workers who received wages of Rs 20 per day or 3 kg of rice when they could get work. This year there is hardly any work because of the drought. At the height of the summer in May and June, they go with their children to the nearby forests to gather tendu leaves. They leave at 2 or 3 a m and return only by 3 the next afternoon. Some 60-70 leaves make up one bundle and they are paid Rs 30 for 100 bundles which is the most they are able to collect on one trip. This means they get Rs 15 a day after having walked more than 15 km.
Of the women present, only 6 had red cards. The others said they have to take grain loans from shopkeepers. For every kg of grain they receive, they have to pay back 1.50 kg. They said this was next to impossible to do in the present circumstances. Cash loans were available to them at interest rates varying from 15 to 20 per cent a month.
From here we went to Direhu village which is just off the main road, near Chakiya. Here we met about 50 women --- Dalits and Muslims. All of them were landless. None of them had a red card and none of the widows is getting a pension.
At night, we went to Govindipur village where there was a gathering of more than 200 women. Many of them were from nearby villages. Here we were told that, under the Sampurna Gaon Rozgar Yojna, 40 women were given work for 8 days to construct pucca lanes in the village. They had been promised Rs 20 and 5 kg of rice per day, but eventually each was paid only 2 kg of rice per day. Of the 23 widows present, not one is receiving a pension. One of them said she had been trying to get a pension for a year and had even paid a bribe of Rs 400 in order to get it.
After this, we came to Bhodsar village where most of the women who had come from all around the area had left because it was very late. Only 2 or 3 stayed behind. From them we learnt that while there are more than 25 widows in the village, only 2 are getting pensions. In a population of 2,000 people, only 40 had red cards.
On October 7 morning, we visited Badaura village that has a population of 1500. Dalits are in majority. Earlier it was an Ambedkar village. Some of the upper caste people own up to 80 bighas of land, but most of the villagers and all the Dalits are landless. As the villagers are well organised in the Agricultural Workers Union, there are 61 red cards in the village. There are 370 BPL (white) cards. Only one widow is receiving pension while 33 had been sanctioned but never got it. Now there are 30 widows in the village. Availability of agricultural work has been severely affected by the fact that, at the time of agricultural activity, groups of men from Bihar arrive to work day and night on a lease basis. As a result, the local landless are deprived of work. Even paddy transplantation is done by these outside men; so the women are deprived of livelihood. Their wages have come down; now they are able to earn only as little as Rs 12 or 2.5 kg of paddy.
Later we visited the village situated on the Bairat farm that belonged to the Raja of Benares but is now occupied by the landless, Dalit labourers who have worked there for generations. In fact, it was their forefathers who had levelled the hilly and stony land for the Raja. Here, about 100 women from the neighbouring hamlets gathered.
Four women had come from Sadapur village; only one of them had a red card. She said she was able to buy full ration on it only once, in January. After that, the ration-shop owner told her that no ration was available. One of the women present, Patiya, who owns 5 biswas of land (20 biswas = one bigha, 2.5 bighas = one acre), was issued an APL card.
There were at least 15 widows present and none of them is getting pension. The women said 2 or 3 widow pensions were being distributed in their area, but even these had been stopped. Work is very scarce because of the drought. The land that they have occupied is also lying uncultivated. No government work has been started in the area.
Many of the Dalit women belonged to a community called Banbasi. They go to the nearby jungle to collect wood and leaves. Then they walk about 10 km the next day to the nearest town to sell these. They earn about Rs 15 in 2 days after having walked at least 5 hours on each day. They suffer harassment by the forest guards also. They said the leaves they collect are used for making donas (cups for food and snacks). For one bundle of about 100 leaves, they receive Rs 2.
On October 8, we visited Adampur Tiloni village in Ambedkarnagar district that includes Ms Mayavati’s constituency. Here, about 250 women from several villages collected. Here also, we did not meet a single person with a red card. Women from Bhiti Basayatpur village told us that there was no government work there. A widow from this village told us that she was getting no pension and did not have any kind of ration card.
Rajdei, a widow from Kishunipur village, said she is a widow with one crippled son and 5 daughters. She is the sole breadwinner. She has one bigha of land that has no crop this year. She does not have any kind of ration card.
Another widow, Gayatri, from village Ghanghaura said she was widowed 3 years ago. She has 5 children and only 5 biswas of land. She went to the pradhan with her photograph eight times to get widow pension. Then she went to the secretary who refused to endorse her application and is also refusing to return her form. The crop on her tiny plot has dried up. Another widow from the same village, Mahaja, said she had only one kuchha bigha of land and is getting no pension.
Amirta from Kurva village said she could only earn 2 kg of rice a day in the fields. The fields belonged to the Thakurs who are harassing her and trying to drive her away from her hut that they claim is on their land.
Rajmati from Chapra village, a widow with 3 children, said she is receiving no pension and did not have a red card either. She earned some money by smearing cow-dung paste on the ground for others. She has one biswa of land. One of her daughters is now of marriageable age.
Meena Kumari from Umrai complained that the pradhan gave the cards and everything to the upper castes while landless Dalits like herself got nothing. She said he even sold the subsidised ration meant for cardholders.
On October 10, we arrived at Dakhinwara Chauraha, Kadipur tehsil, Sultanpur. Here about 100 women from the neighbouring villages like Ranauli, Dakhinwara, Chaturpur, Chandauli, Jamauli, Pure Shivdayal, Ismaelpur, Sadhumari, Saraiyya, Majhva, Shyam Pandey ka Purwa and Thagunvapur Saraiyya had collected.
Champa, a widow from Chandauli, has lost her husband, son, daughter and grandson. Her hut has also collapsed. She has no one to help and works in the fields for 4 kg of wheat a day whenever work is available. She has a white card. Phulkali, a widow from Shyam Pande ka Purwa, had a red card but could not always afford to buy even the subsidised ration available on this card. Ramawati, another widow from the same village, has a red card. Dulalmati of the same village, abandoned by her husband, does domestic work for 3 kg of wheat a day has an APL (yellow) card.
A blind, old and bent widow from Sadhobari village, Patai has an APL card. She begs for food.
Prabhavati of Majhauli village said while she had a BPL card previously, this was subsequently taken away from her and she now has an APL card. She has no land and works as an agricultural labourer for Rs 25 a day.
The vast majority of women in this meeting had APL cards and none of the widows, who numbered about 20, is receiving a pension.
In the same tehsil, we had another meeting in Surapur village where there were more than 200 women from several villages. Sanju from village Bijethwa Rajapur said she had only 6 biswas of land but was given an APL card though she has to work as an agricultural labourer. Shyama from Khalispur Gopalpur village, who owns 2 bighas of land, also has an APL card. Sarjudevi, another widow, said she has one son who is insane and another who has no regular work. She owns 3 biswas of land and has an APL card.
There were about 60 widows at this meeting and only 3 are getting a pension. Four had red cards. Of all the women in the meeting, only 2 had red cards. This is in spite of the fact that they all have either no land or less than one bigha. Most of them are Dalits.
In Mohana village of Lucknow district that we visited on October 11, there were about 75 women from 4 villages. Sarjudevi from Nagar Chaungava said she had a BPL card but kerosene was made available that day after more than 2 months. Malti, a widow from Bidhna village, lives with her daughter Shivpati, also a widow. She has a yellow (APL) card in spite of the fact that she performs domestic labour for about Rs 4 a day.
Munni, a widow from Mohana, has no card at all. She has no children and does chikan embroidery, earning Rs 5 to 10 a day. Hasina and Vahidan have no land, are agricultural labourers and have BPL cards. Madhurani, a widow, has 2 bighas of land. She has a red card in her name. Chandrakali and Swabhavati from the same village have no land and did not have any work this year either. They have BPL cards. They do odd jobs like weaving chair-seats. Sabira has a BPL card. A year and a half ago when there was a big crowd at the ration shop because kerosene had come after a long time gap, the shopkeeper, in a fit of anger, threw all the ration cards at the crowd. She, along with some others, lost her card then and has been unable to get a new one issued.
Here also, not a single widow was getting a pension.
Our last visit was to Kathwara village in the same Lucknow district. Here our meeting took place in the Dalit locality of the village. The village itself is dominated by Thakurs who own all the land. Here, there were about 30 women. Ten of them were widows, 5 out of whom were getting pensions only due to the AIDWA unit’s efforts.
Hardei who owns 8 kuchha biswas of land and works as an agricultural worker has an APL card. Kisuma and Mohini, both agricultural workers, do not have red cards. Shivrani, a widow, who sometimes gets stale scraps of food from one of her sons, has no card or pension. Shanti, whose husband is unable to work after an operation, is an agricultural worker and has been issued an APL card. Ramkali has a BPL card but her son, Pohakar, has an APL card because he has 4 sons! Lajjavati, an agricultural worker who complained that their meagre wages were often not paid for many days, has an APL card.
The AIDWA is going to conduct a struggle for food security all over the state, through the demand for affordable foodgrains. The following demands have been formulated as the focus of the agitation:
  1. Villages identified by AIDWA to be surveyed again. Activists to be contacted and involved in the process.
  2. All families below the poverty line to be issued Antyodaya (red) cards at least for the next one year.
  3. All widows to be issued Antyodaya cards.
  4. The quality of foodgrains issued to be ensured.
  5. Foodgrains used as payment for development work carried out by the government, panchayats, etc, to be valued at Rs 2 a kg.
  6. Joint pattas to be issued whenever land is distributed to the landless.