Particularly vulnerable Adivasi speak of despair, hunger at tech “disruption” of social schemes

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Parhaiya Adivasi families arrived for a public hearing at Manika, Latehar

Jirua Parhaian and Dhaneshwar Parhaiya sat in front of the large crowd that had gathered to take stock of the effectiveness of public schemes in Jharkhand’s Manika block, under which which their village falls. They belong to the Parhaiya Adivasi community, which is classified as a “particularly vulnerable tribal group”. The elderly couple listened quietly while government officials acknowledged the problems that have prevented Parhaiya Adivasis from availing of government schemes meant for them.

Both were frail and walked with difficulty. But they had traveled to Manika, the block centre, 15 km from their village Uchvabal, to attend the meeting because they faced a dire predicament. “There is not enough food at home,” said Jirua Parhaian. She and her husband went to bed hungry at least a few nights every month. “Our ration card was cut without any explanation three years ago,” she said.

The couple had carried with them their Aadhaar card bearing the 12-digit unique identity number attached to their biometric data that the government wants all Indian residents to have. They submitted the number to a kiosk manned by government staff at the public hearing. “What more do we have to do to get our rations of rice started again?” asked Dhaneshwar Parhaiya.

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Jirua Parhaian and her husband Dhaneshwar Parhaiya whose ration cards have been cut off without any explanation, making it harder for them to afford all meals.

The government recognises Adivasis such as the Parhaiya and 70 other communities as particularly vulnerable tribal groups because of their precarious economic condition and dwindling populations.

These communities are also entitled to Antodaya ration cards meant for the “poorest of the poor”, which entitles them to 35 kg of rice at Re 1 per kg every month under the National Food Security Act. But they continue to face dire hunger and malnutrition.

In Jharkhand, which is going through a period of drought, these families are falling through the cracks in the absence of adequate social protection. A survey in November conducted among 324 Parhaiya households living in 15 villages in Latehar district found nearly 43% of the families had missed meals in the last three months because there was no food at home. The survey was carried out by National Rural Employment Guarantee Act Sahayata Kendras and Gram Swaraj Mazdor Sangh activists. The survey also showed that though the government has aggressively pushed Aadhaar as a way of streamlining welfare schemes and improving access to social security by providing everyone with an identity document, ground reality was different.

It found that Aadhaar, in fact, acted as a barrier to accessing social schemes. For instance, the survey found that 42% of Parhaiya families surveyed faced problems due to Aadhaar in the form of data entry errors, network glitches, biometric authentication failures or complications related to their failure to complete Know Your Customer norms for banks far removed from their hamlets.

Left out of social security
Traditionally, Parhaiya Adivasis survived by collecting forest produce such as honey and mahua flowers, roots such as gethia and kanda, and by making bamboo brooms, said Mahavir Parhaiya, an activist in Latehar district, which Manika block is part of. “But the dense forests are now gone,” he said. “The government made forests into plantations, handing them to contractors. Now our people struggle to find the jadi[roots] or saag[vegetables] that we survived on.”

This is one of the reasons why the community is dependent on government support to eat.

At the public hearing, several Adivasi families described corruption in schemes meant for them. Those who had ration cards said they frequently received less grain than they were entitled to despite having Aadhaar, which the government had introduced in the public distribution system in order to end pilferage.

Nearly a dozen Parhaiya women from Uchvabal and Pagar villages said they received only 30 kg or 31 kg of rice every month instead of their 35 kg entitlement. “After the surveyors came to the village, for the first time, yesterday the ration dealer Dinesh Rai gave [me] 35 kg rice,” Sugiya Devi told local officials at the hearing. She said the ration dealer had followed a “tin” system for years. “He fills two tins with ration and says we have got only this much,” she said. The tins were filled with grain and weighed at the meeting, while officials watched. They weighed only 31 kg.

The delivery of rations in tins also violates a system the Jharkhand government has put in place to ensure that families from particularly vulnerable tribal groups got their full entitlements, without any pilferage. Under the dakiya or post system, the ration dealer is required to deliver monthly food rations to such households at their doorsteps in sealed sacks clearly marked for such groups.

Read the full report here.

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Dasiya Kunwar Parhaian said the customer service center kiosk operator meant to connect the residents to government services online demanded a bribe of Rs 2,000 for her pension application.

In December 2017, several Adivasi and Dalit families living in the same district, Latehar, at a public hearing in Manika block had described the problem of how their subsidised food rations had been abruptly stopped. The government in Jharkhand, like in several other states, had in 2017 asked for all ration cards to be linked with Aadhaar and mandated that only card holders whose fingerprints are authenticated online from the Aadhaar database would get subsidised grain.

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Jirmunya Parhaiyan, Sumati Kunwar, Dasiya Kunwar, all Parhaiya PTG Adivasi, from Rankikala and Sedhra who could not access rice rations after Aadhaar linking errors, at the right to food public hearing at Manika in December 2017.

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On social security and pensions in a 60-plus republic

India’s growth story of the last two decades has had one recurring theme: that the pattern of economic growth is accentuating insecurities. Yet, there continues to be a deep divide over whether the gains from growth ought to be ploughed to achieve social security for everyone. Social security has come to be linked to job benefits, trying it to one’s status as a worker in the formal or the informal economy when, fundamentally, it originates from the notion of ensuring everyone protection against vulnerability and deprivation.

In the Constitution, Directive Principles Article 41 asks the State to “within the limits of its economic capacity and development, make effective provision for securing the right to work, to education and to public assistance in cases of unemployment, old age, sickness and disablement, and in other cases of undeserved want.” Article 42 says the State shall make provisions for securing just and humane conditions of work and for maternity benefits.

India does not yet explicitly recognise a national minimum social security cover. In recent years, including with an intervention by the Supreme Court in the Right to Food case, the government moved forward to providing nutrition, and beginning 2006, employment support to the poor through MNREGA.

Economists Amartya Sen and Jean Drèze distinguish two aspects of social security – “protection” and “promotion”. While the former denotes protection again a fall in living standards and living conditions through ill health, accidents, the latter focuses on enhances living conditions, helping everyone overcome persistent capabilities deprivation.

A close look at India’s record in providing social security shows that while only a fraction of citizens enjoy any “protection” at all, these are being further eroded with the current pattern of economic growth. Among provisions aimed at “promotion”, social security through nutrition, work entitlements for all, are threatened with fund cuts and further shrinking.

The poor and pensions

In 2011, in an affidavit to the Supreme Court on the official poverty line, the Planning Commission estimated that based on the Tendulkar Committee report 30 percent of the population live below the official poverty line. Several debates followed on how the poverty line ought to be defined. But what has remained absent from both public discourse and laws is a more crucial question: how do these 35 crores people on survive Rs 32 per person per day in urban areas and Rs 26 per person per day in rural areas? What do they do in contingencies of health, illness, old age, and death, and how do they protect themselves from slipping into further poverty?

The government launched the first pensions program for the poor, the National Social Assistance Program, starting with of a pension Rs 75 per month, in 1995. Under the Indira Gandhi Old Age Pension Scheme and Widow Pension Scheme, the central government contributes Rs 200 and Rs 300 per month respectively. Several states, Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, Bihar provide between Rs 400-300 per month. Tamil Nadu provides Rs 1,000 per month.

A recent survey, which included pensions, found the leakages to be small, and found encouraging evidence that the scheme is reaching its intended beneficiaries. The Public Evaluation of Entitlement Programmes(PEEP) survey in 2013 by researchers at the Indian Institute of Technology (Delhi) recorded that among nearly 900 rural respondents selected at random from the official pension lists in ten states, 97 per cent were getting their pension and recorded only one case of “duplicate” pension i.e. one elderly person getting two pensions. Majority of beneficiaries, 76 percent, however, said they received pensions in their post office and bank accounts after delays of over a month. Thus, while the pension amounts are meagre, they are crucial in supplementing the elderly’s ability to afford medicines, food, and other necessities.

A universal social security

The biggest gap, and one which may only widen, is in social protection for the working poor. The UPA government appointed the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganized Sector (NCEUS) in 2004 to look into livelihood conditions and social security for unorganized workers – employed in the unorganized sector and those in the formal sector without any social protection. It found that only those in the formal sector, 8 percent of India’s workforce, enjoys social security. Over 91 percent of workers, over 39.5 crore workers, are in the informal sector.

The Commission highlighted that there had been almost no growth in formal employment since early 1990s and almost all growth in employment was in the unorganized sector. NCEUS’ finding that 79 percent of workers in unorganized sector lived on an income of less than Rs 20 a day made it evident that the gains of growth were bypassing the majority of the working population.

NCEUS proposed legislation for a national minimum security package for unorganized sector workers, social insurance, social assistance for life and health cover, old age benefits to all workers within a period of five years financed by the Centre and state governments, employers (where identifiable) and workers at a cost of less than 0.5 percent of Gross Domestic Product after five years. The UPA discarded the Commission’s recommendations for statutory backing to social protection. “NCEUS suggested a National Fund for this and a notional Rs 1500 crores was set up. It proposed that National and State Social Security Advisory Boards were to be created but only 14 states set these up,” says a senior government official.

India spends 1.4 percent of its GDP on social protection, among the lowest in Asia, far lower than China, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and even Nepal (5.4, 3.2, 3.6, 2.1 percent, respectively). The NDA government has not yet indicated any support to the idea of legally guaranteed social protection for all workers. Officials say the government is proposing to issue a smart card, “U-WIN”, Unorganized Sector Identification Number, to every worker in the unorganized sector with a unique identification number for accessing social schemes. What these benefits will be, and what their legal guarantee is uncertain.