Ehsaan Nagar, Gandhi Nagar and Rajiv Nagar — three slums in and around Bhopal that are home to 288 families of the Bel-Pardhi, one of the 198 ‘denotified’ tribes in India. Gandhinagar and Ehsaan Nagar came up in 2002 on the outskirts of Bhopal, whereas Rajivnagar is located well within the city limits.
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In the wake of the COVID-19 triggered lockdown, availability and access to food among these tribal families across these three slums, who lead a hand-to-mouth existence even during normal times, has emerged as an issue of great concern.
Out of these 288 households, 50-60% have ration cards, and received three months’ ration supplies. But most of this supply was received by them just before the lockdown was imposed and have already been consumed.
- Yellow cardholders received 15 kg rice/family, 15 kg wheat/member and 3 kg sugar/family
- Blue card holders got only 4 kg wheat/member and 1 kg rice/member.
- In normal times, families with a yellow ration card receive 5 kg wheat per member and 5 kg rice and 1 kg sugar at family level.
- On a blue ration card, each member of the family gets 4 kg wheat and 1 kg rice and no sugar in normal times.
Households who did not have a ration card received just 4 to 5 kg of ration per family (instead of per person) based on their Aadhaar card. These families without ration card are most vulnerable and exposed to hunger and distress.
Unprepared for the fact that the lockdown would last so long, many of them, in perpetual need of liquid cash, even sold a portion of it. As a result, several households hardly saw their rations last through the period. The increase in prices of cooking oil (not part of the ration supplies) and fuelwood placed an added burden on the already crumbling economic capacity of these households.
In May 2020, there was no distribution for regular card holders. Some families without ration card received 4-5 kg wheat in Rajiv Nagar and 10 kg of wheat in Ehsaan Nagar. But several other non-ration card holders were turned away on the pretext of having no proper papers or absence of Samagra ID. In June there has been no distribution of food at all till date.
People in the locality say that the government is carrying out surveys in the city to understand the food security situation. However, as of now, there has been no such survey in the Pardhi locality. Residents are planning to reach out to the collector in case they do not get any support or ration.
Moreover, there are several cases where younger members after marriage have removed their names from their parent’s ration cards and have applied for a new one. Yet to receive their own cards, these couples, now, are relying on their parents for support, who did not receive adequate PDS ration for themselves in the first place.
Families without cards or with incorrect entries have approached local Parshads and Tehsildar, but to no avail. There are several such households that are facing acute shortage of food because their supplies have been cut off.
In some families, members are stranded in other towns and struggling in the face of food and income insecurity. They have not received any ration from the government and are entirely dependent on the support from civil society organisations (CSOs).
Help from other quarters
One active CSO in these slum areas is Muskaan, that has responded to the deteriorating food security situation by initiating food distribution drives among the tribes. Muskaan provides rations once a week, which includes 1 litre oil, 10 kg wheat, 2 kg dal and packets of spices and eggs per family. Muskaan also distributes vegetables on alternative days.
This is the only source of food for such households. However, a discussion with the organisation on May 5th revealed that the stocks they had were running out too. They had approached the MP government officials for arranging ration for the Pardhi community.
Shunned by society, ignored by the state
“The Pardhis are facing more problems than any other marginalised community during this lockdown, and their needs have been completely sidelined,” says Pallav Thudgar from Muskaan, adding that there are several reasons behind such apathy, the roots of which can be located in the long history of collective suppression and indifference from society and state.
According to him, due to the nature of their occupation (scrap work being the current primary occupation), they do not enjoy any respect in society and are treated with suspicion by most. Even the much-required support from government is not appropriate or adequate.
Pallav also adds, “Most in this community are illiterate and are unable to lodge complaints. Lack of knowledge and confidence have also deprived them and stopped them from availing the benefits of helpline numbers. Non-availability of documents makes their problems worse. Even the MP government has not yet set up any proper planning and policy department for the denotified tribes.”
It is estimated that there are nearly 1500 nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes and 198 denotified tribes in the country, accounting for 15 crore Indians, as per the Renke Commission (2008). The Bhiku Ramji Idate Commission (2018) also makes a similar estimation. These 15 crore remain socially, politically and economically marginalised even now, deprived of basic human rights.
A sizeable number of these communities have not made it to any of the three scheduled lists and thus, remain outside the reach of affirmative action.
Many of these communities are still dependent upon the forest for sustaining life, while some engage in diverse livelihoods such as pastorals, blacksmiths, stone workers, basket and broom makers, roof-thatchers, wandering quacks, acrobats and tumblers, snake-charmers, bear exhibitors, rag-pickers, waste-pickers and beggars.
The road ahead
With the phased lifting of the lockdown, it is expected that Pardhis will start going out in search of livelihoods. At this juncture, it would be prudent for the State Minorities Commission to take cognisance of the situation and ensure adequate and appropriate arrangements to ensure food for the Pardhis, at least till their regular income sources have been restored.
Malnourishment is widespread amongst the Pardhis (along with other DNTs of MP), and the state should immediately reach out to these people on the margins, to prevent any long term health issues, especially among the children. Muskaan is trying to involve the district collector in ensuring provision of nutritious food to the children regularly and creating livelihood opportunities for the Pardhi community in the post-COVID situation.
One of their priorities would be to include all into the ambit of PDS without delay, possibly creating separate distribution channels, in order to put the people on the path of livelihood restoration.
In the long term, the State should start looking into the structural issues that lead to food insecurity and push the community towards such precarious existence.