Arguing that grain is more important than cash, villagers in India's Jharkhand state
are protesting to restore a former system that saw subsidized grains distributed among them. They are calling to ax the newly introduced policy of transferring financial subsidies directly to their bank accounts, which they claim is problematic. Intermittent protests continued in the streets of the state capital Ranchi
last week as hordes of angry locals demanded the government cancel its Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT) scheme. The scheme was introduced in October 2017 as a pilot project to curb rampant corruption within the public distribution system. "But it has become a harrowing experience. We want the old system back," said Draupathi Devi, who lives in the Nagri area on the outskirts of Ranchi.
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The project covers 12,000 families in Nagri, or about 55,000 people. However, if the government extends its "cash-for-grain system" across the state "it will be a great disaster," said Jean Dreze, an economics professor at Ranchi University. Dreze, who has been closely monitoring the implementation of the new system, told uanews.com "it is making their lives miserable." This is because the villagers "waste enormous time shuttling between the banks, service centers and authorized ration shops" to get their food grain, he said. The government lacks basic infrastructure and discipline, Dreze said. In 2016, the state launched an equally unpopular quota system
for job-sharing. Under the previous system, all people needed to do was take their ration card to their public distribution shop and show proof of eligibility to purchase one kilogram of grain at a cost of just 1 rupee, he added. Villagers say most banks don't want to cooperate with the new scheme because the size of transactions are are so paltry. (Photo provided)
Each family receives 35kg of subsidized grains per month on average, depending on the number of adults. But critics say the new system puts them at a disadvantage. They must now pay 32 rupees (US$0.50) for 1kg of grain at the shop and wait for the government to deposit 31 rupees in their bank account. This is seen as unfairly cumbersome as the government has no effective system to inform the beneficiary that their subsidy has been deposited. Villagers also say there are not enough bank branches, which entails long travel times and interminable waits just to find out whether the money has arrived or not, Devi said. Moreover, the money can be deposited into the account of any adult family member. "So we are never sure who should stand in line," she said. "And even if the money is there, the bank often won't let us withdraw it because it's such a small amount." To get the money, they claim they have to pay bribes in the range of 30-40 rupees at local government service centers known as Pragya Kendra. Then they "run to the shop and stand in line for hours to get the grain," Devi added. A study conducted by student volunteers in January showed that most families have three bank accounts but no notification service to alert them when a deposit is made. This means they have to trudge long distances of 4.5km on average to enquire at the bank in person. The service centers are equally far. Of the four monthly rations disbursed since October 2017, people have collected only 2.5 on average, the study showed. Devi said sometimes the money goes into an account held by an elderly home-bound person, who must rely on a friend or relative to fetch it. Another concern is that villagers are required to confirm their identity at multiple venues by providing various documents and confirming biometric data, Devi said. "No matter how difficult it is, we have no choice but to do it," she said. "If we don't keep availing ourselves of these benefits, we will be removed from all welfare schemes." Social activist Akash Ranjan has his own way of describing the new system — government-sponsored torture. He said the main beneficiaries of the scheme are indigenous people and Dalits, who sit at the bottom of India's notorious caste system and are considered "untouchables." Jesuit Father Xavier Soreng said the "beneficiaries are illiterate poor. They can't understand or handle all of these procedures. They need to be educated before such schemes are introduced." "The system isn't people-friendly. For example, private banks don't like them because the transactions are so small. Only a few banks will touch them, and the villagers have to wait there for hours." He said the old system should be restored. To push for this, thousands of villagers gathered in front of the state governor's office on Feb. 26 and urged the system be scrapped. Opposition leaders from the Congress, Jharkhand Mukti Morcha and leftist parties, among others, joined the rally and threatened to scale it up unless the government heeds their demands on state-wide level.