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India’s Food Security Crisis

Updated: Apr 25, 2023

Webinar: Tech-enabled Exclusion: Law, Poverty, Rights, and Covid19 Part I: Summary of session on Food Security Article 21 Trust in collaboration with the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) organized a Webinar to explore ‘Tech-enabled Exclusion: Law, Poverty, Rights, and Covid19’ on Sunday, 17 May, 2020. The Webinar’s rationale was that the government’s policy responses to the two major Covid19 pandemic-related crises, viz. food security and healthcare, were not designed keeping in mind the needs of India’s toiling masses. Furthermore, the government’s prescription of technological interventions as some sort of magic bullets – the Aarogya Setu app, the e-coupon system for availing rations through the Public Distribution System (PDS) in Delhi, a database for migrant workers, etc. – create the potential for centralizing more power, disempowering the already vulnerable, and further alienating the already excluded. During the webinar, the speakers and moderators critically analyzed these policy responses, technological interventions, as well as the role (or lack thereof) of institutions like the Supreme Court in upholding the dignity and rights of the poorest and the most vulnerable. The Webinar’s speakers included:

  • Usha Ramanathan (Legal researcher on law and poverty)

  • Sanjay Parikh (Senior Advocate)

  • Anjali Bhardwaj (Delhi Rozi Roti Adhikar Abhiyan)

  • Dr. Sunita Bandewar (Jan Swasthya Abhiyan)

The Webinar’s sessions were moderated by:

  • Kavita Srivastava (PUCL)

  • Prasanna S (Article 21 Trust)

In this first part of a two part summary, we briefly encapsulate the discussion on food security and exclusion, which formed the first session of the Webinar. Kavita set the tone for the Webinar by contextualizing a welfare state’s degeneration into a surveillance state, as the technological apparatus being pushed in response to the ongoing crisis runs the risk of being used to surveil, exclude, and control people. She also highlighted the lack of any meaningful intervention by the Supreme Court insofar as coming to the aid of the most vulnerable people. How technology has deepened the crisis Initiating the discussion, Anjali stressed the fact that hunger is not new to this country; there have been starvation deaths in the past which the government has continued to deny. But, though the ongoing pandemic-related lockdown has made the situation more acute, the government is not accepting the long standing demand for “universalizing” the PDS, making food grain rations available even to those without a ration card. Instead they insist on ‘targeted’ distribution in which only those people who have a ration card linked to their Aadhaar numbers can avail subsidized food grains through the PDS. Others who may be in dire need of food are denied and remain excluded. Since the beginning of the lockdown, there has been only one announcement made about providing extra food grains to 80 crore people who already possessed ration cards. Recently it was announced that 8 crore people will be added to this, only if they are migrant labour, which would mean that migrant labourers will have to prove that they have been living in a place away from their home for a certain number of days; not being able to prove this would again lead to exclusion. Anjali further said that the State is obsessed with making people use inaccessible technology or by compelling them to show unavailable documents, in order for them to avail their rights. One such technology-enabled project is the One Nation One Ration Card scheme, which is worrying because it only covers ration cards linked with the holder’s family’s Aadhaar numbers – and again only where Electronic Point of Sale (e-PoS) machines work – which is not the case for a large number of people thus denying them their benefits and entitlements. Although this is done in the name of transparency, other simple measures such as publishing information on the stock available at each PDS shop and the volume of sales, etc. are not carried out to reduce information asymmetry. Specifically with respect to Delhi’s e-coupon system, she highlighted that accessing an e-coupon required a person to have a smartphone / computer in order to apply online and receive the one-time password (OTP). The applicants then have to upload their family’s photograph and Aadhaar details, which is out of reach for the most vulnerable. Anjali concluded by asserting that central and state governments need to move towards universalizing the PDS by deploying such simple tools as indelible ink in order to ensure that the same beneficiary does not receive their rations twice. Abdication of duty by executive and judiciary Sr. Advocate Sanjay Parikh began by expounding that the Right to Food as a subset of Right to Life (Article 21) is universally considered to be non-derogable in character, which means that it is the prime responsibility of a state governed by rule of law that no one should go hungry, no one should starve. Regarding travel restrictions, he highlighted that the Railways waiting for consent of the destination state [Update: This is no longer the case.] before letting people travel across states violates their fundamental right of free movement. As to the role of the judiciary, he questioned why the Supreme Court – which has repeatedly called itself a court for the poorest – did not take suo motu cognizance of the crisis and demand of the executive the steps being taken to address the crisis. The exhibition of sensitivity and compassion in handling such issues is also a part of Article 21. Today, those returning home to their villages due to jobs and savings drying up face the risk of starvation for preventing which there is no scheme. Caste, class bias making people invisible Usha began by pointing out that in our caste- and class-ridden society, the struggles of a particular section of the society have always been invisibilized and ignored. When the lockdown was imposed, and on a very short notice people were told that they cannot move around, it affected the migrant workers the most. But even at that time, we knew that the transmission initially began among people who had returned from other countries. As migrant workers had limited contact with such a populace, they could have easily been allowed to return to their homes at the beginning of lockdown itself. Instead, they were locked in a place where they had no hope, no wherewithal, and this policy added to their vulnerability. She said that the courts are also part of the same community which looks at the poor as being dangerous, disruptive, and carriers of disease. By refusing to intervene in these matters, the court has shut down a democratic forum to question the excesses of the executive, which it had no right to do. She further mentioned that the order by which states were asked to prevent migrants from walking to their homes essentially criminalized their conduct; a health crisis was treated as a law and order issue. The way labour is being treated today indicates that we are returning to bondage where an economy does not exist to serve the people but certain people exist to serve the economy. Usha concluded with observations on the One Nation One Ration Card scheme, saying that the whole system will run on Aadhaar numbers and biometric data and that, since 2019, circulars and letters have been issued permitting people to nominate another person whose identity can be biometrically authenticated (in case their biometric authentication fails). She asked what this meant for the system being about ‘our identity’. Questions and Answers One of the questions asked by the audience attending the Webinar was about the future of labour and economy and the INR 20 lakh crore package. Another question was about the newly announced migrant workers database, and how that could further restrict the rights of migrant labourers. In her response to the question about the migrant workers database, Usha mentioned a fireside session between Nandan Nilekani, Vinod Khosla, and Srikanth Nadhamuni discussing the various uses of the Aadhaar number. One use involved creating a “trusted database” through which employers could access information about migrant labourers and, based on that information, decide whether or not to hire them. She mentioned the recent announcement of the National Migrant Information System which requires that migrant labourers register with the host state mentioning their Aadhaar number and skill level. This would essentially mean that the host state will then decide how to use those migrant labourers. She pointed to hints that the Bonded Labour Abolition Act may be removed and, should that happen, it would be the clearest indication of the state’s intent for labourers. Anjali then wrapped up the discussion, mentioning that in Uttar Pradesh migrant labourers returning to their homes are being asked to procure passes and efforts are afoot to create databases of labourers and that what we actually need is a database detailing utilization of PM CARES funds, how ration is being distributed. Fundamental rights exist to uphold the dignity of individuals, she said, adding that what we see instead is people constantly being tested; asked to enrol themselves in database after database; made to prove their identities (that they are a citizen of India; that they belong to a particular state); made to procure passes; asked to go online even to register grievances – all these perverse fixes need to be resisted in a democracy. Kavita brought the first session to a close by urging that people show passion and compassion in making the state accountable by demanding that their tax monies be used to send migrant labourers back home, that the locks of godowns be broken in order to let everyone have food.


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