Lucknow: Around 35,000 members of the nomadic Musahar community — living in thatched huts in the outskirts of Uttar Pradesh's Kushinagar district — say that they are in desperate need of foodgrains and medical aid. Locked down in their homes since the past 16 days, the members of this one of the most deprived communities —who mainly subsist on daily wages — say they have received no help from the government. A few of the families also said that they have not eaten a single grain in the last few days.
“Ek rupya sarkar se nahi mila hai abhi tak, kaam ekdam chaupat ho gaya hai, pehle se bura haal ho gaya hai, jab tak ek-aad log mar na jaye, koi sunega nahi (We have not received a single penny from the government so far. Work is completely stopped and our condition are worse than before. But, nobody will pay heed until someone dies),” Emarti Devi, a widowed Musahar women, told NewsClick.
Sudarshan, a daily wage worker from the Musahar community, is angry over the apathy of the government in providing help to people like him even during the times of such unprecedented crisis. “Before lockdown, we were told that the government will provide foodgrains and essential commodities at doorstep but nothing like that has happened in 15 days of lockdown. Our situation is very critical," said the resident of Kudwa Dileep Nagar under Kasia town, Kushinagar district.
Sudarshan’s views were echoed by his neighbour Abhiram Musahar, a landless farm labourer. “I used to work on a sugarcane field but ever since the lockdown has been imposed, we have become handicapped. We cannot step out from our hut as the sarpanch (village head) and police have asked us not to go outside. After our stock of wheat flour ran out and there was no vegetable or dal left, we cook rice with salt sometimes. But how long we can survive like this?,” he questioned, his voice shaking with emotions.
Also read: COVID-19 Lockdown: Starving Musahar Kids Were Eating Grass in Varanasi, Says Ground Report
Sisain Paras tola, Gurmiya tola, Dhuriya Bhat, Khadahi, Koilaswa are small hamlets of the Musahar community, which falls under Kushinagar district. These areas are among the most backward and poverty-stricken ghettos where these poor landless communities live in extremely unhygienic condition. The community, considered untouchable, has traditionally been referred as rat-catchers. They have always been kept away from mainstream society across the country.
Highlighting the issue of Musahars amid lockdown, Hridaya Nand Sharma, who has been working with the community for years, told NewsClick, "Though some of them have received foodgrains but due to lack of documents, most of the members do not have access to adequate ration and basic healthcare. The main reason is because of most of them do not have the red card (ratin card given to those living below poverty line). They are also victims of political conspiracy of the village, which is why they are never able to avail any facilities provided by the government. The district authority must ensure food for them."
This is not the first time that the people from Musahar community are forced to fight with starvation. In 2019, nine people of Musahar community had died due to alleged malnutrition and different diseases in one month in three villages of Dudahi block in Kushinagar, Uttar Pradesh. These deaths, which included a five-year-old girl, had exposed the poor state of health, food security and employment among the most vulnerable sections of society.
Sharma, who has been regularly visiting Musahar hamlets in Kushinagar district, said, “When they do not even have the red card then how will they get ration? Wheat procurement season officially begins on April 1 and most of the Musahars' livelihood depends on this but due to lockdown and social distancing, they have been warned not to step out."
Also read: COVID-19: Landless Musahars Receive No Help from Govt, Starve Amid Bihar Lockdown
The Uttar Pradesh government had announced that they would provide three-months ration and a monthly allowance of Rs 1,000 each to daily wagers but most of the Musahars do not have the red card or MGNREGA job cards. "The plight of Musahars can be eschewed from the fact that they do still not have red cards despite the government order to provide 100% red cards for Musahars. They have not benefitted from a single scheme of the Modi government," Sharma alleged.
PUBLIC DISTRIBUTION SYSTEM NOT UPDATED
The list of Public Distribution System (PDS) beneficiaries has not been updated for over five years and reportedly excludes many children and women.
Dipa Sinha, assistant professor at BR Ambedkar University in Delhi and member of the Right to Food Campaign (RTFC), said that the UP government announced the scheme of providing free ration for only Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY) beneficiaries. "Only 40.94 lakh households i.e 126.96 lakh persons are counted under Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY) in Uttar Pradesh. This is not even 10% of the population. The PDS system has not been updated over the past five years. This is an emergency situation and the government should make the food subsidy scheme universal for the next few months to ensure no one goes hungry," Sinha added.
She further said that the government should not have included only AAY cardholders as millions, including children and migrant workers, are excluded from the scheme. "More than 80% of the people of Uttar Pradesh will be in need of free ration if you calculate according to their income," she claimed.
Even when they do have the ration card, thousands of people are forced to return without anything from ration shops. Kamta Devi, a white card holder, visits the local ration shop every day to get her family's share of government-subsidised foodgrains under PDS and every day she returns home empty-handed. "We are living in the mercy of some of NGOs and our neighbours, who are providing us food otherwise no ration distribution has been done by the government in my village," she said.