Excluded by marriage: ‘Over a million women in Odisha left out of PDS’

A large number of poor women in Odisha are unable to access food grains under PDS as their names have been cancelled from their parents’ ration cards but not added to their husband’s ration card. The COVID-19 pandemic has only increased their suffering.

Shivani Gupta
| Updated: March 22nd, 2021

Tens of thousands of women in the state are uncertain about the food supplies they are entitled to receive. Photo: UN Women/Gaganjit Singh

It’s been three years since 25-year-old Uma Kumbhar received her share of ration under the public distribution system (PDS). Despite several visits to the local ration shop, she remains excluded from the Indian government’s food security scheme.

The reason? Her wedding.

“I got married three years ago. Six months after that, my name was removed from my father’s ration card,” Kumbhar, a resident of Kansapal village in Odisha’s Balangir district told Gaon Connection. Despite several attempts, her name has not been included in her husband’s ration card either. “I’ve not received my share of ration even once in these three years,” she told Gaon Connection.

Kumbhar is not alone.

A large number of married women are unable to access their share of foodgrains  under PDS as their names have been cancelled from their parents’ ration card but not added to their husband’s.

A large number of married women are unable to access their share of foodgrains under PDS. Photo: By arrangement

Right to Food Campaign, a network of organisations and individuals working on food rights in Odisha, has estimated that at least a million married women in the 18-29 age group in the state have been excluded from PDS after their wedding, since the enactment of the National Food Security Act, 2013. Under this central act, priority households are entitled to  five kilogrammes (kg) of food grain (rice or wheat, or combination) per person per month at Re one per kg.

“The names of these women are easily deleted from their parents’ ration card. However, it is a real task to get their name into the husband’s card,” Sameet Panda, lead member of the non-profit, told Gaon Connection.

This exclusion sometimes extends to the children too, claimed Panda. For instance, Kumbhar said her daughter’s name was not included in the family’s ration card. Both she and her 15-month-old daughter are entitled to five kg of subsidised rice each every month. But, they are unable to avail it. 

This exclusion sometimes extends to the children too, said Panda. Photo: UNICEF/flickr

Hence, the family of three has to survive on the PDS supply of only one family member — Kumbhar’s husband. “My husband gets five kilos of rice every month. But is that enough? We have to feed our family. We are poor. We somehow manage to buy rice from outside. We don’t have a choice” rued Kumbhar.

Twenty-two-year-old Hali Bisoi, a resident of Kamora village in Nabarangpur district, and 22-year-old Deepa Bagh of Jorpada village in Kalahandi district face a similar predicament. Bagh has been married for a year now, but is unable to receive her share of grain under PDS.

“After three months of our wedding, my wife Deepa’s name was excluded from her father’s ration card. Last year, in April, we submitted an application in the panchayat to include her name in my ration card. Every time we visit the ration shop, we are told there is no progress in our application,” 25-year-old Mukesh Bagh told Gaon Connection.

Rice is the staple food in tribal communities in Odisha. Photo: Jayanti Baruda

MS Haque, joint secretary of the food supply and consumer welfare department, Odisha, told Gaon Connection: “Our process is based on inquiry. If their claim is correct, these women will get what they are entitled to.”

What is the government’s response to the non-profit’s estimate that a million women have been left out of PDS? “Out of 3.5 crore women [35 million] in the state, we do not know who is getting married, who is getting divorced or who is moving out of her village. The government has provided the facility of porting names from one place to another. If these women do not apply for that, then those left out may be one lakh [0.1 million] or ten lakh [one million]. We do not have any data,” Haque said.

“They can apply for the ration card both online and offline. If they are illiterate, they can visit the block, and seek help from the supply inspector,” he added. However, the women say that despite making several rounds to the panchayat and block offices, their names remain excluded.

The COVID-19 pandemic year has been particularly tough, as several people lost their livelihood and families stared at hunger. Not being able to access foodgrain due to them under PDS made matters worse.

A survey by Gaon Connection on the impact of COVID19 on rural India conducted last summer showed only 27 per cent of surveyed households without a ration card received foodgrains support from the government during the pandemic. In the case of poor households, seven out of 10 families did not receive government ration.

Source: Gaon Connection Survey

Mukesh lost his job due to the crisis that followed the COVID-19 lockdown last year.  “I used to work in a rice mill forty kilometres away from my village. Due to corona, I lost my job. There were times when we did not even have rice to eat. Had my wife received her share of ration, it would have been of great help,” said Mukesh, who now farms in a landholding of less than an acre.

Nutrition at stake

With women and kids getting excluded from PDS, experts fear there might be further deterioration in the state’s already-poor nutrition status.

The National Family Health Survey-4: 2015-16 showed that in Odisha, every second (51 per cent) woman between 15 and 49 years of age is anaemic. Further, 44.6 per cent of kids between six and 59 months is anaemic, and every third (34.1 per cent) under-5 child is stunted (height-for-age).

Source: NFHS-4

“As part of PDS ration, the beneficiaries are given only rice. Health and nutrition requires more than just rice. And, they are deprived of even that,” Vandana Prasad, Noida-based public health expert who works with tribal communities in Odisha, told Gaon Connection.

“This is a basic denial of the rights of women and children, just that someone has got married and moved from one household to another,” she added.

Complex system

On October 22,  last year, Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik launched an online system through which people could apply for ration cards. 

“Although the state government claims the process of registration is digitised, there are delays. What is the use of this digitisation?” asked Panda.

Earlier this month on March 5, the Right to Food Campaign, Odisha, wrote to the chief minister informing him that “… even if the public distribution system has supposedly been completely digitised, no system of porting the names exist”.

“There is a portal for ration card management system at the block level, which is operated by the state government. Government officials have access and data entry operators work with them at the block level. Adding or excluding names is under their control,” explained Panda.

With women getting excluded from PDS, experts fear there might be further deterioration in the state’s already-poor nutrition status. Photo: Vincet Poulinet

Baidnath Madhi, a 48-year-old ration distributor from Kongra village, Tentulikhunti tehsil (an administrative unit), Nabarangpur district told Gaon Connection that “the portal for excluding the names of these women is always open. But the portal where we can add names of the beneficiaries is not open all the time. The portal has been closed since December last year.”

Every village in the state has a fixed target for PDS beneficiaries, but, often, the target does not include the entire population.

Joint secretary Haque informed Gaon Connection that as per the 2011 census, the PDS target for the state is fixed at 34.64 million (346,41,000) — around 82 per cent of the state’s population — is covered by the food security net. The new target will be decided as per the next population census.

Ration distributor Madhi pointed out the names of some women beneficiaries might not have been added to their husband’s ration card, because the village’s PDS target could have already been met.

However, Haque assured that “there is no need to increase the target, because if a name gets deleted from one place, it will be added to another automatically”. This will happen once there is a vacancy in a place’s PDS target.

Vacancies arise only in the case of someone dying or crossing the poverty index. “Every day, deaths are recorded. We need to first delete the names of the dead from ration cards. But, people do not come forward voluntarily for that,” said Haque.

Amid this bureaucratic turmoil, tens of thousands of women like Kumbhar are uncertain about the food supplies they are entitled to receive. Will their wait come to an end soon?