On March 29, when Sharda Atram, 23, gave birth to a daughter, there were no celebrations in her home. All she could think about was how she would afford feeding an extra mouth.
Sharda lives with her widowed mother-in-law and two-year-old son at Bhimanala village in the Adivasi tehsil of Zari Jamni in Yavatmal district of Maharashtra’s Vidarbha region. Two months ago, her husband killed himself after his crops failed, leaving behind a loan he was unable to pay.
Sharda has Rs 10 in cash and a few kilos of wheat, jowar, rice, and dal left. Her family lives on bhakri, chutney, and, occasionally, watery dal. Garlic is the only “vegetable” in their diet. Since her husband’s death, her mother-in-law has been the sole breadwinner, working for daily wages.
Now, there is no work in the fields as the country is in lockdown to prevent the spread of Covid-19, and there’s no help from the administration.
Social activists told Newslaundry there are at least 10 lakh widows and single women farm workers like Sharda in rural Maharashtra, living in abject poverty with no access to government schemes. Some of them get pensions but the nearest ATMs are up to 40 km away, and public transport is suspended.
“My husband ended his life because of failed crops and a loan of Rs 70,000. He and my mother-in-law were the working hands of our family,” Sharda told Newslaundry. “After his death, my mother-in-law took care of the expenses. I couldn’t go to work since I was pregnant.”
She added: “We are dependent on daily wages but since everything is closed, we don’t have any work to do. We don’t have any cash with us, nor do we have enough food to survive for a long period of time. I don’t know how we will manage.”
Sharda’s mother-in-law, Chankibai, lost her husband 10 years ago. Over the last few months, she collected 20 kg of jowar, which was otherwise going to waste, while working in the fields as a labourer. Last week, she went to the government ration shop and bought 10 kg of wheat and three kg of rice.
“I had around Rs 60 with me and spent Rs 50 on the rations. We have only Rs 10 left,” Chankibai told Newslaundry. “We don’t have onions, potatoes, tomatoes, or any other vegetable except garlic. There is 1.5 kg of toor dal and we eat that once every two or three days. We have 250 grams of oil at home.”
Sharda is breastfeeding her baby, and Chankibai is worried. “She and her newborn daughter require nutrition, but we are surviving on bhakri, chutney and dal. My grandson survives on roti and chutney; there’s no arrangement of milk for him. I don’t know how I’ll buy rations next month.”
Roadblocks to government aid
On March 26, the central government announced the distribution of 5 kg of grains per person and one kg of pulses per family holding ration cards. The scheme, called the Pradhan Mantri Gareeb Kalyan Yojna, is meant to help economically weaker sections tide over the Covid-19 crisis.
However, the Maharashtra government has hindered the implementation of the central scheme. It issued an order on March 31 stating that free rations until ration card-holders take their regular quota of grains by paying money at fair price shops. The reason cited was that the “stocking of food grains and their transportation would pose a problem” otherwise. ( Newslaundry has the copy of government resolution)
Manohar Atram, who runs a fair price shop at Mudgaon village in Zari Jamni, said he hasn’t received any instruction from the tehsil about distributing free grains. “I have heard about the scheme announced by the central government. But we have not received any instruction,” he said. “We will continue to charge money for food rations until we get an order from the state government.”
Manohar hasn’t received the regular rations for distribution for the month of April. “I think it will be delivered within the next two days,” he said.
Seema Kulkarni of the Mahila Kisan Adhikar Manch, a forum for women farmers’ rights, said the state’s order was a “tragedy” that has “become an obstacle in the free distribution of ration”.
Sharda, her two children, and her mother-in-law Chankibai.
Sundarabai Kumare, a resident of Mahadapur village in Yavatmal, describing food and money issues she faces during lockdown. Video credit: Subhag Dolke
“The state government order means you first have to spend money, and only then can you avail of the Centre’s scheme. It’s like a ‘buy one, get one free’ scheme, which is unfair on the part of the state government,” Seema told Newslaundry.
In this area, Seema said, women are facing two major issues during the lockdown, lack of food and cash flow. “On a daily basis, we receive calls from people saying they aren’t getting their rations, that the rations under the regular quota are inadequate,” she said. “With these conditions, we are not sure if free rations will be distributed or not.”
Seema estimates that there are about 10 lakh women farmworkers and farmer widows in rural Maharashtra. “In the present situation, they have no cash, they have no one on whom to rely. If there’s no free distribution of rations, how will they survive?” she asked. “Not only these women, there are many poor households. The state government should rethink this order and remove its condition. They should immediately start the free distribution as said by the Centre. In fact, they should provide free rations to everyone, irrespective of ration cards.”
Sangeeta Atram is an activist with the Society of Rural and Urban Joint Activists, or Srujan, based in Zari Jamni. She said there is a shortage of food and money in rural areas because of the lockdown. To add to their problems, even though the Centre has ordered the transfer of Rs 2,000 to each farmer, many of them can’t access the money.
“The government has transferred Rs 2,000 under the PM Kisan scheme, and many people received Rs 600 under the widow pension scheme. But they cannot go and withdraw the cash,” Sangeeta explained. “Banks or ATMs are 15-20 km away from their villages, sometimes 25-30 km away. And because of the lockdown, there’s no transport to get there. Everything is closed.”
And not everyone has received the money in their bank accounts. “They are in dire straits.”
Several of the women Newslaundry spoke to in the tehsils of Zari Jamni and Kalamb had received no payments from the government. A few who had weren’t able to go to the bank or ATM.
‘I have to sit and die of hunger’
Babybai Kuchankar, 45, works as a farm labourer for daily wages in Yavatmal’s Zunzarpur village. Her husband died eight years ago, and her adult sons don’t live with her. Since the lockdown began, she has been surviving on grains given by neighbours.
“I used to earn Rs 100-150 a day,” Babybai said. “Two days ago, I bought nine kg of wheat and six kg of rice from a fair price shop, spending Rs 50. I have Rs 50 left. I can’t borrow from my sons, since they are also out of work. I also need to return the rice and wheat I borrowed from my neighbours.”
Babybai also has half a kg of toor dal, half a kg of oil, and one kg of salt. She has no vegetables, and can’t afford to buy them. “If this condition continues, I don’t know what I will eat. I have Rs 50 only, and the government is not distributing rations for free,” she said. “I don’t have many options, so I have to sit and die of hunger.”
Vaishali Babudkar, 35, is also a widow in Zunzarpur. Her husband, Suresh, died five years ago from an unknown ailment, leaving behind Vaishali and their two sons, aged 12 and 11. Vaishali works for daily wages on local farms. Since the lockdown, she’s been out of work.
“The police have asked us to remain at home because of coronavirus. For the last one month there has been no work, so I have no cash. Even the rations got over,” she told Newslaundry. “I borrowed Rs 200 and bought 15 kg of wheat and rice from a fair price shop for Rs 50. I have to feed my family. I don’t know how I’ll do that if I don’t get work.”
Sonabai Vaidya, 60, lost her husband 15 years ago. She is also dependent on daily wages. She managed to save Rs 100 over the last two months, a rupee or two at a time. “Otherwise, I would have been left with no money,” she said.
Women waiting for food kits distributed by Srujan, an NGO working in Yavatmal. The kits contain grains, sugar, cooking oil, potatoes, onions, and chillies.
Swarna and her daughter Pooja. They live in a neighbour's tin shed.
Sonabai spent Rs 50 at the fair price shop, buying wheat and rice. Like Sharda, Babybai and Vaishali, she hasn’t received any money from the government.
Shakuntala Kuchankar, 60, hasn’t either. She had Rs 100 saved, and spent Rs 90 on 15 kg of wheat and 15 kg of rice. “I bought 30 kg of rations because I don’t know when the next ration will come,” she explained. “I am a labourer and fill my stomach with my daily earnings. I don’t know how long we all have to survive like this.”
Waiting for death
These stories of suffering extend beyond Vidarbha, into the region of Marathwada.
Shyamal Raut, 45, lives in Diksal village in Marathwada’s Osmanabad district. Her husband died 17 years ago, when she was pregnant with their second child, and she’s taken care of her family since, working as a farm labourer.
“But this situation is dangerous,” she said. “It seems like we will die of hunger. We only have wheat flour for the next two days. We eat chapatis with chutney or salt once a day.”
Shyamal didn’t have “a single penny” with her, and borrowed Rs 50 to buy rations. But when her son went to the fair price shop, the rations had been exhausted. He was asked to return in two days. “We don’t have any money or food,” Shyamal said.
In Sarola Mandwa village, Swarna Kaawle, 35, doesn’t even have a house to live in. “We live in a neighbour’s tin shed,” Swarna said. “My husband died 10 years ago. Since then, my daughter and I have lived alone.”
Swarna works as a farm labourer, earning a daily wage of Rs 100-200. Her earnings have dried up since the lockdown. Swarna bought three kg of wheat and four kg of rice last month for Rs 24, but it’s now over
“I just have 2.5 kg of jowar at home which I received from the farmer on whose land I worked,” she said. “I make bhakri and a chickpea sabji which will last for the next two or three days. I heard they will provide rations free of cost but till now, nothing has been provided.”
Swarna added, “This is harvesting season, the time when farm labourers make money. But with everything closed, we have no chance of making any money. I don’t know how we will live. Aamchi mariachi vel aali aahe.” The time of our death has arrived.
In Tandulwadi village, Asha Dikhle, 33, lost her husband three years ago, to suicide. The responsibility of taking care of the family fell on her.
“My in-laws are old and cannot work,” she said. “I used to earn by working in farms but because of this coronavirus, there is no work. We have just two kg of wheat flour and a little bit of chickpea. I didn’t eat food yesterday so I can save up.”
Asha, Shyamal and Swarna have not received any money from the government yet.
Surviving on chapatis and salt, or no food at all
There are 365 farmer widows and single women farm labourers in just 20-25 gram panchayats in Zari Jamni and Khelapur, said Yogini Dolke, director of Srujan. Across Maharashtra, there are over 10 lakh women, struggling to make ends meet during the lockdown.
According to Yogini, 70 percent of the women in the Kolam community, a Scheduled Tribe, in Zari Jamni and Khelapur have barely Rs 40-50 left. They survive on chapatis and salt.
“They have been without work since March 20,” she said. “They have no cash, just maybe Rs 40 or Rs 100. They are not receiving grains free of cost; they have to pay Rs 50-100 for rations but that amount is too much for them. They can’t withdraw money that might have been deposited in their accounts since they live in remote areas, and transport systems aren’t operating.”
In Khadki village in Osmanabad, Sunita Gaike, 35, has only Rs 50 in her pocket. Her husband committed suicide nine years ago. She works in farms for a daily wage of Rs 150-200. “I used to have Rs 400-500 at home at that time,” she said.
Sunita spent Rs 36 at the fair price shop two days ago, buying nine kg of wheat and six kg of rice. She has no vegetables. She has received no money or bank transfers from the government, and wonders how long her Rs 50 will last.
“But I am not the only one facing this situation,” she said. “There are many single women who are farm labourers, and widows like me, who are living like this.”
Newslaundry contacted Chagan Bhujbal, the state minister for food and civil supply, to ask about the Maharashtra government resolution that has hindered the flow of free rations to those who need it. The story will be updated when a response is received.
Update on April 11
After Newslaundry's report, NCP leader Supriya Sule took cognizance of the issue after activists sent her the story and tagged her on Twitter. Soon after, she coordinated with the Yavatmal collector, MD Singh, who took action: This morning, a team comprising ASHAs, the block development officer, and others distributed essential kits to 20 families in Bhimnala.
Singh also said that "whatever banking services they [the families] need will be delivered at their doorsteps". Significantly, Chagan Bhujbal, the state minister for food and civil supply, has still not responded to Newslaundry's query.
Relief material being distributed on April 11, after this report was published.