KOLKATA: Almost an entire village in Purulia district is starving as ration cards of around 50 families of tribal daily wagers are mortgaged with the local money lenders. The beneficiaries are now being deprived of the free food grains through public distribution system (PDS) as announced by Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee in the wake of COVID-19 threat.
The poor labourers in the Bengal’s most backward region had to deposit their ration cards, which are considered as the only ‘valuable asset’ that they possess, as guarantee for borrowing money ranging from Rs 5,000 to Rs 20,000. The poor tribals are compelled to do so for either buying train tickets to go to other states as migrants labourers, bear treatment expenditure or arrange funds for daughter’s wedding.
As interest of the loan amount, the money lenders collect food grains from local ration dealers against the ration cards of the poor borrowers and sell it in open market, sometimes to the original card-holders too.
The exploitation of the poor by their rich neighbours emerged at Sarjumatu village in Purulia’s Jhalda-I block, around 310 km from Kolkata, a small hamlet inhabited by a 60 odd families, who either work as outbound migrant labourers in other states or earn their bread and butter by going to nearby small towns to work as daily wage earners.
Most of the migrant labourers returned to the village before the lockdown was announced. Both the daily wage earners who returned home and those who used to work in the area are now starving along with their families as they have nothing to eat, nothing to cook.
"The chief minister announced free food grain for people like us till September. The ration card is required to avail the facility. When I requested the person from whom I had borrowed Rs 5,000 for going to Odisha one year ago to work as a labourer with folded hands, he turned down my plea saying I would have to repay the loan first. I have no money to meet his demand. I started begging and with my collection, I fed my five-member family. But now no one is helping me. I, my wife and our three children are starving for past two days," said Suresh Kalindi.
Suresh borrowed the money to buy train tickets to Odisha and secure accommodation in the neighbouring state till he gets a job there. Before receiving the money, he had to go to the local ration dealer and authorise the money lender verbally for receiving food grains on his behalf.
The members of the 50 odd families are not entitled to get the facility the chief minister announced for those who do not have ration cards. "The food coupon is being issued to those who do not have ration cards. Since, we were issued ration cards, we are not allowed to get the food coupons," said Jagabandhu Kalindi, who had to borrow Rs 22,000 from a local money lender for treatment of his son and daughter’s wedding.
"I used to go to Jhalda sub-division headquarters to work as a daily wager. But because of the lockdown, I cannot go anywhere. Earlier, I had to buy the same food grain that the money lender procured from ration shop using my card. Now, I have no money to buy it," Gaur Kalindi.
Bengal chief minister had announced free ration for 7.85 crore people in Bengal till September.
Rahul Majumdar, the district magistrate, Purulia, said the beneficiaries violated government norms by mortgaging ration cards and the money lenders too committed the same offence by receiving it. "I have asked the local administration to intervene and sort out the issue," he said.