I have always believed that communities having Food Security is one of the manifestations of their development. Food Security is not something that happens as a stand-alone phenomenon. It reflects the priorities of people and their spending capacities, availability and access to food grains, agriculture progress of the land, social policies of the State and more importantly, societal commitment to ensure that no person goes to bed hungry. It is with this understanding that I agreed to investigate the corruption and mal-administration in the Public Distribution System (PDS) when the Hon’ble Lok Ayukta of Karnataka asked me to. Apart from my own stand against corruption, I also saw this as an opportunity to help improve the efficiency and effectiveness of PDS in the State and do my bit for the issue of food security to the citizenry, especially those living in rural areas.
Despite my previous experience in the office of the Lok Ayukta investigating allegations of corruption in the Health & Medical Education sectors, I must confess that I was not prepared for what I saw. PDS in India is the world’s largest subsidized food distribution system, operating out of 500,000 Fair Price Shops (FPS). I am fascinated on why the planners named them ‘Fair Price’ shops! The very basis of my investigation is to see if they are really FAIR in letter and spirit.
I began the process many months ago in Sept 2010, by visiting a few shops in Heggadadevanakote Taluk of Mysore District. I was accompanied by the local officials and went to a small village having a population of around 2000 and with a few tribal colonies surrounding it. The FPS in the village is run by the local Farmers’ Society and I had heard of some irregularities there. The shop was shabbily maintained, with food grains lying all around the place. The key person had done a disappearing act on hearing of our visit and had left his assistant to face the flak. People of the area were waiting for their rations to be given to them and on casual enquiry I found that none of them were being given their rightful entitlement. People with the Antyodaya card, entitled to 29 Kg of rice and 6 Kg of wheat per month at Rs 3 and Rs 2 respectively, were only being given 25 Kg of rice at Rs 3.25 and 3 Kg of wheat at Rs 2.25. People were not even aware of what they were supposed to get and at what rates. They simply took what was given at the price the shopkeeper told them. None of them realized that they weren’t being given a receipt for the amount paid.
The local people got wind of my visit and a small crowd had gathered outside the shop to relate their woes. An elderly and nearly blind lady slowly and hesitatingly made her way towards me. She held my hands and pleaded to instruct the officials to issue her a card. She was a widow, more than 70 years old, and with no income, all of which would entitle her to get the Antyodaya card. The State has consciously created the Antyodaya system as a social security measure, specifically targeting the elderly, widows and the destitute. I turned around and asked the concerned food inspector how was it that this deserving old woman was excluded? His immediate response was that she did not come to the Taluk Office to get herself registered. Oh, if only this old lady had the means to travel 20 Km to reach the Taluk office, negotiate the corrupt system and get her rightful due, why would we even need a Social Security System then?
As I turned around and tried to give an answer to the lady, she very innocently asked me what else other than being poor, neglected and blind did she have to be to get her share of rations. I wish I could answer that!
This was not an isolated example. A few months later, I had a similar experience in a poor neighbourhood in Gulbarga city. Another elderly lady aged around 70 years came to present her complaint to me. She was again a widow with a mentally retarded son who was around 30 years of age. Having lost her husband 10 years ago, she was left with no social or economic support. All that she had was the sympathy and support of her friendly but equally poor neighbours. She came upto me with them asking for a BPL card. It was evident that her poor friends were more socially conscious than our State and its huge machinery. I was painfully aware that she deserved an Antyodaya card and not just a BPL card. The system had completely ignored her because she was not loud enough or rich enough to bribe the concerned officials into giving her a card that she rightfully deserved.
Comparing these two incidents with another that I had in Hassan left me feeling angry and helpless. Angry that the system was so very irresponsive and irresponsible and helpless that I could do nothing to help them. In Hassan, I met a ration shop owner who had a 15-acre estate nearby and a huge palatial house but still carried a BPL card. My own investigation has revealed that the entire process of identifying the poor in the State is flawed and irrational. We not only have a huge number of rich people carrying BPL cards, but also some very genuine poor who do not have a card or have an APL card. Who in the system should be held accountable for this state of affairs? Is it the politicians who think of eliminating poverty as mere schemes to be announced as electoral promises or the bureaucracy which is caught up in the rules and regulations that they devise or the society itself which has forgotten that as citizens we not only deserve good governance but are also entitled to it?
It seems so paradoxical that the whole country is now obsessed with the scams that break at each day. It is as though one must siphon away millions of rupees to be noticed. The unseen and unheard impact of corruption on the millions of the deserving poor does not seem to affect the collective conscience of civil society or the administrators and may not be important enough for the media to provide any space. What we fail to notice is that these micro events are what truly impact poverty and we may be losing out on an extraordinary opportunity to demonstrate that we care.