Investigating issues of corruption and mal-administration in the Public Distribution System has been a great learning experience for me. The more I travel around the countryside, the more I am convinced that ‘corruption’ leaves everyone feeling like a victim. The Fair Price Shop (FPS) owner laments that he needs to keep everyone happy to survive. The people on his list to be taken care of include the food inspector, the local politician, the village headman, the members of the Vigilance Committee of his shop, and the people who load and unload the food grains from the lorry. And this translates in the field as he being empowered to break the laws and the guidelines set by the Supreme Court of India. He neither discloses information on the number of cardholders, their entitlements, or his stock position publicly. Bills are hardly given and even if done so, are unreadable and erratic. The quantity and quality of food grains issued are mostly below standards.
I am yet to see a single FPS in the entire state which issues the allotted amount of rice to the cardholders at the exact stipulated price. It is mostly less by 2-4 kg of their entitlements and sold at prices varying between Rs 3.25 and 3.50. The shops are usually open 4-6 days each month against the required entire month, with Tuesdays being official holidays. The timings are more to be mentioned on the board rather than strictly followed. When one talks to these shop owners, their standard response is that they are given very little commission; they are forced to distribute grain to more people than the actual number of legitimate cardholders; palms need to greased and they always end up feeling victims.
When one moves up the chain and interacts with the transporter contractors, they openly disclose that contracts are only given when they are in the good books of the people who make these decisions. Sometimes, this can go up to the minister of the department concerned. Whether the money actually travels up the chain or not, the excuse to siphon off the grain during the transportation process is to make sure that adequate money is made to take care of these ‘incidental expenses’. One needs to visit some of the wholesale godowns at the district level to get an understanding of the storage practices and the indiscriminate usage of insecticides. It is indeed surprising that all the wholesale depots in Karnataka still have manual inventory management systems. It is ironical that our State is considered the software capital of the world, but our PDS department still prefers to stay in the 19th century! One officer confided in me that people were apprehensive that computerization would make things traceable and the system would demand good governance. Keeping things gray and opaque was in their collective interest.
Not to be left behind, the wholesalers also feel that they are pressurized by the local politicians whenever there is a local event or a fair and are forced to ensure that people attending them are well fed. The entire distribution chain has one excuse or the other for their inefficiency and mis-governance and interacting with them makes one believe that they are victims too.
Come the months of summer and the entire officialdom is under pressure. No one is sure if he will continue to be posted in the same location. Worries of changing schools for their children, finding a house for the family, etc leaves the district and taluk level officials disturbed enough to go to any extent to ensure that they are not relocated. This translates as money to be paid to the powers that be. The amounts that I have heard are astronomical and unbelievable, but unfortunately are close to the reality that exists.
The political class is a whole breed apart. Their tryst with corruption begins with bribing the voters to elect them. They feel victimized every time they need to contest an election. From winning elections to keeping their constituents happy throughout their term, the pressure on them to spend money is very high. This for them is enough justification to dig into public resources with utter disregard and contempt for any rules that may prevail.
Whomever I have met and interacted with – from the common man on the street to the powers that be – has left me with the feeling that they are victims of a system that they find easier to fall in line with rather than stand up and fight. We seem to have excuses for our failures rather than look for reasons to keep the system fair, clean and transparent. Fighting corruption is not just creating new rules and acts and needs to go beyond to understanding the entire ecosystem. We need to ensure that our fight is comprehensive enough to make an impact. Otherwise we may again be left with a powerful act but with no major results to show.