Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Reforming the rationwala

“Who’d have ever imagined that we would actually receive our full share of ration one day and our children would not have to sleep on empty stomachs!” says a visibly ecstatic Sunita Devi, a Below Poverty Line (BPL) ration card holder of the Malviya Nagar constituency of Delhi.

Her mood reflects the sentiment of the 7000 families living in slum settlements in Malviya Nagar, who till two years ago, were deprived of their rightful share of ration due to large-scale black marketing and corruption rampant in the Public Distribution System (PDS) – a government scheme to provide essential commodities at subsidized rates to the poor.

For years, ration shopkeepers in Malviya Nagar denied people their ration on the pretext that they did not get any ration supplies from the Government. If cardholders asked for their share of ration, shopkeepers misbehaved with them. Repeated complaints to the Food department fell on deaf ears.

When, in 2003, SNS workers distributed pamphlets in slum settlements giving information about people’s rightful entitlements under the PDS including the quantity and price of ration they are entitled to every month, it stirred up a storm. The Soochna Ghar of SNS became a scene of hectic activity with local ration cardholders meeting to decide how they could set about seeking their legal entitlements under the PDS.

In February 2004 people took the help of SNS to file RTI applications under the Delhi Right to Information Act seeking records of their ration shops– including the stock and sale registers of the shops. Records obtained revealed that the shops had been regularly withdrawing wheat, rice and sugar every month at highly subsidized prices under the PDS but had not been selling the commodities to the intended beneficiaries. The entries made in the daily sale registers of the shops showed that the commodities had been sold to fictitious cardholders. When members of SNS deciphered and disseminated the information obtained to slum dwellers through street corner meetings and discussions, people demanded a forum where they could openly question ration shopkeepers and the concerned officials about the pilferage. The idea of holding a public hearing or jan sunwai was mooted.

A jan sunwai was organized by SNS on July 25, 2004. It was the first of its kind to be held in Delhi and for the first time, a forum was provided to cardholders to publicly demand accountability from government officials and fair price shop owners. The hearing was attended by about 500 people including local ration card holders, representatives of the Food and Supplies (F&S) Department, media persons and interested citizens. The sunwai was presided over by a panel consisting of eminent personalities.

At the public hearing records of ration shops in the area obtained by SNS and local ration cardholders were scrutinized. Ration cardholders of the area publicly testified about the numerous problems faced by them in accessing their quota of ration. They demanded an explanation from the representatives of the Food department as to why no action was taken on their repeated complaints and why the officials were not fulfilling their basic responsibilities.

The jan sunwai was a prime example of people’s empowerment – the first step in shaking up systemic corruption that has been taking place in the PDS, a scheme meant to ensure food security for the poor. As a result of the jan sunwai, show cause notices were served to several ration shopkeepers, their security money was forfeited and shops were suspended. Disciplinary action was initiated against the concerned officials. The pressure created and sustained after the sunwai through regular use of the RTI, has resulted in a marked improvement in the functioning of the PDS in the area– ration shops have been supplying most cardholders their full quota of grains and oil and opening their shops more regularly.

The behaviour of the Food Department officials towards cardholders has also changed significantly. “The department officials who did not even meet us earlier have suddenly become extremely responsive – they now even come to our jhuggis asking us if we have any problems”, says a thrilled Shiela Devi from Lal Gumbad slum. These efforts have had a systemic impact upon PDS delivery not only in the Malviya Nagar area but in the rest of the Capital as well. This is evident by the fact that as a result of such efforts, the Food and Supplies department has decided to throw open all PDS records for public audit on designated days of the month – a step that is likely to enhance transparency in the PDS and act as a deterrent to corruption in the system.

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