Always on short rations Ram Das is sad. Babu at the fair price shop has asked him to collect his rations only next month when fresh supply is expected.
Das was made Red Card (a kind of BPL card) only after he sold his “Kali” (goat) and stumped up Rs. 200 to a local “netaji”. His Red Card contained few human errors and he was entitled to rations less than sufficient for his household. He tried to get them rectified but babus at SDO office wanted monetary oiling and as he could do none he had to helplessly put up with the perennial loss.
Though he lives 25 km far from his office Ram Das has tried to get an audience with SDO saheb thrice. But on all occasions he was told SDO saheb was busy holding impromptu meetings.
The ambitious Public Distribution System, later renamed Targeted Public Distribution System, has been marred by such carelessness, lack of vigilance, involvement of middlemen, and the insensitiveness of concerned officials. Different sources claim that over 5000 Indians die of hunger every year. Despite considerable improvement in health post independence lack of substantial access to food has left almost 50 percent children underweight and more than 70 percent women with serious nutritional deficiencies.
That, starvation deaths have become a national phenomenon and is a collective shame on the face of a civilized society the Supreme Court of India in an interim order 2002 in PUCL vs. Union of India and Others fixed the responsibility on the Chief Secretary for any starvation deaths that occur in a state. The directive played a major role in galvanizing wooden bureaucracy with chief secretaries galvanizing their fellow bureaucrats to collectively sharing the responsibility. But meetings and plans are disproportionate to executions and implementations and ground level results remain elusive.
Planning Commission figures state that 43 per cent people live below poverty line in Jharkhand. The politically volatile state is home to 26909428 people. More than 11571054 people live below poverty line. The state has about 14500 fair price shops. They cater to only about 2929000 people living in 32620 villages. About 7000 fair price shops do not maintain let alone display Notice Boards and those who display rarely abide by them. About 80 per cent people live in rural areas and depend upon agriculture. Last year Jharkhand was hit by severe drought and several tribals were reported to have died of starvation – though some agencies have reported starvation deaths concerned officials have tried to deny it.
Starvation deaths generally occur in rural areas. Inaccessibility and lack of media exposure are two of the many reasons why starvation deaths are not reported. There have been reported cases of officials charging money for making Red Card, Antyodaya Card, Annapurna Card and other identifications entitling poor to benefits. So have been cases of ineligible people getting welfare cards as they are able to dupe officials at SDO (Sub Divisional Officer) offices.
The situation in Orissa is more serious. 47 per cent people live below poverty line in the state, home to the largest number of poor and malnourished in India. About 23600 fair price shops cater only to about 7899900 people. The state has a population of 36706920 and 17252252 live below poverty line. The state, where contrary to other parts of India poverty has increased in past years, has been struggling hard to overcome hunger deaths. As local newspapers put it, though reports are not confirmed, more than 100 people died due to starvation in the state during the end of last year. Worse still it was found that none of the deceased possessed welfare cards. Is it not shocking that across the country those who die of starvation do not posses ration cards or other identifications entitling them to government welfare schemes?
The case with Bihar is also grave. Bihar has about 41,900 fair price shops catering to about 12378200 people living in 45099 villages. Reports claim that about 15,000 fair price shops do not display Notice Board as it saves them accountability. Bihar has a population of 82998509 and about 34859370 people live below poverty line.
Such critically disproportionate figures reflect the morbidly insensitive care we take of our unprivileged brethrens. The problem of starvation is only ironic in India: though we have food surplus and have buffer stocks three times what is required for food security, we still loose thousands due to malnutrition and hunger.
It is a Herculean Task to collect official figures of investigations, let alone convictions, which are rarely conducted to access and check the malpractice that PDS outlets agents indulge into. Information delivered through RTI is but substantially factual. Talk to any PDS outlet agents and they would sound irate and blithe.
“I do not know why on earth only weak (financially) people are always targeted. There do have been reports of diversion at PDS outlets but corruption runs deeper at higher levels. We do not get our monthly allotments on time until we dupe officials at the District Food Depot. My father had worked there and had seen through his open eyes quality grains being replaced by sub standard grains. After all the minuscule margins that we get are but enough to run our households and we just can not survive,” a PDS outlet agent in East Singhbhum district (Jharkhand) cried as he requested strict anonymity.
Bureaucrats thrust with the responsibility to ensure effective implementation of the system have hardly time, or hardly bother, to ensure the same. The claim is supported by the negligible number of raids conducted in a year in any district across Jharkhand even as there have been regular media reports of misconduct.
In spite of its failure in several states there is still light at the end of the tunnel. Tamil Nadu has significantly reduced poverty and improved the standard of living of people living below poverty line by efficient and effective implementation of the public distribution system over the years. It has set a model in implementing the PDS as universal system for other states to follow. Tamil Nadu has a population of 66396000. Though 14939100 people are living below poverty line more than 13230193 are entitled to subsidized rations. This figure speaks volume about the success.
The Tamil Nadu government has outsourced the management of more than 93 per cent of the fair price shops to cooperatives at increased margins. PDS shops have been given decreased burdens. The maintenance of Notice Boards at every PDS (FPS) has been made mandatory. Women –– psychologically less prone to commit misconduct ––have been included into the network and vigilance committees have been formed to keep an eagle eye on every individual PDS shop.
It really hurts when a country which maintains a large amount of buffer stocks –– India maintained a stock of about 565 lakh tonne last year ––– lets a large number of its people die of hunger. It is time all Indian states especially Bihar, Jharkhand, Orissa, Chhattisgarh and Uttar Pradesh take a leaf out of Tamil Nadu’s book and ensure that no one in any nook of the country has got to sleep hungry let alone die of starvation.
The writer is a journalist in Jharkhand.