Aggrieved women have received rations only thrice in the past five years

Two semi-literate housewives, Beena and Mitra Devi, hesitantly but wilfully trail us, ration card in hand, on a hot Saturday afternoon. We are walking towards Fair Price Shop No. 7980 in Harsh Vihar near Delhi’s border with Ghaziabad. Though fearful of the ration shop owner and his toughs, these two women realise it is now or never. They have received rations only thrice in the past five years.

Led by two young RTI activists, Pushpa and Manmohan, it was a much larger group that started the long walk. One by one, the other women had dropped out.

The ration shop is closed. But a sturdy, well-built Brijesh is standing guard outside. When asked why the shop is closed despite it being official working hours, he points to the concrete mixer blocking the road. “The shutters are down because of construction work. But the shop is open.” Then he menacingly asks Beena and Mitra: “Yeh rishtedaar he kya tumhare?”

We walk away, slightly unsettled by the brawny man’s smug manners. He follows us, close behind. We decide to turn around and ask him why the two women are being denied rations. He has a question to this reporter first, “Are you literate or illiterate?”, and then a curt response, “These two don’t ever come on time to collect rations and it gets over.”

Asked how, for five years, there was never enough ration to give to the women, Vijender is brusque: “We never get enough to supply all our card holders. This is a resettlement colony.”

The act of questioning this “influential” man in full public view has an unintended effect. Years of pent-up grievances come gushing out. Women who watched us with apparent indifference earlier come rushing out of their homes, ration cards in hand. The women who went missing during the walk to the shop too reappear out of nowhere.

Kavita Rani has only got 10 kg wheat while Rajwati received 15 kg wheat in September. Premlata has not got any ration this month -- her card is being held by the shop owner. So are the cards of several other women. “He makes us line up at 12, two and four in the night to wait for rations when stock arrives. Sometimes he sends us back empty-handed. It is his marzi what quantity to give us, whether to give us anything, or hold back our cards. Even literate folk can’t read what he scribbles on our cards and he gives no receipts,” complains Chara Devi.

Most of these women are above-poverty line (APL) card holders. They are also entitled to rice. But no one has got rice this month -- or for several months before. The reasons are never given, and no one has the temerity to ask. Manmohan makes a call to an officer in the Enforcement wing of the Food and Supply (F&S) Department. He finds that the month’s allocation is 18 kg of wheat and 4 kg of rice for APL. So who has been eating their grain? Before we could find out we hear a rumour; the police have been called. We scoot. The reason -- events from a few days back – that now posed a threat to Pushpa and Manmohan.

On Wednesday afternoon, the two young RTI campaigners, who have a successful track record of mobilising communities in Jahangirpuri and Bhalswa, reached Harsh Vihar on the invitation by a prominent NGO to protest against FPS No: 7980. The shop was closed that day too despite it being working hours. Manmohan called up an Additional Commissioner (F&S) to complain. The top officer promised to depute his subordinates at the spot. An Assistant Commissioner told Manmohan that two officers, a Food and Supply Officer and a Food Inspector would reach, and gave their names. But another inspector, Virender Chowdhary, came.

The women and the two activists allege that Mr. Chowdhary exchanged a few words with the ration shop officials following which Brijesh allegedly attacked Manmohan. Pushpa stepped forward and took the blow on her arm. Manmohan claims that he dialled 100 and the police came. Pushpa and Manmohan were taken to the station while most of the protesters fled.

At the station, the activist duo found that who makes the PCR call was immaterial. The food inspector had become the complainant and Manmohan the accused. Pushpa made a frantic call to this newspaper. Our crime reporter spoke to the supervising officer for the district and got back: the food inspector was conducting a raid on the FPS shop and he was obstructed by Manmohan!

However, this charge was dropped too. Manmohan has complained through e-mail about the conduct of the Harsh Vihar SHO to the Delhi Police Commissioner. He also submitted a three-page complaint along with statements of the aggrieved women to the F&S Department against the Food Inspector. This is on the department diary dated September 20 as Entry 3707. The Harsh Vihar police Sub-Inspector in charge of the case told this paper that he was waiting for a report from the F&S Department before registering an FIR and proceeding further.

Surprisingly, this was not the first complaint against FPS: 7980. On July 20, the activists conducted a surprise inspection of the shop. They noticed the sale register was signed by cardholders. But the columns for their names or amount of rations received were empty.

There were several other discrepancies too. A five-page complaint quoting Supreme Court orders in the PUCL vs Union of India case along with photographs of the inspection was submitted to the F&S Commissioner. But as is evident, that complaint had evoked no response.

Will an honest inquiry be undertaken now? The women of Harsh Vihar are waiting.

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