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Food for the hungry

Using a public hearing to secure the right to information and to ensure that the drought-stricken villagers get their due from the public distribution system, activists are trying to redress the grievances of the marginalised, writes AJIT BHATTACHARJEA, in the first of a fortnightly column.

Villagers, unaware of the programmes meant to help them, are struggling to survive the drought.

Kelwada, Rajasthan:

AT another time, the scene may have shown Rajasthan at its traditional best. At Kelwada, an outpost of the fabled Rajasthan fortress of Kumbalgarh, some 2,000 people were crowded under a pandal, traditionally dressed in a kaleidoscope of colours. But this was no festival. They had assembled for a unique jan sunwai (public hearing) on their right to food. Much of the region was reeling under the worst drought in living memory. Five monsoons had passed with little rain. Reservoirs had been reduced to puddles.

Most villagers came from nearby panchayats; others from distant parts of the State. One contingent journeyed all the way from Baran to tell grim tales of starvation deaths. All were crucially dependent on the public distribution system (PDS) and network of schemes devised by the Rajasthan Government to alleviate distress. The most vulnerable were listed as below poverty line (BPL) and provided cards to buy 35 kg of food grains a month at a subsidised price of Rs. 4.60 a kg. This provided for about half the cereal needs of a household. Among them, the poorest were Bhil tribals, who could seldom afford to buy their full quota.

More than a year ago, the obscene contrast between widespread hunger and mounds of food grains stocked by the Food Corporation of India, some rotting and eaten by rats, had impelled the Supreme Court to pass a series of orders instructing governments to ensure effective implementation of food security programmes. It had commented acidly: "Food grains which are overflowing in the storage receptacles, especially of FCI godowns, and which are in abundance, should not be wasted by dumping into the sea or eaten by rats. Mere schemes without any implementation are of no use. What is important is that food must reach the hungry."

The Kelwada jan sunwai was held the day after the Lok Sabha passed the Freedom of Information Bill, largely the fruit of the campaign initiated by the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) in Rajasthan. Now MKSS was using the same technique of public hearings to draw attention to the even more basic right to food. For 10 days, its workers had conducted a survey of BPL households in nearby panchayats.

But getting the villagers to speak out in Kelwada was difficult. Few were aware of the schemes intended to help them. They came from remote areas where subservience to local authority and those associated with it was deep-rooted. This included some PDS dealers whose corruption had been exposed by the survey. Several dealers and local officials attended the jan sunwai. Before the sunwai, unpleasant rumours had been spread about the MKSS. But its workers were strengthened by local awareness of the impact of the jan sunwai in Janawad, not too far away. Officials found guilty of corruption had been jailed. They were further strengthened by the Supreme Court orders on right to food, of which they had extracts.

At the Jan sunwai.

The Kelwada sunwai began uncertainly and on a tense note. For 10 minutes, nobody responded when villagers were invited to come up to the mike and describe their problems. The dealers looked pleased. Eventually, a Bhil walked up, thin but upright. He showed his BPL card and confirmed that they were forced to pay Rs. five for a kg of food grain instead of the listed rate of Rs. 4.60; that he had signed for the entire quota of 35 kg per month, but had taken less.

Then others followed, women among them. All had serious complaints. PDS shops opened at short notice once or twice a month. The cardholders did not always have enough money to buy their quota. Sometimes they were even asked to buy two months' ration at a time. The amount they could not buy was diverted to the open market.

PDS dealers reacted angrily, but, when the charges were repeated, argued that the commissions they received were inadequate. They could survive only by making money on the side. Local officials admitted that this was the case. One by one, the complaints pointed to administrative callousness and commercial exploitation of the poor when their need was greatest. Many were unaware of the programmes to which the Supreme Court had drawn attention. The BPL list did not reflect those driven to destitution by the prolonged drought. Drought relief works were inadequate and selectively allocated. Those deserving pensions under existing programmes just to survive — widows, the elderly, the disabled and other vulnerable groups — had increased with the drought but were not getting the money. Those who did often received it after months; sometimes they were delivered too late.

But there was evidence that programmes could work if properly supervised. Nobody complained against one particular scheme — MDM for midday meals to school children. Some 70 lakh children were being fed with ghoogri, a cooked meal of wheat and jaggery. The only problem voiced was that teachers had to often spend time cooking.

After the sunwai, senior officials vowed to supervise the distress schemes more closely. In Kelwada itself, pension officials promised to reorganise their computerised schedules so as to pay pensions by the seventh of the month, instead of after a month or two. Another jan sunwai may have to be organised in the area to ensure that the commitments are fulfilled.

Two months after the Kumbalgarh jan sunwai, right to information activists and their friends assembled at Beawar, to celebrate the success of the movement that took off in this small town in southern Rajasthan, not far from Kumbalgarh. Success lay in the passage of Right to Information legislation by several States, including Rajasthan, and then by Parliament, an achievement that few would have thought attainable at the 40-day dharna that fuelled the movement in Beawar in 1995.

But the activists were not resting on their laurels. Led by Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey of the MKSS, they had organised another jan sunwai to check the extent to which the legislation was being implemented and to map out future activities. Rautram from Panchu gram panchayat in Bikaner District testified that it had helped to secure information enabling them to expose corruption in development works. However, others like Suresh Raghuvanshi from the Asind panchayat samiti of Bhilwara District complained that officials continued to deny access to information despite the legislation.

The Kumbalgarh jan sunwai, that had focussed on right to food, could claim considerable success. Moti from Baran, the district that had reported several starvation deaths in August last year, informed the gathering that a youth organisation set up by Sankalp, a non governmental organisation, had been successful in securing information about the quantity of food grains alotted to BPL families in the area. Armed with this information, they met local officials and ensured that it was distributed fairly and promptly.

The assembly decided to make right to work the focus of the movement and to organise campaigns to secure the right to information where it was denied.

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