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'I was told people would become lazy'

india Updated: Jul 11, 2010 23:24 IST

Chhattisgarh is India's only state that in 2004 began a sweeping reform of the corruption-ridden, wasteful system of distributing subsidised food to the poor.

It was possible because dedicated bureaucrats got political backing came from Chief Minister Dr Raman Singh of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Singh (58), an ayurvedic doctor-turned-politician found it paid political dividends when in 2008 he won his second successive term.

Now, with India's poverty line being redrawn and the number of officially poor people rising to nearly 400 million (from 65 million previously claimed by the Centre; 108 million according to counts from the states), spending will skyrocket from this year's bill of Rs 55,578 crore - unless the Chhattisgarh's reforms are duplicated nationwide.

Singh sat down with Ejaz Kaiser to explain how his administration pulled it off:

Why did you begin these reforms?
As a doctor practicing in my native town in Kawardha, I was very moved by the hunger and poverty. And the root cause was malnutrition.

How did the reform process begin?
We started with legal reforms and the elimination of private players in the chain. Next we worked on delays and the pilferages through doorstep delivery by the state civil supplies corporation. Storage facilities for each fair price shop were increased, and they were given food grains for one month in advance on credit. Officials were skeptical, but I worked on building a consensus — in the cabinet, within the party and in administration.

What were the hurdles you witnessed while implementing the scheme?
It was tough breaking mindsets. Getting rid of political interference and effectively catering to all the fair price shops in the state was a challenge. So we provided feed capital through interest free loans of Rs 42 crore to various self-help groups, gram panchayats (village councils) and cooperative societies and revised the commissions (of fair-price shops).

There was criticism of what you were trying to do. How did you deal with that?
There were unfounded beliefs that market forces will lead to leakages and the BJP would benefit traders. We even heard that if people get their full quota of foodgrain at very cheap prices, they would become lazy. We heard that the state's labour force would be affected; that the poor are going to waste their savings on alcohol and other non-productive habits. But slowly, as it turned out, opponents found it politically inconvenient to oppose the approach.

What's the next stage in the reform process?
The ultimate goal is to ensure nutritional security. We prepared our own food security bill in 2009 but deferred it after the Centre declared its plans to come up with one of its own.