A grudging acknowledgement of the BJP’s successful subsidised rice scheme in Chhattisgarh — the centre-piece of its electoral campaign — came in mid-November when the Congress party released its manifesto. The document’s very first line promised to better its rival by selling rice at Rs 2 per kg if voted into power in the November polls. In the results, out on Monday, voters brought the BJP back to power.
Unlike Narendra Modi, Chief Minister Raman Singh scrupulously stayed away from divisive politics and made no reference to terror. Instead, he launched and popularised a scheme to give rice at Rs 3 a kg to everyone living below the official poverty line, or 37 lakh families.
Rice at Rs 3 per kg might seem like populism. But is also makes ample sense to the poorest of the poor because Chhattisgarh is the third-worst state in the country in terms of nutrition levels — and the worst for women’s health. According to the National Family Health Survey, every third man, and every other woman and child in this rice-surplus state is malnourished. These shocking levels of deprivation jump by 10 per cent in the case of the state’s tribal families.
The rice was routed through the Public Distribution Scheme (PDS), a national system of subsidised food grain on which over 600 million poor Indians depend, but which is riddled with siphoning and little accountability towards those it is meant to benefit.
The scenario was not too different in Chhattisgarh in 2004, when a national coalition of non-profit groups under the Right to Food Network surveyed the fairprice shops in 650 villages in the state’s northern tribal swathe. Ninety-two per cent of villages reported severe difficulty in accessing PDS.
When the network repeated its survey this summer, 92 per cent of villages reported no problems in accessing their full quota every month at the Rs 3 price. The complete reversal was the result of a sustained overhaul of the scheme overseen by Singh, which provides a template for state governments in the rest of India.
In April 2007, the BJP government slashed PDS rice prices from Rs 6.50 to Rs 3 per kg for all families from the scheduled castes and tribes, after a test run of the measure in a by-election delivered a victory to the party.
This January, as food prices jumped by 30-40 per cent in the open market in a state that exports rice, the government swung into action, extending the subsidy to all families below the poverty line. Today, the PDS subsidy amounts to Rs 870 crore, or about 5 per cent of the state budget.
But the subsidy actually made a difference to people's lives because behind the scenes, the administration harnessed technology and official will to put in place deep reforms in the state’s sprawling PDS network. Further, Raipur's veteran editor, Sunil Kumar said, “Raman Singh made himself the face of the scheme, asserting in all meetings with party men and officials that PDS corruption would not be tolerated.”
The overhaul included a raft of measures: regaining control of fair price shops from private hands; increasing the network of shops from 6,000 to 10,000; computerising 37 lakh ration cards; monitoring trucks carrying grain; and setting up a call centre with a toll free number to deal with any corruption complaint in a time-bound manner. The national Ministry of Food and Civil Supplies now is considering several of these as a blueprint for other state governments.
Official Rajeev Jaiswal who oversees the PDS scheme said, "Our experience also shows that pricing rice at Rs 3 actually improves access with families being able to buy their 35 kg entitlement. No family lets it go because it is affordable, and that has automatically reduced diversion."
Kumar believed that electoral politics certainly influenced the administering of the scheme: "Poverty surveys threw up numbers varying from 40% to 60%, which the state government purposely did not reconcile since it would have been electorally inconvenient." But he added, "At the same time, with this focus on the PDS, I believe, at least a third of the people in the state are eating two proper meals a day for the first time in their lives."