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‘No one will go hungry’

india Updated: Nov 12, 2008 00:26 IST
Chitrangada Choudhury
Chitrangada Choudhury
Hindustan Times
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In Govindpur village in the forested mountains of north Chhattisgarh's Sarguja district, Punaram of the dwindling Pahari Korwa tribe brings out a ration card, which he cannot read.

Like several tribal families in this village, Punaram's finances have sometimes dipped so low that he has had to borrow money to meet his family's need for food.

After pages of blank columns, the little red book starts telling a different story from mid-2007, showing a purchase on the 7th of every month of his family's monthly entitlement of 35 kg of rice. The grain is subsidised to Rs 3 per kg, or a fifth of what the wiry farmer and labourer spends when he buys grain in the open market.

In its electoral campaign to retain power in Chhattisgarh, the BJP government is not stoking emotive issues of identity but flaunting an unusual clean-up of the state's public food distribution system or PDS, with the state's Chief Minister Raman Singh claiming in campaign speeches that no family in his regime must go to bed hungry. Singh has personally overseen the clean-up, harnessing technology and official will to put in place far-reaching reforms.

The turnaround of the sprawling distribution network — riddled, as in most states, with high levels of corruption till five years ago — is now being vouchsafed by independent observers.

In April 2007, the state government slashed PDS rice prices by half from Rs 6.50 to Rs 3 per kg for the state's Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe families after a test run of the measure in a byelection delivered a victory to the party.

"However, the miracle", stressed official Rajeev Jaiswal, who oversees the state's PDS network of 10,400 shops, "is not the announcement of subsidised rice at Rs 3 per kilo, but taking this measure to 37 lakh families, bagair chori ke (without pilferage)."

In Sumaniya village, women clutching grimy notes, are queuing up outside their local PDS shop, carrying away sacks of rice on the designated 7th day of the month. In a gaggle of voices, they said, "This shop is working properly for the first time since we can remember. Earlier it would tell us there is no grain."