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Rice wars

As the BJP flaunts its clean-up of the public food system, for electoral win, the Congress plays catch up. Chitrangada Choudhury reports.

india Updated: Nov 12, 2008 12:02 IST
Chitrangada Choudhury
Chitrangada Choudhury
Hindustan Times

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.

The Overhaul
37 lakh ration cards have been computerised, and placed online in a bid to check fake ration cards. Starting from 2005, the government regained control over network of fair price shops from private hands, and number of shops increased from 6000 to over 10,000 .

- 8 lakh farmers in the state supply about 30 lakh metric tonnes of rice to the PDS. Sales details are computerized, and computers generate cheques to farmers.

-Allocations are made each month online in hours. In the rest of India, the journey from godown to fairprice shop, according to a national study, is 14 days on an average. The 7th of each month is designated as Rice Festival day by when PDS grain must be sold to people.

-A Call Centre with a toll-free number, painted on shop walls, takes public complaints about the PDS. Information on how it was dealt with is placed online. The National Informatics Centre sends free text message updates on dispatches of grain to any person who wants information on specified shops.

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 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 baby-faced 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 (see The Overhaul), harnessing technology and official will to put in place far-reaching reforms. The turn around of the sprawling distribution network—riddled, as in most Indian states, with high levels of corruption till five years ago—is now being vouchsafed by independent observers (see The Impact).

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 castes and tribes families, after a test run of the measure in a byelection delivered a victory to the party.
This January, as food prices jumped by 30-40% 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, or about 37 lakh homes. Today, the subsidy amounts to Rs 870 crore, or about 5 % of the state budget.

"However, the miracle", stresses 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 queing up outside their local PDS shop, carrying away sacks of rice on their head on the designated 7th day of the month. In a gaggle of voices, they say, "This shop is working properly for the first time since we can remember. Earlier it would tell us there is no grain."

500 km away in the state capital of Raipur, a grudging acknowledgement of the BJP's success comes when the Congress releases its manifesto. The document's very first line promises to better its rival by selling rice at Rs 2 per kg if voted into power.
..And the Impact
This summer, the Right to Food Campaign, a national network of non-profit groups, surveyed the operation of the PDS in 650 villages of north Chhattisgarh. It found a sharp turnaround from 2004, when it had done a similar study:

- 96% of the ration cardholder families had the cards with themselves. In 2004, 42% of the villages had reported that their cards had been kept by the PDS shopkeepers, who would use them to siphon grain.

- 92% of villages reported no problems in accessing their full quota every month at the Rs 3 price, a complete reversal from 2004 when 92% reported severe difficulty in accessing PDS.
97% of villages were satisfied with the cleanliness of grain.

This price war may read as an exercise in competitive populism, but that isn't all it amounts to. Consider this: 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% in the case of the state's tribal families.

Jaiswal says, "Our experience shows that pricing rice at Rs 3 has actually improved 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."
Raipur's veteran editor, Sunil Kumar says electoral politics aside, a public food system that works on the ground is an essential safety net. "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. At the same time, with its reforms in 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."

First Published: Nov 12, 2008 11:51 IST