Fair distribution

Women's self-help groups run ration shops in Chhattisgarh

By Ruksan Bose
Published: Thursday 15 December 2005

Fair distribution

-- It is Saturday: wage labourers have been paid in Dhaba village in Chhattisgarh's Rajnandangaon district. Ration cards, empty bags and tins in hand, they queue up outside a new ration shop in their village. Inside, Jamunabai Sahoo, secretary of the women's self-help group (shg) that runs the shop, registers villagers according to their economic situation -- each group is entitled to provisions at different subsidised rates. Champabai, who has bought 3 litres of kerosene, a commodity perennially in short supply, leaves her thumb impression on the register, relieved she can get food and oil easily. Before July 2005, people in her village had to depend on a shop in the neighbouring village for their provisions.

The Dhaba ration shop is among the 217 in Rajnandangaon handed over to women's shgs, since December 2004. Kamal Preet Jain, the district's additional collector says interest-free working capital of about Rs 70,000 was provided to each group.

"The previous government had allotted ration shops to private parties in 2001, withdrawing an earlier system of cooperative societies. That led to huge irregularities," says Chhattisgarh 's food and civil supply minister, Megharam Sahu. "A person would run two or three shops and sometimes a solitary shop served three or four villages," explains Jain. So, in December 2004, the government came up with a new order. "Thirty-three per cent ration shops in Chhattisgarh are reserved for women shgs, gram panchayats can take up the running of 57 per cent, and tribal multi-purpose cooperative societies and other cooperative societies can apply for running the rest," says Sahu. In Rajnandangaon, thanks to the initiative of Jain's predecessor, Dinesh Srivastav, there are over 5,000 women's groups, who are given priority when they apply for running ration shops.

But critics say most shgs were formed in a hurry. "These groups were hardly given any training," says Ravi Manab of Vardaan, a Chicholi-based non-governmental organisation (ngo). Suresh Sahoo of Rupantar, an ngo- based in Chhuria, Rajnandangaon, feels empowering shgs is a good idea, but the move's been diluted by the inclusion of cooperatives, banned earlier.

Managing and bribing Meanwhile, at the district Nagarik Apurti Nigam godown in Rajnandangaon, Jamunabai places her shop's monthly demand. A shop's allocations depend on the number of cardholders on its register. Jamunabai pays for the provisions from the Rs 60,000 allocated to her shg by the government. Though she has to bribe government officials to get hold of the supplies, the feisty shg secretary remains unfazed: "We are making sure that the supplies reach the people. The government has also taken measures to ensure that we aren't hassled." Jain contends that the collectorate has come down strongly on corrupt officials -- beneficiaries of the old system -- for not cooperating with the shgs. "District-level officers are asked to make sure there is no proxy running of shops," he says.

In Moughatta village, the Mahabaleshwari Durga Swayam Shakti Samhu (mdsss) runs a ration shop. It's head, Kheminbai has braved the hot afternoon sun to chase 600 litres of kerosene that was due to the village. "We paid for 1,000 litres but got only 400," says secretary, Sardabai. "Last time, a rice bag had a hole and about 16 kilogrammes fell into the truck carrying the supplies. We were sure the truck driver was up to mischief. We recovered each grain from him," she says.

Do they may any profits? The query elicits an angry response from Sardabai: "Do people work just for profit? What about samaj seva (public service)?"

But not all shgs are doing well. A member of the Ma Bamleshwari Gyan Jyoti, a shg in Dummitola in Chhuria block, says, "We took over the village ration shop on the panchayat's instructions. But we don't know how to run it".

Capacity building "The new system cannot work without building women's capacity," contends Manab. He feels that since Rajnandangaon is the Chhattisgarh chief minister's home district, things are better there, but there's been very little progress elsewhere. Gangaram Paikra, an activist of the Right to Food Campaign in Surguja district, says, "Village institutions have not been trained to run the shops; they were also not given any financial assistance. And despite the clause that shgs should be at least three-years old, groups with no experience have cornered contracts, leaving the field open to contractors to run ration shops by proxy."

Will shgs in other Chhattisgarh districts reap the benefits enjoyed by their counterparts in Rajnandangaon?

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