PDS protests in West Bengal

By Maureen Nandini Mitra
Published: Friday 30 November 2007

-- bithari village, Swarupnagar block, North 24-Paraganas: the men of Uttarpara hamlet in Bithari are hiding out in the fields every night despite the winter chill in the air. Better brave the cold than the police lock-up, they say. This remote village near the Bangladesh border is one of the many in West Bengal where people have protested violently against corruption in the public distribution system (pds)in the past one-and-a-half months.

On October 24, after waiting in front of a ration shop for seven hours for the dealer, Bappa Mollah, to appear and answer their queries about missing ration stocks, about 3,000 villagers went on the rampage.What came first, police lathicharge or villagers' aggression, is up for debate, but at the end of it the ration shop had been ransacked, a couple of vehicles set on fire and one child and two policemen injured. The police nabbed six protestors and issued arrest warrants against another 150. Ever since, unsure about which ones among them are on the wanted list, the villagers have been sleeping in the fields, leaving the women and children to face the brunt of police aggression. Policemen turn up every night, the women say, breaking open doors, threatening them, rifling through their possessions and sometimes making away with torches, light bulbs, jute bales and money.

"My bones ache from the cold at night. My wife is left all alone. How long will we continue to live like this?" asks 67-year-old Hajidulla Sardar, whose son Roshan Sardar, 35, is among the six arrested. The villagers' anger and resentment at perceived manipulation by the dealers spills out as they talk about how they have often been overcharged for ration cards and food grains, had irregular access to pds provisions, and been bullied by dealers who, once poor like them, are now living in big concrete houses and driving around in cars. Meanwhile, the dealer and his family have fled the village. The police are guarding the ration shop.

Law and order
Food rights' activists say they are observing the same pattern across the state--the authorities, in a knee-jerk reaction, are protecting the "real culprits" and persecuting the ones who have been cheated for years. "They are treating this as a law and order issue, when what they should be doing is filing criminal cases against the dealers under the Essential Commodities Act 1951 and the pds Control Order 2001," says Anuradha Talwar, adviser to the supreme court on right to food. A recent Planning Commission inquiry found that in West Bengal Rs 1,913.76 crore of rice and wheat was stolen in the past year.

The riots started on September 16 in Bankura, one of the state's poorest districts, following allegations that for the past year ration dealers had been depriving villagers--especially above-poverty-line (apl) ration card holders--of subsidized food grains and selling the grains at higher prices in the open market. It triggered violent protests in Birbhum, Burdwan, West Midnapore, Murshidabad, North 24-Paraganas and South 24-Paraganas districts. One protestor died in police firing and hundreds were arrested. Four dealers committed suicide, fearing public wrath.

The state government has initiated damage-control measures, suspending 113 dealers, filing law-and-order violation charges against 20 and serving show-cause notices to 37 food inspectors. It has also introduced some new policies -- like prominent display of grain quota at pds shops and cash memos to all customers -- to ensure transparency in the system, says food and supplies minister Paresh Chandra Adhikary. "Until preliminary investigations we can't frame any charges under the Essential Commodities Act or the pds Control Order," he says.

Riot rationale
What has sparked off the public outrage? People have been suffering the corrupt pds for decades, not only in West Bengal, but across India. So why in this state, and why now?

State leaders reel off reasons ranging from the centre's cutting back on pds food grains' allotment for West Bengal to a Maoist hand, and, if the food minister is to be believed, to a popular Bengali film starring Mithun Chakraborty, mla Fatakeshto . The film shows villagers, led by a thug-turned-hero, attacking a corrupt ration dealer's shop. That scene has captured the people's imagination and they are copying it, Adhikary told Down To Earth.

This year the Centre slashed West Bengal's monthly allocation for the apl section from 228,000 tonnes to 7,700 tonnes. State officials say that is mainly responsible for the shortfall. Of the 8.35 crore ration card holders in the state, almost 60 per cent belong to the apl category and Adhikary says they are the ones going on the rampage. apl cardholders, who usually buy grains from the open market, are coming to the ration shops after the recent price rise. Combine less supply and more demand and you have a crisis, adds Adhikary.

Talwar, however, points to a 2006 cag report revealing that between 2001 and 2006, West Bengal had been lazy in procuring grains allotted to it. "(The) off-take of food grains by the apl category varied from 2 to 40 per cent in case of rice and 6 to 51 per cent in case of wheat ... while the off take of food grains for the below-poverty-line category ranged from 53 to 69 per cent," the report says. Adds Kunal Deb, a Right to Food Network activist: "The government does not like to show it has a large bpl population, so it gives many bpl families apl designation. The bottom line: there's always demand for pds grains, even among the apl population."

Economists and food-rights researchers say the key factors that led to the riots are hunger, rising market prices, Nandigram and Singur. West Bengal has the highest percentage (10.6) of rural households that don't get adequate food during some months of the year, according to a National Sample Survey report published earlier this year. Thirteen per cent of rural households in the state face food crisis all year long, that's second only to Assam. In the past few years there have been several reports of starvation deaths in Murshidabad, West Midnapore and Purulia districts. "Dependence on pds is very high in West Bengal compared to other states because though the per capita production of food in the state is high, people don't have the purchasing power to buy food," says Abhiroop Sarkar, an economist with the Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata, who has studied farming issues in West Bengal.

Also, a considerable rise in the market price of rice, fuelled partly by the Centre's decision (since withdrawn) to allow rice exports to Bangaldesh, has complicated matters. "Of the 2.1 billion kg of rice the state needs to procure locally for pds, only 1 billion kg could be raised because farmers were getting a better price in open markets," she says. The price hike also prompted ration dealers to sell grains in open markets.

The final, and most crucial, catalyst is the anti-land-acquisition movements in Nandigram and Singur. "These resistance movements have proved to people that it's possible to stand up to the bully, so in a sense what we are seeing is an expression of the resentment against the Left Front government that has been building up for years," says Sarkar. In most cases the ration dealers are party functionaries, especially of the Forward Bloc, he says.

An immediate remedy is overhauling pds. Talwar suggests removing distributors and dealers, replacing them with self-help groups and cooperatives, and issuing digitized ration cards. But Sarkar believes that in the long-term, getting rid of hunger by creating more jobs is the only solution.

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