By Yogendra Katewa:
Public Distribution System (PDS) is an important subsidised-food programme, especially when we observe that 266 districts in 11 states are affected by drought today. The provision for 5 kg ration per head at subsidised rates can be a vital lifeline for households with agricultural labour as their only source of income. The National Food Security Act (NFSA), 2013, then, which provides for a grievance redressal system, should be properly implemented so that the needy don’t suffer. But from what I observed in a village in Gujarat, this system needs to be made better.
I first met Sureshbhai while working with an NGO in Poshina taluka of Sabarkantha district. He is a community leader from Baharan village of Poshina taluka.
The Fair Price Shop (FPS) there under the PDS is being run by a member of a cooperative from a neighboring village. Although there were irregularities in the PDS in the village, the people did not have the courage to raise their voice because of the fear of cancellation of their ration cards. Sureshbhai had earlier reported a case to the police where a truck full of subsidised food grain was being sold in the market but no action was taken. He found a ray of hope when we told him about the online grievance redressal system.
He filed two complaints- one on the Public Grievances portal (grievance redressal system by the Central Government) and the other on SWAGAT (grievance redressal system by the Government of Gujarat). But even as he was filing the complaints, he said that he had made complaints at the taluka but no action was taken because everybody colludes in the corruption. He also told us that the PDS dealer had dared him to complain wherever he wished.
However, here the State Government performed its duty by sending a team for inspection to the village. After talking to both the parties, a warning was given to the PDS dealer. Sureshbhai also asked the investigating team to give him a copy of their findings but the officer changed the topic and said that he will send it by post. Sureshbhai was desperately waiting for the report as it was his first online complaint and it had restored his faith in the government machinery.
Instead, some days later he called me to say that he had been beaten up by some people. We asked him to file an FIR in Baharan police station and acquired a medical certificate from the community health centre. I also asked him to take the issue to the Mamlatdaar. The Mamlatdaar assured him that the charge of the FPS will be given to someone else from the cooperative. But when the chairperson of the cooperative was given the charge, he was threatened by the PDS dealer and his family. So the Mamlatdaar gave police protection to the chairperson for one day and the ration was distributed. Thereafter, the former PDS dealer was back at the FPS.
As soon as the PDS dealer started distributing the ration to the cardholders, Sureshbhai came up with 42 applications by the villagers stating that the people had not received the amount of ration they were entitled to but had been charged for it. Moreover, the entry for the entitled amount had been made in the ration card. The applications were submitted to the Mamlatdaar for “appropriate action” but, as usual, the case is pending in his office.
Now Sureshbhai has started getting support from the village community. He has started organising meetings for disseminating information on the NFSA to the villagers, who so far were not aware of their rights and entitlements.
The concern I am raising is why after creating so many platforms, a small case like Sureshbhai’s is still pending. Can a vulnerable and poor person, who is an agricultural casual labourer, invest so much time and money to just give attendance in the court? Can people demand local millets as provided under NFSA, 2013 (priority households are entitled to millets if they demand) if they are not getting the mandatory quantity of wheat and rice? At the very least, there is a need to create a provision for the security of the complainant so that people can freely and boldly notify any irregularities to the responsible authority without any pressure. No more Sureshbhais should be harassed for asking what is due to them.