"I buy rice at market prices. I cannot afford to pay so much for food grains. My family is always hungry and I still do not have a BPL Card," says Parvathi, a construction worker in her mid forties earning daily wages. She lives in Srinivas Nagar and is unable to get a BPL card though she claims to be eligible for one. Parvathi complains that her application was never processed properly and she was given an APL card.
This is not just a case with a few construction workers in the city. It includes a lot of people we meet everyday including our house maids, sweepers, garbage collectors, newspaper delivery man, the list is very long. While they deliver services to us regularly, they themselves have to fight to get rice and wheat from Bangalore’s ration shops.
Shabina from Tilak Nagar, who has a family of 11 including 2 earning members, says that the ration shops are not functioning well in her locality and there is a lot of "hera pheri" according to her. She further explains: "20 kgs of rice that reaches our hands is actually 15 kg. The measuring system is faulty and the shopkeeper gives us just 5 litres of oil instead of 7 litres. Even if anybody protests against him, there is no effect. In turn, he dares people to do what they can." The police according to her takes no action.
A key problem lies in unclear definitions for the criteria to get the BPL or APL cards, admits Food Inspector Subramanya, an official with the Food and Civil Supplies & Consumer Affairs (FCS&CA) Department of Government of Karnataka, who is responsible for South Bangalore. He said he is unable to decide whether a person is eligible or not because many-a-times not all the exclusion points mentioned are fulfilled.
Under the BPL card scheme the Government of Karnataka is committed to issue 20 Kgs. of rice and 5 Kgs. of wheat per card per month through the Fair Price Depots, indicated in the ration cards at subsidised prices, for the BPL families. More information is available here.
Many such problems with the PDS system came to the fore in a public meeting organised by CIVIC, an NGO, in the city on 29 May at Senate Hall, Central College. A jury listened to the grievances of the people and cross questioned the respective officer in charge of the areas.
The jury included a range of people from civil society organisations and government: B Shivappa (Additional Director, FCS&CA, Geetha Menon (Secretary, Stree Jagruti Samiti), K S Vimala (Vice-President, All India Democratic Women’s Association, Karnataka), Nikhil Dey (an RTI activist from Rajasthan), Justice A J Sadashiv (Retired Judge of Karnataka High Court), Y G Muralidharan (Managing Trustee, Consumer Rights Awareness and Education Trust or CREAT) and G N Nagaraj (State Secretariat Member, CPI(M) & Vice President, Karnataka Prantha Krishikoolikarara Sangha).
The audience included people from all sections of the society specially the ones who had come there to know more about the PDS. They included representatives from senior citizen groups and Self Help Groups of Koramangala, Jayanagar, and Tilak Nagar.
Responding to construction worker Parvathi’s complaint, Food Inspector Subramanya reasoned that she could not be given a BPL because she ‘has’ a motorcycle. The eligibility criteria for obtaining a BPL mentions that the person ‘having’ a diesel or petrol vehicle is not eligible.
The meeting also emphasised on the survey done by CIVIC to find out the loop holes in the PDS. CIVIC had surveyed 40 fair price shops in four wards (6, 52, 54,62) in three zones (north, west and south) and found out astonishing results.
It was found that out of all the shops surveyed 12 never opened and the rest opened mostly after the 20th of each month, when they are supposed to be open throughout the month. in addition, while most shops had a high number of BPL card holders, a lot of eligible BPL card families were given APL cards. Cases where the rice and kerosene connection is cut for a BPL card holder if he/she gets a gas connection were also seen.
At the same time, the quality of rice and wheat given was also observed to be very bad. The BPL card holders in some places were not getting sugar for the past two months. In some cases, it was found that the card holder did not buy from the shop yet it was recorded in the register. The shops always wrote receipts but rarely gave them to the customers. There was no proper information provided to the survey team about the grievance redressal meetings conducted by the government. Even the vigilance committee reports were found incomplete.
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The cases discussed in the meeting brought to light issues like lack of clarity in the criteria for getting BPL cards and APL cards. Some of the food inspectors too seemed confused about these issues. The Karnataka government is reportedly planning to bring in biometric cards for the ‘Below Poverty Line’ citizens.
RTI activist Nikhil Dey’s speech in the beginning of the programme moved the audience and was very interactive while he pointed out some of the very specific and important loopholes in the PDS. Though he did not stay till the case studies.
Dey also commented on the Supreme Court’s judgment on the right to food. What is this right dealing with? How much was this right being violated and how many people are guilty of contempt of court. The judgement said all fair price shops should open immediately and should be open all 365 days. But the survey itself had showed how infrequently the shops open.
Dey said that the apex court’s orders itself were a result of the campaign. RTI Act was used to find out how much stock we had in our government godowns. The results said that they were overflowing and there was an excess of 70 million tonnes in the year 2006, while people in the country were dying of hunger.
He gave example of the Chhattisgarh government (BJP) which has managed to bring 80 per cent of its people to be entitled to get rice/wheat at Rs 3 a kilo. The ration shops are also deprivatised. He asked the newly formed BJP government in Karnataka to look at its counterparts in other states, like Chhatisgarh, and try to make living conditions better for the deprived.