The Bangalore District Chapter of the Right to Food (RTF) Campaign – Karnataka organized a public hearing on the Public Distribution System (PDS) on 23rd April 2011 from 2.30 – 6.30 PM in Bangalore (at the United Theological College on Millers Road). The meeting focussed on the functioning of fair price (ration) shops, vigilance committees, grievance redressal mechanisms, Ahara Adalats and distribution of ration cards. Participants included Centre for Advocacy and Research (CFAR), Stree Jagruti Samiti (SJS), Citizens Voluntary Initiative for the City (CIVIC), Domestic Workers Rights Union (DWRU), South India Cell for Human Rights Education and Monitoring (SICHREM), Association for Promotion of Social Action (APSA) and concerned individuals. SICHREM, CFAR and CIVIC are among the Bangalore based organizations which constitute the RTF Campaign in Karnataka.
Sudha K (CFAR), Convenor, RTF Campaign, Karnataka strongly urged the government to revisit the criteria for categorizing families as Below the Poverty Line (BPL). She shared that in a recent survey conducted by CFAR and other civil society groups in Delhi, 90% of those approached rejected the proposal to replace the PDS with cash transfers as they were unsure of getting any money. “Through the ration stores, we procure some food grain, at least”, the respondents stated. Sudha also highlighted the need to improve the consumer grievance redressal mechanism. She requested the Food, Civil Supplies and Consumer Affairs (FCSCA) department to organize awareness camps particularly in low income neighbourhoods to monitor the operation of fair price shops and the quantity and quality of food grain and other groceries being distributed. During a presentation on Income Criteria for Identifying the Poor, Katyayani Chamraj, Executive Trustee, CIVIC talked about various national (Wadhwa and Tendulkar committees) and international studies (ILC) and recommendations for determining and revising the poverty baseline in India. “PDS must be universalized. How long will the poor go hungry?”, she questioned.
The chief guest Dr. R. Balasubramaniam, founder Swami Vivekananda Youth Movement (SVYM), Mysore and Special Investigation Officer on PDS for Lokayukta. released a set of three Kannada booklets (one of which is partly in English) published by CIVIC. These contain government orders relevant to PDS and RTF, composition and mandate of vigilance committees (called jagruti samitis in Kannada), roles and responsibilities of government officials such as food inspectors, the RTI Act 2005 and details of schemes such as the Antyodaya Anna Yojana. Addressing the gathering after the testimonies, Dr. Balasubramaniam expressed his happiness at the efforts by various groups and individuals to form vigilance committees and question the irregularities in the PDS outlets. He also criticized the government for admitting that there are lakhs of bogus ration cards. For, many of them are provided at the behest of MLA’s and ward councillors. “Acceptance of corruption does not absolve one of guilt. An action taken report must actually have been implemented and not be a mere document.”, he said. Dr. Balasubramaniam and his team found the following while investigating ration shops across Karnataka:
a. Bills are unavailable or forged
b. Mismatch between issuance/procurement register entries and actuals
c. Quantities of rice sold are a few kilogrammes less than real
d. Stores are closed with minimal notice
Dr. Balasubramaniam believed that the storage process for food grains is shameful and renders them unfit for consumption. Commending the good work done by the FCSCA department in plugging leakages in some areas, he informed its officials that a negative report by Lokayukta would impact their career adversely. Calling for pragmatic, realistic and people friendly policies, he exhorted everyone to consume food produced locally. This would suit people’s culture and environment and eliminate transportation and packaging costs.
Later, the Managing Trustee, Consumer Rights Education and Awareness Trust (CREAT), Y. J. Muralidharan expressed that a majority of government officers are unfamiliar with laws, procedures and their own roles and responsibilities. Similarly common people are unaware of their rights and entitlements. Unless the latter voice their concerns and follow up with the government on action required, the status quo will persist. Clifton D’Rozario, a legal practitioner with the Alternate Law Forum (ALF) and the State Advisor to the Supreme Court Commissioner on RTF suggested that discussions such as this one be held in residential neighbourhoods near the ration shops to increase community participation. (To this, Chamraj responded that it has happened on previous occasions). Rozario opined “People must demand their fundamental rights and entitlements fearlessly and not beg for them”. He reminded everyone that Vijaykumar was at the meet as per his duty and not as a favour. His counterparts in other zones should have also attended especially since members of the public were present despite other commitments. Rozario cautioned that problem resolution is slow and that NGO’s and similar organizations cannot address all issues.