26 June 2012

Month-long Campaign On Food Right Begins In West Bengal

The Right to Food and Work Campaign-West Bengal is extremely concerned about the continuing crisis in food availability, escalating food prices and subsequent hunger amongst the people of West Bengal and the country as a whole. It views with dismay the continued rot in the rationing system in West Bengal despite the change in Government.

The seizure of bogus cards, while initially a major pursuit of the new Government, has lately fizzled out.  As per Government reports about 1.9 to 2 crore cards out of over 9 crore ration cards are supposed to be bogus cards. Only 50 lakhs have been seized so far. While West Bengal has more ration cards than the total population, in many villages 30-50% people, especially children do not have ration cards. The making of new ration cards requires bribes or political recommendations in many places, though this is against the law.

The Minister of Food and Civil Supplies has repeatedly announced ad hoc enhancements in quantities for people in the Jangal Mahal, Aila affected areas, hill areas etc. However, in our experience the enhanced quantities rarely reach the beneficiaries. The biggest beneficiaries of these enhanced quantities seem to be the ration dealers themselves. In the Kalimpong subdivision in the district of Darjeeling, Antodaya Anna Yojana and BPL beneficiaries though listed for many years have still to receive subsidised food grains.

A recent study in Datan 1 block (Paschim Midnapore) conducted by one of our constituent organisations has shown shocking results. The study covered 18 shops and 148 beneficiaries in all. Almost 40% of the cardholders had no ration cards in their possession. Most shops did not have boards outside the MR shops that are legally required by the Supreme Court, stating basic information such as stock rates, quotas, list of beneficiaries. Of the 148 beneficiaries interviewed only 5 reported receiving the correct amount of foodgrain. No cash memos were issued to cardholders. It was clear that Sales Registers maintained by the ration dealers were clearly cooked up records, as were their Log Books showing stocks and allocations. The entire Public Distribution System seemed to be functioning on a whole lot of spurious and outdated information.

Many of our constituent organisations joined monitoring and vigilance committees formed by the Department of Food and Civil Supplies at the District and Sub-divisional level as NGO representatives in the hope that they would be able to improve functioning of the PDS. However, in some districts (e.g. Paschim Midnapore) these committees have not even met once in the past year. Committees at the shop level and at the block level have not been formed or are inactive and ill-informed.  Thus public vigilance of the PDS is missing, while the Department staff seem ill-equipped to do any such monitoring.

In the meantime, while food does not reach the beneficiaries due to a corrupt delivery system, food stocks are continuing to pile up in FCI godowns. As on June 1, 2012, the stocks had crossed the 75 million MT mark. A substantial amount is now rotting in the open. On June 1, 2012, it is estimated that 231.82 million MT of wheat will have to be stored under plastic cover in the open as against 116.38 million MT which will be stored in covered godowns. The Central Government is seriously considering exporting of these foodgrain at subsidised prices but is not willing to provide this the hungry and poor people of this country. Nor is it ready to seriously reform the system. Rs 291 crores was promised by the Central Government to West Bengal for digitalisation of cards but that has not been forthcoming so far, so we continue with bogus cards and huge leakages.

Empty stomachs with sub-Saharan rates of child malnutrition on the one hand and overflowing godowns with rotting food grains in the open on the other thus epitomise the situation of hunger in our country. The National Food Security Bill 2011, which is now lying with the Parliamentary Standing Committee, is expected to change this situation, but it remains a very inadequate piece of legislation in its present form. The Bill divides the population into three groups: priority, general, and excluded households. They will receive major PDS benefits, token benefits, and no benefits, respectively. However, there is absolutely no clarity as to how these different groups are to be identified. The Bill is also strangely silent on food production, without any focus on agriculture and farmers. We have a Food Security Bill that does not say where the food will come from!  Most dangerously, it seems to be paving the way for a replacement of foodgrain with cash transfers. It is our contention that cash, with its multiple uses (e.g. for alcohol purchase, at the worst), cannot provide people with the food security that food grains can. Such a replacement is also likely to affect our food production systems adversely. 

The Right to Food and Work Campaign-West Bengal in this situation has therefore decided to launch a month long Tala Kholo Campaign to focus attention on the problem of hunger and corruption in the PDS. Our demands are:

· Stop the rotting of food grains: open the doors of overflowing godowns immediately and distribute food grains at AAY prices to unorganised sector workers and all other needy sections
· Stop theft in the rationing system and activate the public vigilance system on ration dealers
· Enact a National Food Security Bill that removes targeting and covers all universally
· Give us a Food Bill that legally guarantees food production by providing farmers with remunerative support prices
· Do not replace food with cash transfers 

Plan of Action 

 S. No.
Date and time
Right to Food and Work Campaign- West Bengal
Kolkata Press Club
26th June at 1p.m.
Paschim Banga Kheth Majur Samity, Udayani, Palli Unayan Samiti, Right Track, Hunger Free West Bengal Campaign, Samadhan, We the Common People, Griha Adhikar Manch, Right to Work Campaign
South 24 Paraganas
27th June
District Controller, Alipur
PBKMS and WB Dalit Adhikar Manch
28th June
District Food Controller Office,
North 24 Paraganas
29th June, District Food Controller Office
4th July,
SDFC Office
Masum and Udayani
10th July BDO
PBKMS and WB Dalit Adhikar Manch
West Medinapur
14 July District Food Controller Office,
North Bengal RTF Forum
16th July
North Bengal RTF Forum
18th July, District Food Controller Office.
PBKMS, Udayani and Rural Development Society
18th July, District Food Controller Office.
19 July District Conference

HFWB Campaign, GAM, Durbar
Decision pending

Right To Food And Work Campaign- West Bengal
Office of the Secretariat: 75/1 Ballygunge Place, Kolkata-700019 

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