Ration Ruckus

With government mulling to implement the Food Security Act by early next year, parts of state have risen up in protest, even consuming a life in Pir Panjal. With the issue failing to settle down, Saima Bhat reports that the ration politics is deep-rooted in Kashmir’s chequered history

Srinagarities protesting against the implementation of NFSA in J&K.
Srinagarities protesting against the implementation of NFSA in J&K.

On December 16, 2015, 16-year-old Suhail Ahmad of Srinagar’s Eidgah became another pellet victim of Kashmir, but for a different cause. That day, Eidgah like other parts of city was up in arms against the government, protesting against the Food Security Act. To disperse protesters, police resorted to pellets, thus giving Kashmir its first pellet victim—not for demanding Azadi, but for rallying behind the ration.

The pellets pierced the teenager at a time when the blame game is going on between two arch-rivals in Kashmir’s unionist camp—as who got this act to the state protected with special status. Amid the political wordplay, the present coalition government has already announced that the act is due from February 2016, making even separatists to denounce it as “anti-people act”.

But the government is defending the act saying it will cover 1323230 families (as per 2011 census) in J&K, providing them subsidized rations. But Kashmir’s capital continues to be at loggerheads with the act. The non-agrarian city population is enraged over the fact that the act will cut down their ration from 30 kg/family to 5 kg/person. Even the numbers don’t seem to comfort the city, housing the least BPL populace after Shopian (census 2011), and thus making it least beneficial of the act.  (See Box 1)

Box-1

Earlier Consumer Affairs and Public Distribution (CAPD) had categorized families under three categories: AAY (Antayodaya Anna Yojana), BPL and APL. While AAY would get 35kg ration/[email protected] 3/kg, BPL would get 35kg ration/[email protected] 6.5 and APL 35kg ration/[email protected] 10.

But now, the NFSA has changed the rules of ration. While AAY (the central scheme) has been left untouched by the act, the rest of the categories will get changed, distributed into priority and non-priority groups.

The act will categorise 74 lakh of total 1.25 crore J&K’s population (census 2011) into priority sector. They will get rice and wheat @Rs 3 and 2 respectively, says Mohammad Qasim Wani, Joint Director CAPD. “45 lakh people will be categorised under non-priority group, getting rice and wheat @Rs 10.” The rest 5 lakh people (2.31 from Kashmir and 3 from Jammu) will be excluded from any kind of subsidised ration. (See Box 2)

Box-2

“This act has been adopted throughout India so that nobody dies of hunger,” Wani says. “Central government is not saying they won’t supply extra ration to our state but they will be sending us limited subsidised ration.” If state government will decide to give one extra kg of rice to each person, it will cost extra Rs 30 crore per month to state exchequer, says the CAPD Joint Director.

But even Wani reckons that ration depots are now crowd-pullers unlike a decade ago, making the present Kashmir more dependent on government ghats. Even though J&K never produced rice in excess, but it would still manage its needs. But now, a sullen situation is staring at the state, asserts historian Mohammad Ashraf Wani. Kashmir is 80 percent dependant on imported rice, he says. “Our traditional sources of income are done and dusted with. We are sitting on a social volcano. Our literacy rate is 100 percent, but our youth are unemployed. People prefer urban spaces, ultimately triggering a food crisis by abandoning agriculture.”

What compounds this crisis is the fact that despite having rice bowls—enough to feed the city, the traditional paddy producers in Kashmir are now themselves lined up outside the ration depots. The shift from agriculture to cash-rich horticulture and the huge constructions shares the easy blame. “Now, overall rice production of Kashmir has gone down drastically,” says Muneer ul Islam, district commissioner Islamabad. “We don’t have substantial figures to say the exact percentage of land conversions as our records still show the land as Aab i Awal.” But, he continues, the radical shift can the perceived from the swelling base of ration depots dotting rural Kashmir today like never before.

Ration-Depot-on-Jehlum-Bank

Right now, Kashmir’s rice production has shrunk to the plains of Pulwama, Airwani, Fristlan and Sonawari belts. To meet the requirement, Food Corporation of India (FCI) provides 63067 tons of rice monthly, implying J&K is getting 756804 tons from FCI yearly for the population (as per census 2001)—meaning to 18.02 lakh families only, against 22.73 lakh required families. Now, FCI provides 30,000 tons of rice a month to Kashmir.

Presently when purchasing capacity of state and its people has improved, J&K continues to import almost two-third of its food requirements from Delhi. With the result, the production of rice, the staple diet in Kashmir and part of Jammu belts, is gradually falling, from 563700 tons in 2008-09 to 507700 tons in 2011-12. State’s latest Economic Survey suggests even the area under rice cultivation is shrinking. In 2013-14, J&K produced 556700 tons from 271 thousand hectares. A year after, production reduced to 454800 tons from 265 thousand hectares.

Amid this radical shift, the burden on Srinagar, traditionally housing artisans is mounting. Since centuries, feeding city has always dominated the discourse. Even the British land settlement officer, Walter R Lawrence notes in his book ‘The Valley of Kashmir’ as how the people of Srinagar, mostly artisans, were ruined of their art and then fed with limited food grains at state rates.

“When Sultans succeeded they found Hindi rulers contended one-sixth of the produce of land and they took only one-half as they found valley in ruined state,” Lawrence writes. “But Mughals considered one-half would not suffice for the wants of city population and accordingly decreed that the cultivating classes should dispense with grain for three month and should live on fruits, and the State’s share was from that time three quarters of the produce of the land.”

Quoting Mr Wingate’s report (dated August 1, 1888) in his book, Lawrence writes “the revenue system is such that, whether the Kashmiri cultivator works much to little, he is left with barely enough to get along on till next harvest. He is a machine to produce shali for a very large and mostly idle city population. The secret of cheap shali is because if the price were allowed to rise to its proper level the whole body of Pandits would compel the palace to yield to their demands.” By city population he meant pandit people.

The same trend continued till Dogra era, says the poet-historian Zareef A Zareef. While recalling the times in 1947 when people used to keep their ration cards safe, Zareef says, “Those cards weren’t less than a state subject certificate with same value as that of Article 370 in Indian constitution. I remember it was always put beneath the holy Quran. And nobody used to get enough food as per their needs and production was also less due to different climatic conditions.” This was the reason why Sheikh M Abdullah, Zareef says, asked people to eat potatoes and bread during 1953, so that nobody dies of hunger.

“Sheikh Abdullah could have asked Government of India to send us enough quantity of rice but he wanted people to become self sufficient,” asserts Mohammad Yousuf Teing, Abdullah’s official biographer. “He knew if India sends us rice, it will disempower us politically and make us dependent.” But after Abdullah landed in jail in Kashmir Conspiracy case, his deputy and successor, Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad not only relied on Delhi’s ration politics but also thrived on it. “I remember Bakshi used to start his public speeches saying, ‘Eat as much as you can.’ Bakshi knew Kashmiris needed food,” Zareef says. Rice was usually imported from Punjab. “They usually sent us their rotten stock. They knew Kashmiris just wanted food, no matter what.”

Suhail Ahmad (l: after pellet injuries)
Suhail Ahmad (l: after pellet injuries)

During the same period, a system of Khoesh Khareed was started for rural people—where state revenue employees would collect dhan (rice along with husk) as per the land owned by people for which they were paid a particular amount. Then, it was the responsibility of that landowner to send his stock to the Food and Supplies Department, locally called Shali store.

The same ration politics continued during GM Sadiq’s time, who later tried to fiddle with it only to face public wrath. When Sadiq decided to raise one rupee per person in the ration card, the city lodged a strong protest, forcing the government to increase one rupee per family only.

Later when Mir Qasim took over, he made situation more conducive by providing people better quality of food gains. Rice, through FCI was procured on large scale. With the surplus influx of rice, the value of ration cards decreased. After city, these cards were eventually distributed in countryside.

As ration cards became pan-Kashmir food grain license, the agriculturists began selling off their rice produce in city by feeding themselves the grains provided by government ration stores. Later the local produce dipped as the paddy lands were converted to orchards. Within no time, Zareef says, Kashmir lost some ’52’ unique varieties of rice. Later to undo the damage and boost the crop, paddy seeds from China were imported to Kashmir. “But the damage control exercise by then had gone ineffective.”

In between Sheikh Abdullah tried to stop food grains import from Delhi when he returned to state politics as chief minister in 1975. But the move didn’t go well with Kashmiris, Taing says. “That time he was presented with a bill worth crores of rupees to be paid for subsidised ration bought by earlier governments. But as Sheikh Sahib remained adamant, Delhi waived off the bill, thus continuing Kashmir’s ration dependence on India.”

Even rebellious 90s were no different. With Kashmir entrapped in conflict and ration stores running dry, social welfare groups from Punjab, like Gurduwara Praband Committee, would send rice to Kashmir on no-profit, no-loss basis. “This continued till late 90s,” says Zareef. “Hadn’t there any such supply, the face of our struggle would have been different.”

Now when the ration politics is getting redefined, the dissent has once again erupted in city. But some in government circles argue the move is bound to end the age-old ration dependence of Kashmir on Delhi. Therefore the dissent, they suggest, must be throttled up to pave way to ‘dignity’. But Mirwaiz Umar has an observation: Why to restore the ‘dignity’ by extending another central law to the state protected with special status? Debate on.

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