In trying circumstances enforced by the pandemic, the ration mafia working with the officially run PDS chain denies the poor their share of the food by lying and inventing inhuman alibi, writes Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat
When free ration was being distributed among the beneficiaries under Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Ana Yojana (PMGKAY), many poorest of the poor in Budgam’s remote Goggee Pathri village were denied the same, this past Eid. Ali Jahara, 81, a Gujjar from the scheduled tribe, went to the Government sale centre of the Food Civil Supplies and Consumer Affairs Department (FCS & CA). The storekeeper told Jahara that he was dead as per records. Several other poor consumers were also denied free ration on one pretext or the other. All the aggrieved alerted Mushtaq Ahmad Lone, an activist living in an adjoining village.
Mushtaq video-recorded the statements of around six below poverty line (BPL) consumers in Goggee Pathri village. Mushtaq, well versed with the e-portal of the food department, cross-checked the details of the aggrieved residents on the online portal. Jahara, who was declared dead by the storekeeper, was very much registered on the e-portal. His name figured in the Antodaya Ana Yojna (AAY) category. Jahara and his wife Gulzara Begum were Aadhaar-linked as well. Similarly, Gulla Geege and Nazir Ahmad, two other locals who were denied free or subsidized rice on the eve of Eid were also registered as Priority Household (PHH) consumers on the e-portal.
Jahara, who was waiting for the free ration announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, was made to pay Rs 1,000 for 50 kg of rice (Rs 20/ Kg). Normally he would have paid only Rs 150 as subsidised rice is sold at Rs 3 per kg to BPL, PHH and AAY consumers as per the provisions of the National Food Security Act 2013 (NFSA).
This phenomenon is not restricted to Goggee Pathri village alone. When I posted videos of Ali Jahara and Gulla Geegee on social media, I started getting messages and phone calls. In Dara Harwan of Srinagar one Gayasudin Rather told me he was denied subsidized ration for almost three months on the pretext of his name not being aadhaar linked. When we cross-checked, his name was very much linked on the e-portal.
Garib Kalyan Ana Yojna
After the second wave of Covid-19, the Modi government on April 23, 2021, announced free rations for two months to economically weaker sections under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana (PMGKAY). Under this programme, the government provides 5kg free food grains to approximately 80 crore beneficiaries for May and June. An amount of Rs 26,000 crore will be spent on the initiative. This includes non-poor consumers as well, unlike the PMGKAY where they are excluded.
As regards PMGKAY, the ministry of finance is the nodal ministry for this national programme. PMGKAY was initially announced for a three-month period (April, May and June 2020), covering 80 crore ration cardholders. Later, PMGKAY was extended till November 2020. On April 23, 2021, the government announced its decision to restart this free ration distribution programme.
Under this scheme, each consumer who is covered under NFSA will be provided an additional 5 kg grain (wheat or rice) free. This is in addition to the 5 kg subsidised food grains being provided through the Public Distribution System (PDS). PMGKAY-II lacks an important component, pulses (1kg per family), which was provided free last year with rice or wheat.
Court Takes Cognizance
Meanwhile, the court of sub judge Chadoora took cognizance of this issue after Mushtaq filed a formal complaint against the storekeeper. The storekeeper who has been suspended by the Government was not only selling rice at exorbitant rates but he even attacked Mushtaq when the departmental inquiry team visited Goggee Pathri.
“When the team came to Goggee Pathri I was also there. The storekeeper instead of being ashamed of his activities attacked and manhandled me. He abused me as well,” Mushtaq told the court in his written application. “I then decided to move to the court of law as the department did not take stringent action against these corrupt officials. For the last one year, I have been fighting against this ration mafia who are selling the rice in the black market.”
Sub Judge Chadoora Tabassum Qadir in her May 22, 2021 order directed the SHO Chadoora to take action in accordance with law and to file a compliance report by or before June 9. The court order reads:
“I have pursued the complaint as well as annexures filed by the counsel of the applicant. A perusal of the complaint reveals that the commission of cognizable offences against the accused has been made out. In view of the above-said discussion and the material on record, I deem it fit and appropriate to direct SHO Police Station Chadoora to take action in accordance of law and file a compliance report by before 9.06.2021”
There are two categories of consumers who are benefited under the National Food Security Act (NFSA) Antodaya Ana Jojna (AAY) and Priority Households (PHH). AAY families are the poorest of the poor and entitled to 35 kg of food grain per family per month. PHH is like BPL and these families are entitled to 5 kg per person per month. The work of identification of eligible households is to be done by states/UTs, but this is marred by favouritism.
Section 10 of NFSA provides that a state government or UT shall identify the households under AAY as per guidelines applicable to the said scheme and the remaining households as PHH to be covered under PDS. In J&K, there is a third category as well called Non-Priority Households (NPHH). Rice is sold at Rs 20, a Kg to these consumers. They were covered under the above poverty line (APL) category before the implementation of NFSA in Jammu and Kashmir. Despite the existence of Article 370, NFSA was extended to Jammu and Kashmir in toto with effect from April 1, 2016, when the BJPDP government headed by Mufti Mohammad Sayeed was in power. The then state legislature had assented to this Bill.
NFSA provides highly subsidised rations of wheat flour for Rs 2 per kg and rice for Rs 3 per kg to about 75 lakh people in Jammu and Kashmir who have been listed as PHH. Another 45 lakh, listed as NPHH, get their rations at higher rates. This means that more than 90 per cent of the Jammu and Kashmir population is covered by NFSA. But its benefits are not reaching every household. It is important to mention that beneficiaries of NFSA are based on the last Census (2011). Since then, the number of food-insecure people has increased and they remain uncovered.
Supreme Court Intervention
Prime Minister Modi launched Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyaan or Self-reliant India campaign on May 12, 2020. This was a special economic and comprehensive package of Rs 20 lakh crore, which is equivalent to 10 per cent of India’s GDP, to fight the pandemic. Delhi alone saw a huge migration of labourers last year. Activists and media had criticised the government for not being able to provide ration to the non-ration cardholders in Delhi NCR.
The Supreme Court also directed the opening of langars (community kitchens) for the stranded labourers. A bench comprising Justice Ashok Bhusan and MR Shah observed that it was inclined to direct the starting of community kitchens and dry rations in Delhi NCR for migrant labourers so that nobody starves.
Using e-PoS Machines
Around four years back the Government decided to install electronic Point of Sale (ePoS) machines in all government-run ration depots across Jammu and Kashmir, which include private fair price shops as well. The then Food Minister, Chowdhary Zulfiqar termed the introduction of ePoS machines as one of the biggest reforms in bringing transparency in the PDS. Crores of rupees were spent on the purchase of these machines and for many years the machines were not put to use. Three years later, the Government put these machines into use.
Last year, when our volunteers exposed a PDS scam in Loolipora village in Chadoora, the Government then decided to make effective use of ePoS machines, and aadhar linking all consumers. This was only possible due to the personal efforts of the then Secretary Food, Civil Supplies and Consumer Affairs Department, Simrandeep Singh.
The Government ration storekeeper in Loolipora was also selling subsidized rice to poor and disadvantaged consumers at exorbitant rates, a practice in vogue for many years. When our volunteers crosschecked the ration cards of almost 50 poor households on the e-PDS portal (www.jkpsc.nic.in) they were registered under the Priority Household (PHH) category which is the name given to BPL consumers under the National Food Security Act (NFSA).
In four years, more than Rs 25,000 were looted from each such PHH or BPL family by the Food Department officials in Lolipora alone. I had been urging the Government to get this matter probed by the Anti Corruption Bureau (ACB) or Crime Branch but the Government only suspends the officials involved who get reinstated after a few months and then these officials again get back to ‘business’. This is what I have been observing for the last many years.
The Aadhaar-linked electronic ePoS machine used at ration stores displays the price, the weight of items and the credentials of a consumer.
The storekeepers are reluctant to use these machines, as there is no space left for corruption, mismanagement and black-marketing. The PDS storekeepers as well as fair price shop owners were supposed to sell the ration on the fixed rates to consumers. At the end of the transaction, the consumer is supposed to get an electronically generated receipt, which would show all these details. How many consumers get these receipts from ration stores? The Food Department tells consumers to get a bill from shopkeepers, but their own storekeepers never generate a bill from e-PoS machines? There are thousands of such cases where free or subsidized ration isn’t reaching the real beneficiaries under NFSA in almost all the districts of Jammu and Kashmir, but these cases go unnoticed. If somebody tries to raise their voice, the storekeepers – and the associated ration mafia – muzzle the same. The storekeepers on the other hand allege that they get less supply from the granary and then they are forced to manipulate things. Will the Government ever streamline Jammu and Kashmir’s PDS?
(Founder & Chairman J&K RTI Movement, the author is an Acumen Fellow.)