The Delhi High Court granted a stay on disclosure of records of ration shops to Parivartan on 22nd July. Earlier, the Public Grievance Commission had directed Food & Civil Supplies Department of Delhi Government to provide records of all 18 ration shops in Sundernagari for the last four months to Parivartan. Consequently, the Assistant Commissioner of Nandnagari area issued orders for the implementation of PGC's orders. However, on an application moved by all ration shopkeepers of Sundernagari, the High Court has put a stay on the disclosure proceedings.

Subsidized rations from the PDS shops provides great relief to poor people. However, the issue of rations is laden with corruption. People face several types of problems. Sometimes, the shops do not open. Even if it opens, the usual plea of the shopkeeper is that there is no stock. Even if the stock is there, the ration provided is so adulterated that it is unfit for human consumption. Ration issued to a person is less than the entitled quota of that person. The rates charged are much more than the official prescribed rates. In nutshell, a shopkeeper tries his best to prevent people from taking ration from him, so that s/he is left with as much ration as possible to sell in the black market.

The case of Triveni, a poor woman has already been highlighted in a previous article. She never got her rice entitlements for the last many months. She was given only 10 litres of kerosene against her entitlement of 14 litres and she would get only 10-15 Kgs of wheat against her entitlement of 25 Kgs. The wheat was given to her @ Rs 5 per Kg, whereas the official price is Rs 2 per Kg. As a test case, Parivartan asked her to apply under the Right to Information Act and ask for details of ration issued to her as per records and also copies of cash memos purported to have been issued to her. To her utter surprise, she was told that she had been issued 25 Kgs of wheat @ Rs 2 per Kg, 14 litres of kerosene and 10 Kgs of rice every month in the last four months. Triveni also found that the ration dealer had been drawing her ration by using fake thumb impressions many months. Since her filing for the PDS records, she has been getting right amounts of rations at the right prices.

In March 2003, encouraged by this incident, Parivartan decided to obtain the records of all ration shops in Sundernagari, a resettlement colony in East Delhi, under Right to Information Act. The plan was to audit records for four consecutive months and establish the quantum, nature and modus operandi of corruption indulged in by the ration dealers and let the people of the area see for themselves how much ration had been siphoned off in their name in the last many months. To Parivartan's surprise, the Food Department's reply was that the records could not be provided as they were private property of the ration shopkeepers.

How could the records maintained by the shopkeepers for disbursing government supplies be private records? And if they were private records, how were they made available to Triveni on her request for her case? Naturally, the plea of Food Department was wrong. It was made merely to avoid giving the records, as this would have exposed their corruption. Parivartan filed an appeal before the Public Grievance Commission (PGC). On 6th June, PGC ordered that the records be made available to Parivartan within 15 days. However, in the next 15 days, the Food Department did not do anything despite several requests by Parivartan. Ultimately, the concerned Deputy Commissioner in the department, Mr Ramesh Tiwari issued orders only on June 23, after the 10 day period was over. He passed an order to the Assistant Commissioner of Sundernagari area (Circle 45) that the orders of the PGC be complied with and a compliance report be sent by 15th July.

The Assistant Commissioner (AC) then called a meeting of all the shopkeepers on June 30, asking them to submit their records with his office. The shopkeepers refused to do that. In the next 15 days period, we met the AC several times. Whenever we would meet him, he would say that he had issued a strict warning to all the shopkeepers that if they do not submit the records in the next few days, he would get them seized. This never happened. During this time, the Assistant Commissioner is believed to have issued an internal order/directive to obtain the records. Parivartan has not been provided any copy of this, despite several requests.

When the shopkeers petitioned the High Court for a stay on the pending release of the PDS records, no one was present from the Food Dept to oppose the application.
In the meanwhile, all the shopkeepers have united. Fearing similar disclosure requests in other areas, ration dealers from other parts of Delhi also joined them. About 80 of them went met the PGC Chairman and requested the Chairman to withdraw his earlier order mandating disclosure. The Chairman refused to withdraw his order. He informed them that the order was between Parivartan and Food Department and that they were not even a party in that order. After a few days, these shopkeepers again approached the PGC Chairman along with the area MLA, Mr Veer Singh Dhingan. Chairman reiterated what he had said earlier and refused to withdraw his order. The shopkeepers then approached the Food Minister, Food Commissioner and the Administrative Reforms Department. The response of these authorities is not known.

On 15th July, Parivartan received a letter from the AC that the records have come and they have been sent to the DC. So, Parivartan is advised to collect the records from the DC after making necessary payment. However, the DC denied having received any records. Where did the elusive PDS records go? On 18th July, we met the Food Commissioner, Mrs Sumati Mehta to seek her intervention. In the meanwhile, the ration shopkeepers moved Delhi High Court for a stay and it was granted on 22nd July.

Interestingly, the ration dealers filed their petition in the High Court against the Food Dept and not Parivartan. No-one was present from the Food Dept to oppose the application. The HC granted the stay ex-parte. Since Parivartan has not even been made a party in the case, the Food Dept refuses to release a copy of the dealer's petition to the citizens initiative. So it is not clear what reasons the ration dealers stated in their petition.

The anxiety of the ration shopkeepers is understandable that their corruption would have stood exposed if they had provided these records. What is noteworthy though is the clear reluctance of the Food Department officials to help bring the shopkeepers under scrutiny. The PGC had ordered that the records should be provided within 15 days. However, his orders were ignored. Further, the Food Department was in possession of the records for a full one week from 15th July. But the records were not provided to Parivartan for strange reasons. If the records had been provided, it would have come to light how the ration meant for poor people is siphoned off.

The Food Department has a large number of inspectors who are supposed to keep a check on the smooth functioning of the ration shops. But the state of affairs is known to everyone. The controls with respect to keeping a vigil on the functioning of the shops must be in the hands of the people and the Right to Information Act is a powerful tool for this. If the records are thrown open for public inspection in this fashion, there would be a reasonable check on corruption. The present system of secrecy breeds corruption and encourages ration shopkeepers to indulge in corruption.

Parivartan representatives in the meantime have met the Delhi Chief Minister, Sheila Dixt. The CM in turn has asked the Food Commissioner to meet her with the records to ascertain the facts. One of the options with the government is file for vacation of the stay.