I have always believed that food security is one of the most important manifestations of development for any community. Food security is not something that happens as a stand-alone phenomenon. It reflects the priorities of people and their spending capacities, the availability of and access to food grains, agricultural yields of the land, the social policies of the State, and more importantly, societal commitment to ensure that no person goes to bed hungry.
It is with this understanding that I agreed to investigate the corruption and mal-administration in the Public Distribution System (PDS) when the (then) Lokayukta of Karnataka asked me to last year. Apart from my own stand against corruption, I also saw this as an opportunity to help improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the Public Distribution System (PDS) in the state, and do my bit for the issue of food security to the citizenry, especially those living in rural areas.
Despite my previous experience in the office of the Lokayukta investigating allegations of corruption in the Health & Medical Education sectors, I must confess that I was not prepared for what I saw. India's PDS is the world's largest subsidised food distribution system, operating out of 500,000 Fair Price Shops (FPS). I am fascinated on why the planners named them 'Fair Price' shops! The very basis of my investigation is to see if they are really fair in letter and spirit.
I began the process many months ago in September 2010, by visiting a few shops in Heggadadevanakote Taluk of Mysore District. I was accompanied by the local officials, and went to a small village with a population of around 2000 and with a few tribal colonies surrounding it. The FPS in the village is run by the local Farmers'Society and I had heard of some irregularities there.
What else other than being poor, neglected and blind does one have to be to be eligible for one's share of rations and get them?
People were not even aware of what they were supposed to get and at what rates. They simply took what was given at the price the shopkeeper told them. None of them realized that they weren't being given a receipt for the amount paid.
The local people got wind of my visit, and a small crowd had gathered outside the shop to relate their woes. An elderly and nearly-blind lady slowly and hesitatingly made her way towards me. She held my hands and pleaded to instruct the officials to issue her a card. She was a widow, more than 70 years old, and with no income, all of which would entitle her to get the Antyodaya card. The State has consciously created the Antyodaya system as a social security measure, specifically targeting the elderly, widows and the destitute.
I turned around and asked the concerned food inspector how was it that this deserving old woman was excluded? His immediate response was that she did not come to the Taluk Office to get herself registered. Oh, if only this old lady had the means to travel 20 km to reach the Taluk office, negotiate the corrupt system and get her rightful due, why would we even need a Social Security System then?
As I turned around and tried to give an answer to the lady, she very innocently asked me what else other than being poor, neglected and blind did she have to be to get her share of rations. I wish I could answer that!
This was not an isolated example. A few months later I had a similar experience in a poor neighbourhood within Gulbarga city. Another elderly lady aged around 70 years came to present her complaint to me. She too was a widow, with a mentally retarded son who was around 30 years of age. Having lost her husband 10 years ago, she was left with no social or economic support. All that she had was the sympathy and support of her friendly but equally poor neighbours. She came up to me with them asking for a BPL card.
It was evident that her poor friends were more socially conscious than our state and its huge machinery. I was painfully aware that she deserved a Anytodaya card and not just a BPL card. The system had completely ignored her because she was not loud enough or rich enough to bribe the concerned officials into giving her a card that she rightfully deserved.
Comparing these two incidents with another that I had in Hassan left me feeling angry and helpless. Angry that the system is so very irresponsive and irresponsible, and helpless that I could do nothing to help them. In Hassan I met a ration shop owner who had a 15-acre estate nearby and a huge palatial house but still carried a BPL card.
I know from my own investigations that the entire process of identifying the poor in the state is flawed and irrational. We not only have a huge number of rich people carrying a BPL card, but also some very genuine poor who do not have a card at all, or have an APL card. Who in the system should be held accountable for this state of affairs? Is it the politicians who think of eliminating poverty as mere schemes to be announced as electoral promises, or the bureaucracy which is caught up in the rules and regulations that they devise, or society itself which has forgotten that as citizens we not only deserve good governance but are also entitled to it?
It seems so paradoxical that the whole country is now obsessed with the scams that break out each day. It is as though one must siphon away millions of rupees to be noticed. The unseen and unheard impact of corruption on the millions of the deserving poor does not seem to affect the collective conscience of civil society or the administrators, and may not be important enough for the media to provide any space.
What we fail to notice is that these micro events are what truly impact poverty and we may be losing out on an extraordinary opportunity to demonstrate
that we care.