The story of Triveni, a very poor woman living in East Delhi has prompted more than 150 citizens of Delhi to file Right to Information applications en-masse, recently. Triveni holds an Antyodaya card issued by the government to the poorest of the poor. Such cardholders are entitled to highly subsidized rations (Public Distribution System) at Rs.2 per Kg of wheat and Rs.3 per Kg of rice. Triveni did not know that she was entitled to these rates and because the rations were being illegally offered at @ Rs 5 per Kg of wheat and Rs 10 per Kg of rice -- almost equal to the market price -- she did not take any grains from Sept 2002 to Feb 2003.
In February this year, when she came to know the actual rates, she filed an application under the Right to Information Act asking for the details. Recapitulating her story that has been detailed in an earlier an article -- Triveni found out in response to her to her Right to Information (RTI) request that the books had been cooked. 25 Kgs of wheat @ Rs 2 per Kg and 10 Kgs of rice had been issued for 3 months, and fake thumb impressions had been made in her name. But since her request for information under the law, she had been getting right amount of ration at the right price.
In order to follow through on the siphoning away of rations in her name, in August, Triveni filed a complaint with the Food Commissioner. There was no response from the Food Department till 23rd August. But, the local ration dealers got wind of the complaint and started threatening her. They tried to offer her a fairly large sum of money in return for her withdrawing her complaint. Though her financial condition is very bad, the remarkable woman refused to accept the money.
It is partly in response to this, on 29th of August 2003, about 300 people from different parts of Delhi assembled at Gandhi Peace Foundation. They then proceeded to he office of the Food Commissioner and around 150 citizens filed applications under Right to Information seeking to inspect and obtain copies of records of ration dealers in their respective areas.
The meeting was jointly organized by Ankur, Action India, Sabla Sangh, Bhalswa Lok Shakti Manch, Sahbhagi Manch, Chetna Welfare Samiti, Jagriti Mahila Samiti, Parivartan and others. People came from Jahangirpuri, Sonia Vihar, Sundernagari, Seemapuri, Nandnagari, Welcome Colony, Paschim Vihar, Punjabi Bagh, Gautampuri, kalkaji, Bhalswa and Tahirpur.
A delegation of 10 people, which included Aruna Roy from Rajasthan and Sandeep Pandey from Lucknow, also met the Food Commissioner. The Commissioner was requested to have the department comply with the requests for ration records in response to the RTI applications. But the Commissioner maintained that the people who applied for records on 29th of August would not be provided records till the a case on the release of such records to Parivartan was decided by the High Court.
Inescapable in this episode is the farcical manner in which the Food department is stalling citizens on the basis of a stay that ration dealers got the Court to issue on release of PDS records to Parivartan. To recall, several weeks ago, Parivartan had sought copies of records of 17 ration shops in an area in Delhi, using the Right to Information Act. The ration dealers got together and in a clever move filed a petition in the High Court against the Food Department seeking a bar on the department releasing of the records to Parivartan. The Food Department did not show up on the day of the hearing to defend their case, and hence the ration dealers obtained a stay from Delhi High Court, on technical grounds. And now the highest official of the very same department was quoting the High Courts stay order as a reason to not release records to the 150 or so citizens who had filed the applications.
The Food Commissioner was reminded that her position effectively meant that she was suspending the Right to Information Act in Food Department in Delhi and that this would never have been the intention of the Court. Further, the High Court stay had not been granted on merits but on technical grounds and applied only against Parivartan and could be applied carte blanche to the whole of Delhi. However, at every point, she was non-committal and kept saying that she would consult her law department.
The Food Commissioner was also informed that the lists of beneficiaries under BPL and Antyodaya schemes should be publicly displayed, according to the Supreme Court's orders and the PDS Control Order of the Central Government. However, this was not happening anywhere in Delhi, which also enabled ration dealers to siphon off supplies. Again, the Commissioner was non-committal.
Under the Delhi Right to Information Act, the Government has 30 days time to respond to these 157 applications, which were filed on 29th. Parivartans interaction with citizens has already shown that corruption in the PDS prevents people from obtaining right quantities of ration at right prices. Either the people are ignorant of the correct prices or they are threatened by the ration dealers, if they demand their rights. Parivartan believes that when the records of ration dealers become publicly available, the quantities of ration siphoned off will become known and pressure will mount.
The citizens challenge goes on.