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Action in Sundernagari
by Arvnd Kejriwal

Gandhi is still alive. His strategy of Satyagraha still works. And it works better than any other method.

On the Republic Day, a large number of people in Sundernagari, a resettlement colony in East Delhi, decided that they would forego their ration entitlements (wheat, rice and sugar) for the month of February to condemn the repeated violence on the people fighting against corruption in the Public Distribution System in Delhi and to express their solidarity.

Background on the Public Distribution System

The Government of India spends Rs 26,000 crores annually on food subsidy.
Through its Public Distribution System, it attempts to provide subsidized grains to about 6.5 crore people identified as living below the poverty line, called BPL beneficiaries. The food is distributed to the poor, at prices much lower than the market prices, through a chain of shops called Fair Price Shops (FPS). The Government issues licenses to some private people to run these shops.

However, the leakages are so enormous that it has rendered the entire program meaningless. A survey done by Parivartan in a colony in East Delhi revealed that more than 90% of the grains meant to be distributed to the poor people through these shops were actually being sold in the open market by these private licensees. Two national TV Channels recently showed how the trucks meant to carry rations from Government godowns to FPS’s carry the grains directly to private mills rather than the shops.

Parivartan, along with a number of people living in slum areas in Delhi have been seeking, and in some cases have been successful in obtaining, records of ration shopkeepers in various parts of Delhi. These records were obtained under Delhi Right to Information Act. When these records were physically verified, the findings are nothing less than shocking.

Almost everywhere, the rations are being siphoned off by the shopkeepers by making false signatures of the cardholders in records. In most areas, the people have been given to believe that the government has stopped sending rations. People living in Ravidas Camp have not received even a single grain for the last so many years. But when the records came out, people were shocked to see how ration was, in fact, being siphoned off month after month by the shopkeeper. In some areas, some shopkeepers did improve their conduct when the records became public.

More information about Parivartan can be found on their website at www.parivartan.com or write them directly at parivartan@parivartan.com

In the last few months, there have been a series of violent attacks on the people who had been exposing corruption in the distribution of rations to the poor people. The last attack took place on December 30th when the throat of a 20 year old girl in Sundernagari was slit by the vested interests. Naturally, the people of Sundernagari were enraged. They wanted to protest. But the question was how do they register their protest effectively? Should they take out a peaceful rally or should they sit on a day long dharna? A series of meetings took place in Sundernagari in which this issue was discussed in detail. A rally or a dharna of a few hundred people would hardly make any difference to the powers that be. The people expressed in these meetings that they wanted to take rations only if it were given to them with honesty and dignity. They did not want rations if it involved violence, corruption and abuses. During these meetings it was also noted that the Fair Price Shops exist only as long as the people were taking rations and that the Food Department officials also exist only so long as people were taking rations. If the people decided not to do so, neither would the shops exist nor would the jobs of Food officials. This gave the spark to the community. It gave strength to the people. The people or Sundernagari would forego their ration entitlements for a month to express their solidarity and to condemn violence. It was a novel way of expressing protest, a gentleman’s way, by undergoing self-sacrifice.

During Republic Day celebrations, speaker after speaker exhorted a gathering of about 700 people to forego their rations for a month. The decision was formalized and a letter sent to the Chief Minister of Delhi. And it had the impact.

Since 1st February, almost unbelievable things have been happening in Sundernagari. The Delhi Government kept a strict vigil on each of the shops. The Food Inspector went around with a video camera to record the movement in each shop. The Assistant Commissioner and the Food Officer moved around to ensure that the shops were open with sufficient stock. The shops which used to open for just a few days in a month were open daily (even during the lunch hours!). The supplies never used to arrive before the 25th of any month. In February, the supplies reached on the 1st day of February in all the shops. Earlier, the shopkeepers would abuse the poor people and cheat them, when they would go to the shops to take rations. During the past month, however, the same shop owners were going to each house and pleading before the people to come and take rations. A daily report of the list of people who took rations in each shop was prepared and pasted on a notice board outside respective shops. A copy of this report was also sent to the top authorities in Delhi Government.

Sundernagari has a population of almost a lakh of people out of which 9000 families possess ration cards. It is not that one hundred percent of the people of Sundernagari gave up rations. By the middle of February, as per government records, almost 2500 families had picked up their entitlements. But it should not be looked at as a game of numbers. It should not be looked at from the perspective of losses or victories. Such people, who wished to condemn violence, did so by foregoing their rations. The number of such people could be a few hundred or a few thousand. It would be cruel and unjust if we reduced it to an exercise in numbers. If a poor family is foregoing a month’s ration, it is much more than a symbolic gesture. The sacrifice of each of these people needs to be recognized and appreciated; the reasons why they did this need to be appreciated. And if things did not improve in the future, this could be the first step to a more intense struggle.

A number of people had expressed fears that the rations that they forego might be siphoned off by unscrupulous elements. However, the Chief Minister assured that necessary arrangements would be made to allow people to inspect distribution records on the 5th of March. The people would be able to see whether the rations foregone by them had been returned to the Government.

Normally, the ration shop owners sell some rations to the regular card holders and sell the rest in the black market by making false entries in their records. In the month of February, their illicit income took a severe beating because daily stock position and distribution records were put up on the notice boards every day. They were unable to fudge entries because their records would be thrown open for public inspection on 5th March. If any card holder found a wrong entry made in his name on that day, the shop could face cancellation and criminal charges.

On the 5th of March, around 200 people went to inspect their records at the local Food office. Those who did not take rations wanted to inspect what happened to their rations. Records of 12 ration shops were examined in the presence of media and other witnesses these proceedings. These 12 shops normally provide rations to 9700 families.

Barring a very small discrepancy in one case, the records of the shop owners were found impeccable. Not a single entry was found fudged. No instances of false signatures were detected. No one's ration had been siphoned off. The entitlements of the people, who did not take rations for the month of February, had been carried forward as opening stock for the next month and had not been defalcated. For the record, out of 9700 families, about 4300 families picked up rations in February but 5400 did not.

The actions which these brave villagers took resulted in a resounding success.

This whole exercise raises some interesting questions. All this while, the people had been pleading with the government to provide them proper rations but the government claimed helplessness. The government forwarded complex theories on how there were serious systemic deficiencies and how the present system could not be made to work. But when the people declared their intentions to forego their rations, how did the same system suddenly start functioning?

On receiving clear directions from his bosses, the local Assistant Commissioner came back to his area and simply directed all the shop owners that they had to deliver. And strangely, the shop owners followed his directions. Why is it that the shop owners suddenly decide to fall in line? Why is it that the same Assistant Commissioner was unable to tame shop owners earlier? This means that he has the necessary powers and resources to provide good governance. He simply did not have the intentions earlier.

This is true for all spheres of governance. Aren’t many of the constraints talked about by Government just excuses? Government does have the capacity to provide clean and just governance. What lacks is its purity of intentions.

It also shows the people’s power. That the people are not helpless. That the role of the people in making democracy work is critical and that when the people act, the vested interests run for cover. The people will have to tell the governments in unambiguous and determined manner – “We want clean and just governance. If you can provide it with honesty and dignity, we will accept it. Else we do not want your services.” This simple statement made with determination has the potential to shake the existence of the governments.

Arvind Kejriwal earned a degree in Mechanical Engineering from IIT Kharagpur in 1989. He joined the Indian Revenue Service in 1992a and set up Parivartan in Jan 2000. He was a Deputy Commissioner of Income Tax in Nov 2000 when he took two years sabbatical to work full time on Parivartan. He is currently on another two year leave working full time on Parivartan