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
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
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.