A spectre of anomie haunts rural West Bengal. Since mid-September there has been sporadic and spontaneous violence against ration distributors in various districts of the state.
While these food riots are localized, they do offer some lessons to the country as a whole. As food prices climb and worldwide stocks dwindle —a risk mentioned by the Reserve Bank of India governor Y.V. Reddy in a speech in Washington, DC, last week —the rioting in the villages of West Bengal tells us that the public distribution system (PDS), which is the first defence against hunger for millions, can no longer be mismanaged as before.
A recent report of the Union ministry of food and consumer affairs found that nearly Rs31,586 worth of foodgrains meant for the poor were diverted from the PDS in the last three years. Last year alone, grains worth Rs11,336 crore were siphoned off from the PDS.
The angry violence began in September after complaints of diversion of PDS grains. These complaints went unheeded by the local Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPM) leaders, who looked at them in a “business as usual” manner. So far, three ration dealers have committed suicide and more than 200 persons have been injured in the rioting.
Allegations of misappropriation of foodgrains sold under the PDS are at the root of these protests. They are spread across many districts.
The food statistics of the state are not pretty. The West Bengal human development report of 2004 says that per capita consumption of cereals in the state is 498.67g a day, or roughly 15kg per capita per month.
Figures reported during the 61st round of the National Sample Survey, reported in April this year, show that cereal consumption had fallen to 13.1kg per capita per month in the state’s rural areas and 10.3kg in its urban areas.
Given this, one would have expected the state to take whatever the Union government offered it for the PDS. But the state’s foodgrain off-take record is also poor. Of the 4.01 million tonnes (mt) of rice allocated under the Targeted Public Distribution System in 2006-07, it lifted only 1.1mt. This is just 27% of the allocation. The national average stands at about 49%.
In this dismal situation, the poor are worst hit. Offtake of rice from the allocation for the below poverty line quota is only 53%. Here the national average is 75.75%.
This has not deterred Left leaders such as Brinda Karat from blaming the Centre. On 17 October, Karat alleged that shortages in “parts” of West Bengal had occurred because of the cut in the allocations for the above poverty line population by the Centre. Facts belie this.
It is essentially a political and administrative problem of Leftist provenance.
The three ration depot owners who committed suicide, were members of the CPM for long. They had also been ration dealers for long (one for 41 years, had turned it into a family business). This is also the case with hundreds of other dealers, who are now bearing the brunt of the masses in rural West Bengal.
It is common practice in the state for dealerships of state- regulated businesses, such as food distribution, to go almost exclusively to the CPM cadre. Unlike any other Indian state, where there is a healthy distance between officials and licensed or regulated businesses, this is non-existent in West Bengal. This climate is conducive for the emergence of conflicts of interest. Corruption, for example, is likely to go unchecked because civil servants have no stamina to check the followers of their masters.
The political and administrative problems in managing the PDS seen in West Bengal are self-inflicted wounds. The sooner the state government realizes that business as usual won’t do, the better it will be for the people of that state.
Are the food riots in West Bengal a lesson for the rest of the country. Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org