Saturday, March 5, 2011

134 - Chhattisgarh's food revolution by Ejaz Kaiser, Hindustan Times

Chhattisgarh's food revolution
Ejaz Kaiser, Hindustan Times
Jagdalpur, July 11, 2010First Published: 22:54 IST(11/7/2010)

Since she could remember, labourer Rama Nag (34) didn't know what her ration card meant, that as one of India's nearly 400 million officially poor people, she was entitled to subsidised foodgrain. Until 2006, here in the heart of impoverished tribal India, on the edge of the sprawling forests of Bastar and the Maoist zone of Dantewada, Nag and her family of four survived on rice and whatever they could buy in the local market - while the owner of her local fair-price shop kept her card, grabbed her quota of grain and sold it for a profit of about 200 per cent.

What a difference a computer system, committed bureaucrats and - above all - a determined chief minister can make.

Today, Nag holds up her ration card. She knows she lives below the poverty line (BPL) - an income of Rs 12 or below per day in rural areas - and she knows she has a right to subsidised rice, wheat, kerosene and free salt.

"Nobody ever thought the poor will get their full ration on time without any hassles," said Nag, echoing a widespread feeling among Chhattisgarh's 15 million officially poor people.

"It's a relief, especially with rising food prices."

It's hard to keep food hidden from the poor in Chhattisgarh any longer.

"Earlier the sarpanches (village heads) wouldn't inform the people (of their BPL rights or even that they were on the BPL list," said Jagdalpur's Food Controller Vishwanath Netan.

"Now, a copy of the BPL beneficiaries is with every panchayat (village council) and their details are all easily available."

In a country with 23 million "ghost ration cards" in fictitious names and about 121 million deserving poor deprived of subsidised food (according to a 2010 report from a Supreme Court committee headed by former Justice D P Wadhwa), India's sixth poorest state in terms of per capita income, and one of its most insurgency ridden, has engineered a remarkable turnaround in all its 10,500 fair-price shops.

Idea to implementation
Chhattisgarh's great reform began with a chief ministerial idea, followed in 2004 with an administrative revamp and a two-year-long computerisation of Chhattisgarh's public distribution system (PDS).

The PDS is India's oldest, most-established welfare system, first launched by the colonial government in 1942 before going nationwide in 1956.

The political dividends were apparent when in 2008 Chhattisgarh's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Chief Minister Raman Singh was re-elected.

Chhattisgarh's government first created a network of computers across the state's 146 development blocks in 18 districts, where details of every beneficiary, such as Nag, are put online.