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Indian women tackle unfair practices at Fair Price

Women's stand highlights corruption in food distribution system
Indian women tackle unfair practices at Fair Price

Sacks of wheat are stacked at a Fair Price Shop in New Delhi.

Published: January 14, 2014 06:43 AM GMT
Updated: January 13, 2014 09:34 PM GMT

When Leelaben talked about her little victory she sat up straight, unable to hide the smile on her face.

With four other women from villages around Balasinor in Gujarat, she went to the local Fair Price Shop (FPS) six months ago and told the owner that they did not want to be cheated any longer.

They accused him of holding back food and not providing them with the full amounts they were entitled to.

“We felt very emboldened because we went there as a group,” Leelaben says. “The shopkeeper saw that, so he didn’t argue much and now we get what we should be getting.”

Fair Price Shops are part of India’s food security system. Started as ration shops established by the British back in the early 1940s, they distribute subsidized staples such as rice, wheat, oil and kerosene to the poor.

In an FPS a kilo of rice costs three rupees, while in a market it would be 25 rupees. A kilo of wheat costs five instead of 25 rupees. People in need must have a ration card to buy goods in one of the five million FPS shops in India.

Yet the country still lags behind others in fighting hunger. Despite reporting GDP growth of over six percent even during the global economic downturn, over 42 percent of India’s 1.2 billion people live on less than US$1.25 per day.

According to the United Nations World Food Program, India is home to over 20 percent of the world’s undernourished people. Children under the age of five are especially affected.

Regional differences are huge. The states that suffer the most from hunger and malnutrition include Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Orissa, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh.

Following a long campaign by social groups and human rights activists, the Indian government last year finally passed the Right to Food Bill, the biggest anti-hunger program in the world.

Under the program, some 820 million Indians, two thirds of the population, will be entitled to buy cheap staple food. Every family in need is to get up to 35kg of grain a month. That will cost the government 1.3 trillion rupees ($20.9 billion). 

But there are problems. The quality of the products is poor and government storage capacity is lacking, meaning food is often rotten.

Above all, the current distribution system through the Fair Price Shops has been shown to be corrupt. NGOs estimate that up to 60 percent of the goods meant for FPS distribution end up on the open market. People who run FPSs on governmental approval often take advantage of the poor’s lack of education and awareness and withhold several kilos of grain meant for each family, they say.

Like many others, Leelaben and her friends took a long time before they discovered they were being duped.

This was thanks to the Human Development Centre in Balasinor run by Ashadeep, a Jesuit trust.

Once a month, a sister from Ashadeep invites Dalit women from the villages to the Balasinor center so they can discuss their problems. This is part of a program to promote rights awareness, which 11 Jesuit social centers have been running in Gujarat over the last three years.

“It was the center that told us the stores were cheating, so we decided to stand up for ourselves”, says Leelaben.

Many FPS owners, however, say they are the victims of fraud.

“Sometimes different members of one family try to collect the ration for the family twice,” says Aravind Bhai, who runs an FPS in the village of Kune.

He also says he is being expected to foot the bill for changes the government wants to make to the distribution system, such as handling the billing online to improve transparency.

“They want me to buy a computer, printer, and get connected to the internet, but how am I going to pay that?"

Store owners say they only earn 13 rupees per 100kg of distributed products, which forces many to look at other ways of earning extra income, including cheating.

To counter this, Sister Saroj LD from the Ashadeep Human Development Centre decided to open a shop herself.

Two women from one of her groups now run an FPS in the neighboring village of Shisva.

The fight against food fraud has also given the women of the Ashadeep group a new-found confidence. Now they go to official meetings in their villages and make their voices heard, where previously only men called the shots.

“At the meetings men sat on chairs and did the deciding, women had to sit on the floor and were excluded from decision making,’’ says Shardhaben, a friend of Leelaben’s.

When she and some other women went to a village meeting for the first time, they decided to sit on chairs as well – and demand a sewer pipe be installed in their village.

“First the men made fun of us,” says Shardhaben, “but after a while they understood that we were serious.”

She says their next demand will be a paved road.

“We will go to the meeting again and speak out since no one intimidates us so easily anymore.’’

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