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Politics of PDS Anger in West Bengal

A combination of factors have been responsible for the incidents in late 2007 involving the public distribution system in West Bengal. While the central policy of Targeted Public Distribution System and decreased allocations to the state have been primary contributory factors, local level dynamics that have affected the panchayati raj system are also of significance. This article tries to combine a field study in rural West Bengal with macro-level analysis to analyse the problem.

SPECIAL ARTICLEEconomic & Political Weekly february 2, 200863Politics of PDS Anger in West BengalDwaipayan Bhattacharyya, Kumar RanaA combination of factors have been responsible for the incidents in late 2007 involving the public distribution system in West Bengal. While the central policy of Targeted Public Distribution System and decreased allocations to the state have been primary contributory factors, local level dynamics that have affected the panchayati raj system are also of significance. This article tries to combine a field study in rural West Bengal with macro-level analysis to analyse the problem.West Bengal is passing through a particularly turbulent period in its political life. In May 2006, when the Left Front recorded a huge victory – seventh successive in 30 years – nobody imagined that the government would soon be sucked into a series of severe crises. 1In July 2006, confrontation broke out in Singur, about 40 kilometres from Kolkata, where the government decided to offer agricultural land to a giant Indian multinational at an astonishingly low priceto set up a low cost “people’s car” – manufacturing facility. In December plans to acquire agricultural land for a special economic zone (SEZ) in Nandigram-I, a block of East Medinipur district covering 99 villages, faced massive resistance ofthelocal peasants. What followed was an 11-month stand-off when the peasants under the Bhoomi Uchchhed Protirodh Committee (BUPC, or the Committee for the Prevention of Land Seizure)drove the administration out of the locality and raised serious questions about the government’s moral and administrative authority. Between January and November 2007 several violent clashes involving the police, the villagers and the activists of ruling and opposition political parties took many lives. Clearly, the care-fully orchestrated social peace that various institutional inter-ventions made possible during the last 30 years of the Left Front rule has reached a breaking point. As the Left Front confronted such unprecedented challenges, news crept in from Bankura – the district where the CPI(M)’s vote and seat shares rose dramatically in the 2006 assembly election – and some other districts that villagers were getting mobilised against corruption in the public distribution system (PDS). They marched to the local ration dealers’ houses, demanded compen-sation, negotiated fines; in some places the people turned vio-lent, assaulted dealers, ransacked their property or torched their houses. In some cases the police retaliated, fired at the crowd causing injuries, even death. As protests were spread-ing,thecrowdwas getting increasingly determined and volatile. They forced ration dealers to sign compensation on stamped papers, wrote complaint letters to block and district level offi-cials,boycotted party workers who attempted to protect corrupt dealers and distributors, and compelled police to take action against the latter. Political Parties Give Their Own TwistSuch mass action took the Left Front leaders unawares as they groped for an explanation. While the dominant CPI(M) suspected a deep conspiracy that the opposition allegedly hatched in alliance with those who sought to destroy the PDS to destabilise the We would like to thank Manisha Banerjee, Kaliprosad Bose, Swati Bhattacharyya, Abhijit De, Debjani Dutta and Manabi Majumder for helping us in many ways.Dwaipayan Bhattacharyya(dwai22@gmail.com) is at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta. Kumar Rana(k.rana7@gmail.com) is with the Pratichi Trust.
SPECIAL ARTICLEfebruary 2, 2008 Economic & Political Weekly64government, the Forward Bloc, which runs the department of food and supplies that supervises thePDS, put the blame squarely on a “nexus” between the dealers and the local panchayat bodies (which are mostly under the CPI(M) control). The Trinamool Congress, the main opposition party, on its part, wasted no time to identify it as “a popular upsurge” against the “anti-people policies” of the government. Some even started to find signs of a “food movement” – a repetition of the popular left-led khadyo andolan of 1966. Some asked if it typified the emergence of a “rural civil society”. People debated the extent to which the movement was sponta-neous. A popular Bengali newspaper traced the mode of the movement to a recent popular Bangla film where the hero – an outlaw turned minister – carried out similar mass action to pun-ish corrupt officials and illegal hoarders. The mass media ex-plained that the movement was in response to a steep hike in wheat prices in the open market that made the population “above the poverty line” (APL) turn to the ration shops. Earlier these people seldom bought wheat from ration shops. Hence the dealersusedto make good money by lifting their full quota of wheatandillegally selling it at higher prices in the open market. TheAPL people now demanded not just their current entitlement at a subsidised price, but also their undelivered dues during the past 11 months. Such accounts narrated daily in the media, however, left many questions unanswered. These reports drew conclusions rather hastily, not taking into account the larger problems relating to thePDS in the country as a whole. We attempt to trace here the links between these events with larger shifts in the framework of policy and politics at both local and national levels. While changes in thePDS as a whole during the last decade are responsible at the macro level, the recent political developments in rural West Bengal offered micro-contexts for these political and social protests. The disturbance spread from one village to another saddled on rumours raising serious doubts about the role of local political and govern-mental institutions. We place our analysis within a triad made of the macro structure of the PDS as it evolved especially since the 1990s, the local political dynamics in the villages we studied, and the informal modes of communication that helped mobilising the rural population across villages. 2In development literature the PDS is acknowledged as a mecha-nism of welfare states for catering to the needs of the under-privileged. The efficacy of the PDS depends on the state’s inten-tions and abilities to provide food subsidies, and the admini-stration’s abilities to deliver. Public distribution, therefore, is a product of both political will and economic exigencies. Some argue that economic aspects of such welfare measures do not only involve the realm of necessities, but also of political liberty in a democracy where majority are poor [Sen 1999]. Those viewing “development” as a discourse produced by global capitalism,however,tends to consider thePDS and other modes of welfare as instruments for the third world state to legitimise its rule [Escobar 1995; Ferguson 1999]. Whether as an instrument for enhancing capabilities, or for legitimising a certain form of dominance, the PDS stands as a key institution with enormous politico-economic significance.PDS Over the YearsIn India, thePDS has evolved through various stages since the co-lonial times.1 It started as war-time rationing in 1939 in Bombayand was extended eventually to several other cities. It was also taken to rural areas to meet situations of food shortage. In 1947 it was terminated, and in 1950 was reintroduced as part of the planning process. As the country was facing severe shortage of crop pro-duction, the system had to rely on imports. In 1964, the Food Corporation of India (FCI) was set up, which worked as the sole central agency under the department of food and civil supplies, in the ministry of food, for storage, transport and distribution of food supplies. Since then, FCI has been doing the major procurement, though the state cooperative marketing federations also procured foodgrains and supplied to theFCI. The state governments purchase the commodities from FCI for inter-nal distribution and for supply to the fair-price shops (FPS). At the state level, the civil supplies department supervises over the sup-ply offices at the district and block levels and the FPS. Six essen-tials items supplied through the PDS are rice, wheat, sugar, edible oils, kerosene and coal. Other items such as pulses, salt, tea are provided occasionally. Through the 1970s and 1980s, the PDS in India became increas-ingly robust with the accumulation of buffer stock following rap-id growth for some crops in some areas.2 From the early 1990s, however, certain policy shifts occurred following which the PDs prices progressively moved toward the crop prices in the open market. People’s dependence on the open market increased. In 1997 the government introduced the Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS). The government reckoned that if food was provided at lower prices for the poor then the administration wouldbe able to minimise “capture” of such benefits by the elite. Moreover, sections of the governmentwereworriedsinceearly 1990saboutlargesumsbeing spent for subsidising food in the country. The pressure was for reducing fiscal deficit, as part of the structural adjustment of the economy in crisis. Some not only questioned the rationale behind such subsidies, they also argued that the cost of public transfer was very high, with only a small part of the amount spent actually reaching the poor. As late as in 2003-04, it was estimated that for every rupee transferred tothepoor, the government spent Rs 3.65 as budgetary food-subsidies [Government of India 2005:xi]. Moreover, there was also an argument that the demand for subsidised food was on decline with the general rise in income of the rural poor. This was supplementedby another argument that India in the early 1990s was self-sufficient in food, requiring no more food imports for subsidised distribution. PDS to TPDSAs theTPDS was designed to use food-subsidies more specifically for the poor, the state governments were expected to identify the population “below the poverty line” (BPL) so that everyBPL familycould be offered certain quantity of foodgrain at spe-ciallysubsidised rates. In fact, the price for the BPL was set at half
SPECIAL ARTICLEEconomic & Political Weekly february 2, 200865the economic cost, which the APL population was expected to pay. Besides, while foodgrain available for the BPL families was fixed (initially 10 kilograms, revised to 20 kilograms from April 2000), no such fixed quantity was assigned for theAPL popula-tion. So the declared goal of the TPDS was to ensure food-subsidy for the poor, guarantee regular supply, cut down on wastage and leakages, and exclude the undeserving section of the population from the government’s largesse. The Programme Evaluation Organisation (PEO) of the central government listed a number of recommendations made to the states whenTPDS was introduced [Government of India 2005:4-6]. States were asked to make credible financial and administrative arrangements to ensure supply of foodgrains toFPS. While the originalBPL list was derived from the estimates of the Planning Commission for 1993-94, the gram panchayats and gram sabhas were expected to help in formulating revised lists. TheBPL popu-lation consists of the landless agricultural workers, marginal farmers, rural artisans, craftsmen and urban slum-dwellers. The central government’s commitment was restricted to ensuring 20 kilograms per BPL family, quantities required for various central government employment schemes, and those required for transi-tory allocation (for the APL population). The states were supposed to bear the cost of any additional requirement. Moreover, the states were told to cancel bogus cards, and issue photo-identity cards like in Tamil Nadu.ThePEO also mentioned a number of monitoring instruments that were suggested earlier for the FPS at the district and block levels. The collector was asked to keep a record of actual offtake from theFPS, especially by theBPL section. The state’s departmen-tal secretary was told to carry out monthly monitoring of these figures before sending them to the central government. It was the aggregate of such offtake figures, and not the state government’s lifting from the FCI, that made the consumption figure of the state. The shops were instructed to put out a display showing clearly the number ofBPL andAPL cardholders, monthly allocation, previous month’s issue quantity, issue prices, and the address for reporting grievances. Administrative monitoring apart, social audit of the PDS system was also recommended at the shop, block and district levels involving the panchayat or the municipal bodies. Clearly, an elaborate mechanism was set in place for minimising leakages and reaching the genuinely poor. The states were entrusted with considerable responsibilities for running the system. Criticism of TPDSTheTPDS came under severe criticism especially from the left scholars. “Ever since the dismantling of universal Public Distri-butionSystem of grains in 1997”, observed Shakti Kak, “the gov-ernment has implemented policies which are inimical to food se-curity” [Kak 2007]. Madhura Swaminathan went a step further: “Targeting food supply inPDS to a narrow section of the popula-tion is a dangerous policy, and a prelude to closing downPDS al-together” [Swaminathan 2000]. Anjini Kochar has shown that although the value of monthly wheat subsidy per BPL family shotup by a whopping 586 per cent between 1993 and 2000, BPL caloric intake increased only marginally between 1993 and 1997, from 1.933 calories to 1.964. Kochar’s survey also reveals that the introduction of TPDS has adversely affected the offtake of the poor households relative to what it would have under a universal system [Kochar 2005].Challenging figures supplied by the Plan-ning Commission, Utsa Patnaik argues that the effective demand of foodgrains especially in rural India has declined drastically in the era of economic reforms. She, therefore, demands that access to affordable foodgrains be restored “through reverting to a uni-versal, not targeted public distribution system” [Patnaik 2005].The reasons for preferring universal to targetedPDS are many. At the practical level, the poverty line and the corresponding list of people below the line generate huge political controversy. Po-litical influence is widely believed to play a key role in inclusion and exclusion. The section of the population close to the line could actually be placed on both sides, which makes denial of subsidy to the APL as a whole ethically wrong. Also, the poverty line is set so low that those who are even legitimately above are nothing but dismally poor. Moreover, the method to determine poverty is controversial and the people concerned have practi-cally no role in such determination carried out in most cases through bureaucratic mechanisms.3 In West Bengal, for instance, it is argued that even the institutions of local governance were bypassed in determining poverty [Rana 2007].Subsidies: Exaggerated?The switchover from comprehensive PDS to TPDS occurred at a time when the government at the centre was keen to reduce food subsidy. The Economic Survey of 1992-93 had stated, “while the public distribution system has to be continued to help the poor, the burden of subsidy in the central budget has also to be restrained”. In the same document it is suggested that a “phased withdrawal in food subsidies by targeting PDS” would help in controlling in-flation.4 The reality of food subsidy, however, is very different. The subsidy bill has not gone above 1 per cent of India’s gross do-mestic product. According to the Economic Survey (2006-07), the food subsidy bill as per cent of gross domestic product declined from 0.91 per cent in 2003-04 to .083 per cent in 2004-05 and to .066 per cent in 2005-06 [Kak 2007]. In short, food subsidies consti-tute only a tiny part of government’s total annual expenditure.West Bengal and TPDSIs the present crisis in rural West Bengal in some way related to the problems associated with the running of the TPDS itself? The state government frequently claimed that central alloca-tion of wheat to West Bengal has gone down drastically during 2006-07creating a heavy pressure on the PDS as well as the open market. There seems to be some substance in theallegation. The monthly average allot-ment of both rice and wheat (Table 1) shows a sudden dec-line in 2006-07 for all cate-gories except Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY) since 2002-03. With the reduction in central allocation of wheat, the price in the open market was indeed Table 1: Monthly Average Allotment of Wheat and Rice for West Bengal (2001-02 to 2006-07) BPL APL AAY Total2001-02 104.5 75.4 9.2 189.12002-03 141.9 353.9 25.6521.42003-04 141.9 340.8 25.6508.32005-06 120.7340.846.9508.32006-07* 94.5 218.4 38.9351.7* 2006-07 figures are up to December 2006. To make the figures compatible we converted them as monthly averages. Data for 2004-05 was not readily available. Statistical source: indstat.com.
SPECIAL ARTICLEfebruary 2, 2008 Economic & Political Weekly66going up. In 2005, the central allocation was reduced drastically (from 370.8 tonnes in July to merely 164.5 tonnes in August). Cor-respondingly the open market price of wheat started to rise sharply. In fact, the price of wheat in the open market went up by 25 per cent in a single year (from Rs 8.30 per kg in December 2005 to Rs 10.05 per kg in December 2006). For rice, however, there was no such dramatic change in price. BPL Population CaseHow was the state government supposed to react to such dipping central allotment of wheat and upward push in open market pri-ces? Was West Bengal covering the entire quota of wheat allotted? Such covering obviously was essential to tide over the scarcity, even if partially. Though West Bengal’s offtake of rice and wheat in proportion to its allotment grew between 2001-02 and 2006-07, the rate of such increase was higher for other major states, as well as the country as a whole. In the case of theBPL population, for instance, West Bengal’s utilisation rates increased from 41.7 per cent in 2001-02 to 73.8 per cent in 2006-07, which was significant by all means. When compared with some major states as well as the nation-al average, however, such figures ap-pear modest. APL Population CaseThe case ofAPL households is clearly different. Here, West Bengal’slifting rates in the long run are better than some major states as well as the nation-al average. In general the offtake ratio for the APL category is low in all states, given the competitive open market pric-es. But when the prices sharply rose in 2006-07, there seems no clear reason why West Bengal failed to fill its quota. Given the complicated distinction be-tween theAPL andBPL segmentsin West Bengal, as we have discussed al-ready, the lifting for the APL had to be increased manifold, which was never attempted. Does such lack of initiatives signify administrative apathy or error in judging the price dynamics in the open market or both? Price FluctuationsWe will discuss the administrative problems of PDS in the concluding part of the essay. Let us first review the key reasons for price fluctuation of food- grains in the open market. This is an important aspect ofPDS itself because “the value of the foodgrain subsidy depends not just on subsi-dised prices and available quantities of foodgrains but also on the market prices” [Kochar 2005]. Chapter 3.4 (Public Distribution System) of the Tenth Five-Year Plan document clearly states that “the high market prices of wheat now prevailing in India are due primarily to the rise in the procurement prices over the past three years or so and taxes and charges on cereals imposed by state governments” [Government of India, Tenth Five-Year Plan, 2002-07]. Why has the procurementpricesrisen?BecausetheFCI has ceased to be the only, even principal,procurerasseveral private players have entered the market jacking up prices. In tune with economic reforms, the plan document recommended that “FCI should gradually hand over its role of minimum support price-related procurement to private trade”. Greater competition in food trade from public, cooperative and private organi-sations was considered beneficial. The Agricultural Product Marketing Committee (APMC) Act was recently amended by most of the state govern-ments, thus enabling the agri-business corporate entities to directly purchase agricultural produce from the farmers, bypassing the regular mandis. Conse-quently, some of the biggest corporate houses, such as Reliance, Mahindra, Bharti, ITC, Godrej, Monsanto, Cargill, Wal-Mart and Carrefour have entered the procurement market. The procure-ment targets have been reduced by the government, the target for wheat in particular has gone down over the last three years. To build its buffer stock, the government announced at the beginning of the last procurement season the need to import wheat at a pricehigher than the one paid to our farmers. Therefore, while the price of wheat increased over the years and the FCIlostits pre-eminence, the govern-ment sought to replenish its sagging stock by importing wheat at higher prices from abroad. National Level PhenomenaMuch of what is happening at the na-tional level, including the significant shift in food policies and its effects, is beyond the control of either the West Bengal government or the Left Front coalition. West Bengal is bound to be affected by the difficulties associated with the TPDS, the depleting procure-ment by the central government, the reducing allotment of wheat to the states, the rising open market prices, Table 2: Central Allocation and Open Market Price of Wheat*Months 2005 2006 Central Open Market Central Open Market Allocation Price of Allocation Price of of Wheat Wheat of Wheat Wheat (in ‘000 Tonnes) (Rs per kg) (in ‘000 Tonnes) (Rs per kg)January 374.4 7.79 180 8.49February 370.5 7.75179.5 8.54March 370.5 7.45179.5 8.36April 371.1 7.31172.3 8.32May 371.1 7.34172.8 8.63June 371.17.46108.98.78(P)July 370.8 7.5 114.7 9.02(P)August 164.57.75114.79.67(P)September 164.5 7.79 -9.48(P)October 165.3 7.83 -9.8(P)November 179.5 8 -9.67(P)December 180 8.3 -10.05(P)P: Provisional. * Source: Economic Review, 2006-7, Government of West Bengal, Table 10.6 (p 220), for prices and Table 10.7 (p 221) for allocation.Table 3: Percentage Offtake of Rice and Wheat (2001-02 to 2006-07, up to December 2006) 2001-022002-032003-042005-062006-07A Below Poverty Line (BPL) AndhraPradesh 66.1 99.8 96.4 101.4100.65 Karnataka 98.9 98.3 95.6 99.9 97.8 Kerala 99.1 58.6 82.3 98.1 97.9 Maharashtra 55.5 59.6 68.9 86.0 83.7 TamilNadu 77.1 75.2 102.3 99.6 80.6 WestBengal 41.7 56.0 71.4 89.4 73.8 India 56.3 60.3 70.1 81.5 74.7B Above Poverty Line (APL) AndhraPradesh 35.9 15.4 19.2 66.4 67.3 Karnataka 81.2 27.0 40.6 43.1 54.0 Kerala 6.5 9.6 7.6 17.9 22.2 Maharashtra 0.4 0.4 0.6 2.7 6.8 TamilNadu 0.0 0.6 6.0 43.9 40.6 WestBengal 20.8 6.6 11.7 25.2 24.1 India 18.0 5.9 9.0 18.1 26.7C Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY) AndhraPradesh 102.5 89.7 97.8 98.2 100.8 Karnataka 96.1 89.8 90.0 92.8 94.9 Kerala 86.1 99.5 99.4 96.9 99.9 Maharashtra 87.5 86.4 86.7 88.7 86.5 TamilNadu 69.8 99.0 103.8 102.0 99.0 West Bengal 51.8 66.1 71.0 80 .8 81.8 India 85.6 85.7 91.4 92.2 89.3Source: indstat.com
SPECIAL ARTICLEEconomic & Political Weekly february 2, 200867the process of dilution of the FCI or the allowance given to big corporate houses for purchasing foodgrains directly from the producers. The state’s scope to manoeuvre in these matters is limited. What needs to be explained is why the state government failed to offtake its dues during the current financial year. Why did it fail to anticipate rise in open market prices for wheat and take adequate measures such as instructing theFPS dealers about its possible consequences? Why is social auditing of the PDS almost non-existent in West Bengal? Why did the panchayat and other rural institutions fail to sense the popular discontent? And finally, despite such repeated warnings by the Left scholars, why is the Left Front government completely silent about the dangers of the TPDS itself? Why has there been no mobilisation of a demand for reverting to the comprehensive system as suggested repeatedly by these scholars? To answer these questions it is necessary to move from the realms of macro-level policies to those of the everyday, quotidian politics in West Bengal’s rural localities.3In July 2007, rumours spread in Khiruli village of Birbhum dis-trict that in a neighbouring village the ration dealer was forced by the local people to sell wheat at a reduced price as penalty for denying it to the APL population for about eleven months. It was also reported that the dealer was forced to pay a hefty compensa-tion in cash to all village households. The Trinamool Congress, the Socialist Unity Centre of India and the Jamiyat-e-Ulema-e-Hind in Khiruli wanted similar compensation from the local deal-er. The dealer went to the CPI(M) for protection. The CPI(M) asked the dealer to pay back by selling wheat to the villagers at a re-duced price maintaining at the same time that no cash should be distributed. After releasing some grain instalments for two months the dealer stopped paying any compensation. Since then the local people were unhappy, though the initial impetus for mobilisation had largely waned. Similar pattern was witnessed in Jadabpur village of the same district. Rumours spread, followed by demands of the villagers for compensation both in cash as well as in wheat at a reduced price, the CPI(M)’s reconciliatory mood and opposition to any cash compensation. Unlike Khiruli, however, the dealer in Jadabpur had actually sold wheat to a few APL families, which took the steam out of the demand for compensation. A peace committee was set up where the younger members sought drastic action while two elderly gentlemen in the committee asked for a balanced approach. Finally, the dealer did have to compensate by selling wheat at a reduced price though he paid no cash. Curiously, the dealer told us, that the “CPI(M) families” refused to collect any wheat as compensation.Abinashpur is a multiethnic village in Birbhum with high Muslim and scheduled caste population. Here the dealer lived in a large house, and was notorious for mistreating the local – especially poor – people. The locality is a Trinamool Congress stronghold though the panchayat is run by the CPI(M). In Septem-ber 2007, as news from a neighbouring village travelled that a dealer was compelled to pay cash and wheat for his past lapses, people here also put pressure on the local dealer and made him sign a stamped paper promising Rs 250 as compensation to eve-ry cardholder apart from wheat at a reduced price. The dealer refused to pay the cash subsequently. This enraged the local people who gheraoed his house and threw stones breaking all windowpanes. The dealer was not at home. He rushed back with the district food controller, subdivisional food controller and the officer-in-charge of the local police station. The controllermadeit clear that any payment of cash was illegal. Despite that, the dealer was made to sign another stamped pa-per in the presence of the officials promising to pay Rs 150. Be-fore any payment was made, however, the dealer suffered a heart attack, and his dealership was cancelled. The episode ended in a stalemate.More IncidentsIn Kuitha village of Dubrajpur block news came that two corrupt dealers in neighbouring Sahapur were physically assaulted and forced to pay compensation by the local people. Villagers here decided to teach the local dealers – two brothers – a lesson. In the third week of July 2007 they assembled in front of the local dealers’ house and asked them to pay up Rs 300 to every APL ration cardholder as compensation. In addition, they demanded that the dealers sell them 15 instalments of unrealised wheat at a subsidised price. The dealers initially agreed but eventually declared that even if they were to provide 30 such instalments, they could not make any cash payment. Villagers conceded this offer. After 15 such instalments, however, the dealer-brothers refused to offer any additional instalments. Before the villagers could take any action, both the dealers were suspended. Now the villagers are forced to collect ration from a shop far from Kuitha, which many of them perceive as punishment of a sort for raising their voice against corruption.The incident in Radhamohanpur in Bankura district took an ugly turn in the middle of September 2007 when the crowd protesting against the dealer’s corruption suddenly turned to the conference venue of the CPI(M)’s local committee. The conference was taking place on the playground of the higher secondary school in the village. The angry crowd wanted to talk to theCPI(M) panchayat pradhan who was attending the conference. It was widely believed that the pradhan had offered a ring of protection around the corrupt dealer. When the pradhan refused to discuss the issue, the crowd suddenly turned violent. They ransacked the venue of the meeting. In the skirmishes that followed the crowd was chased out of the school compound. Police was called. The crowed gheraoed the school and pelted stones at the approaching police force. The latter retaliated by opening fire injuring two, one of them a student of the school who was a bystander. According to eyewitnesses this was primarily an agitation of the poor people, though some relatively well-off villagers were present. It surprised many that the villagers could turn violent against a party that rules the local panchayat and has its candi-date as the member of the legislative assembly. People we inter-viewed seem to suggest that there was no calculated organisation and planning behind the incident. It was spontaneous, and
SPECIAL ARTICLEfebruary 2, 2008 Economic & Political Weekly68prompted by a deep disgust for the local ration dealer. People believed that theCPI(M) was more busy attending other issues, while PDS was not getting the attention it deserved. Eventually, a village committee was formed to look into the matter and the dealer soon lost his dealership. The locals now go to Mohanpur, a neighbouring village, to get their ration.4Based on these observations we can reach the following conclusions:First, rumour – as a supplement for public information – played a big role in spreading social unrest. Rumours, accord-ing to Anjan Ghosh, “are anonymously generated, unverifiable speech which flourish in situations where there is a lack of information” [Ghosh 2007:2]. Rumours are ambivalent and uncertain, they confound the dominant power. It represents a discourse of the subaltern, distinct from the elite. Ranajit Guha in his study of peasant insurgency in colonial India treated rumours as “insurgent communication” that is simultaneously a subversive and a parallel discourse to power. Rumours trigger vital visual and non-graphic verbal signals capable of influencing a multitude in a semi-literate society. People in all the villages we visited got into action in response to some verbalandnon-verifiable news that filtered in from other villages where the dealers allegedly were compelled into paying up compensation. The swiftness with which such rumours spread, andthe agility with which the villagers reacted, confounded the district and block officials as well as the workers of the major political parties. Second, the rural people’s protest against corruption in the public distribution system cannot perhaps be treated in isolation from other kinds of agitation taking place in Bhangar, Singur and Nandigram. In all these places the central features of popu-lar discontent were remarkably clear and identifiable. As, for some reason or other, the hiatus between administration and the people expanded, the bridging abilities of the political parties got deeply corroded. Consequently, the apparatus of the state in these localities acted in a thoroughly bureaucratic and highhanded manner disregarding the democratic impulses of the local population. This signifies a reversal of the process introduced by the left in West Bengal with the launching of the three-tier panchayat system. Such resurrection of the bureau-craticapparatusinimplementing the policies of the Left Front had a regrettable influence on the functioning of all major political parties. Hence, we observed an acute reluctance of the villagers to accept the leadership of any one political party in their agitations. Rather, the political parties were forced to follow people’s mood.Not Only Elite-DrivenThird, although mainly theAPL population led the ration move-ment, it will be erroneous to term it as entirely elite-driven. We have discussed in some detail the problems associated with both APL andBPL as categories as well as the controversies surround-ing them. The rise in the price of wheat and corresponding non-availability from the FPS hit the poor people the hardest, especially those who were victims of “exclusion errors” (more than 30 per cent of the APL population fall in this catagory, according to an estimate indicated before). This apart, the BPL also joinedthemovement partly in anticipation of monetary gains,but more significantly as they perceived themselves as victims of the ration dealers’ corruption. The ration dealers alleg-edly misbehave with the poor, cheat them in weight and quality, and refuse to share necessary information. Therefore, for a vast majority of the poor a movement directed against the dealers was one to reinstate their own dignity.Fourth, while the ration-movement was not restricted to the rural elite, the elite in more than one way sought to monopolise it. In the villages covered by us, there was not a single incident of sharing of the cash compensation demanded from the dealers with theBPL section. In the initial stages of the movement when the leaders perceived the massive attend-ance of theBPL section as an advantage, there was a tendency to keep the issue of compensation vague. The poor were given to understand that they also stood to gain monetarily if the dealer could be adequately fined for all his alleged misdeeds. At the time of negotiation, however, the BPL section was completely excluded. In all cases, the dealers agreed to pay back in cash or kind only to the APL section. Everywhere, the BPL was told that its demands would be addressed later (‘pore dekha jabe’).Spontaneous and Anti-CPI(M)Fifth, the movement against the dealers had no clear organi-sational structure or goal. It evolved contingently in response to the emerging context on an everyday basis. Since the movement was principally critical of the administration, it readily took an anti-CPI(M) turn wherever possible. Interestingly even the CPI(M) supporters and lower-level workers took part in the movement. No mainstream political party – either the ruling or the opposition – however, attempted to turn the spontaneity of the movement into a more orchestrated critique of the deep-rooted corruption inherent in thePDS. There was no debate or discussion at the ground level, no partisan invest-ment, to root out the basic malaise. The government, on its part, issued a number of policy statements. It asked in a circular to formFPS level committees comprising a member of thelocalpanchayat,the inspector/sub-inspector of food and supplies, “one respectable gentleman of the locality” and a wom-an representative of a BPL family.5 In addition, committees were recommended at the block and subdivision levels. These commit-tees were, however, top-down and thoroughly bureaucratic, at-tempting only to pacify the agitated villagers with no intention to address the core issues.Sixth, though the dealer is invariably the immediate target of public wrath in these incidents, most of them have little option other than indulging in corrupt practices due to many reasons, including the small margin of profit that they are ex-pected to operate with. Moreover, they being just cogs in a largerwheelofnumerous pilferages are compelled to conform to certaininternal norms of transaction. In a letter written to the chief justice of the Calcutta High Court a dealer claimed that the

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