National Food Security Act (NFSA) or Right to Food is a people-friendly legislation targeted to benefit disadvantaged & marginalized communities of the society. Like MG-NREGA, enactment of NFSA has been a great achievement of the UPA Government. Right to Food is enshrined in the constitution, Article 47 of constitution reads :
"The State shall regard the raising of the level of nutrition and the standard of living of its people and the improvement of public health as among its primary duties and, in particular, the State shall endeavour to bring about prohibition of the consumption except for medicinal purpose of intoxicating drinks and of drugs which are injurious to health "
National Food Security Act (NFSA) & Jammu & Kashmir
Law guaranteeing Right to Food (NFSA) was extended to Jammu & Kashmir with effect from 1ST April 2016 during PDP-BJP lead Mufti Mohammad Syed's Government. Authorities at the helm claim that under NFSA highly subsidized ration @ Rs 2 (wheat flour) and Rs 3 (rice) is provided to maximum chunk of population in Jammu & Kashmir i.e. around 75 lakh people and another 45 lakh people who are identified as 'Non Priority Households' (NPHH) or Above 'Poverty Line consumers' (APL) get the ration on bit higher rate@Rs 15 / Kg for rice. Government of J&K claims that this further covers more than 95 per cent of the population
Under the old law people used to get 35 kgs or rice per ration card but under NFSA this was changed to 5kg rice per person per month. This means a family of 4 is entitled to get 20 kgs rice only, while as under the previous system even a 3 member family would get 35 kgs of ration every month. This discrepancy led to protests in Kashmir valley during the enchantment of NFSA.
How the Poor consumers looted ?
We, the members of the RTI movement, recently exposed the mismanagement of the public distribution system (PDS) in Budgam and Baramulla Districts. Over the last four years, subsidised rations meant for the poor were sold to them at an exorbitant rate. Hundreds of poor consumers were never informed that they were entitled to rice for Rs 3 per kilo under the National Food Security Act (NFSA). Instead they were provided with fake ration cards, often by shopkeepers and marked those cards as Above Poverty Line (APL) and Non Priority Households (NPHH), as a result they had to pay much more for rations than they should have.
This May, when free rations were being distributed during the lockdown, residents of Bonen village in central Kashmir's Chadoora Tehsil of Budgam District, were provided less quantity of rice than they were entitled to. The storekeeper, an employee of the Food Civil Supplies and Consumer Affairs Department (FCS & CA), allegedly did the same with other villagers too.
One of the residents, Sona Ullah contacted Mushtaq Ahmad, one of our local activists, who sent a video of Sona Ullah's statement to the Assistant Director for Food and Civil Supplies, Budgam. The officer acted quickly and and suspended the storekeeper. Since the video went viral, many other similarly affected persons got in touch with Mushtaq Ahamad, complaining about the denial of free rations because the local storekeeper had given them fake NPHH ration cards. (These are also known as Above Poverty Line ation cards.)
The Jammu & Kashmir RTI movement decided to undertake a kind of social audit in Loolipora village. Mushtaq Ahamad got in touch with another activist, Nazir Ahmad, a lawyer from Loolipora. With others from the village, they undertook a random survey of households, cross-checking about 80 NPHH/APL ration cards against the lists on the ePDS portal. Of these 80 households, 50 turned out to be BPL/PHH on the ePDS portal. For four or five years, each of these 50 consumers had paid Rs 15 per kg of rice instead of the Rs 3 per kg that they had been entitled to pay under the NFSA. Their APL and NPHH cards were fake. They had been created by local storekeepers allegedly in league with the Tehsil Supply Officer (TSO). In some cases, the consumers had been given school notebooks with the seal and signature of the storekeeper and TSO.
When local TV channels, newspapers and social media began to talk about the Loolipora scam, the members of the RTI movement started getting a lot of phone calls and messages. The Central Auqaf Committee of Tarzoo, Sopore in North Kashmir's Baramulla District, which is the top socio-religious group in the area, informed that there was every reason to suspect that as many 25,000 people of Tarzoo had been deprived of PHH and BPL ration cards.
On 1st of July, RTI team went to Tarzoo, which is in the District Baramulla. The members cross-checked 70-80 ration cards against the ePDS portal, of which 50 turned out to be fake. Most of the APL and NPHH ration cards were held by people registered as BPL and PHH. For the last five years, those 50 people had been charged @ Rs 15 per kg of rice instead of Rs 3 per kg. In another case, Bashir Ahmad Mir, a resident of Dar Nambal, Tarzoo, is registered as an Antodaya Anna Yojna (AAY) consumer, which means he is among the poorest of the poor. But he too had been given a fake APL ration card by the department of food and civil supplies, Baramulla.
I don't claim that all the people registered as BPL or PHH on the ePDS are really poor. The irony is that some of them are well off, which also need to be looked into and the benefit should go to the poorest.
I have again filed a formal complaint with the secretary to the government of the food & civil supplies department, who has assured to take action against the erring officials once the preliminary enquiry is over. The enquiry report was to be submitted to the Government by July 28th. I am waiting for the response from Govt.
Entitlements under NFSA
The National Food Security Act, NFSA 2013 is an Act of the Parliament which aims to provide subsidized food grains to approximately two thirds of India's population. It was signed into law on September 12th, 2013, with retrospective effect from July 5th 2013. J&K extended this law in 2016 as mentioned above. NFSA converts into legal entitlements for existing food security programmes of the Government of India. It includes the Midday Meal (MDM) Scheme, Integrated Child Development Services scheme (ICDS) and the Public Distribution System (PDS) . NFSA also recognizes maternity entitlements. The Midday Meal Scheme and the Integrated Child Development Services Scheme (ICDS) are universal in nature whereas the PDS will reach about two-thirds of the population (75% in rural areas and 50% in urban areas). Under the provisions of the bill, beneficiaries of the Public Distribution System (PDS) are entitled to 5 kilograms per person per month of cereals at the rate of Rice @ Rs 3 / Kg , Wheat flour Rs 2 / Kg and coarse grain Millet Rs 1 / Kg.
Appreciation & Admission
After exposing the scam in Loolipora Budgam , we got an appreciation letter on July 8th2020 from the office of Secretary to Government Food Civil Supplies and Consumer Affairs J&K Government. The letter is self-explanatory wherein the Government admitted that the allegation was true as 7 officials of the Food Department were said to be involved in the crime along with 3 retired officials. The RTI movement is waiting for the action to be taken against the officials. The Secretary has sought a few more months time to complete investigation.
The letter reads as :
"In response to your complaint dated 9th June, 2020, a copy of which was also endorsed to Secretary to the Government, Department of Food, Civil Supplies & Consumer Affairs, this is to inform you that the matter was got enquired into, pertaining to non-adherence of ePDS Portal by the officials of FCS&CA Department in Village Loolipora, Tehsil Chadoora, District Budgam. A senior officer of the department conducted the Preliminary Enquiry, wherein the allegations levelled by you have been found true in respect of 26 out of the 32 cases mentioned by you. The responsibility has been fixed on nine officers/officials, including a few who have retired from the service in the last 3-4 years. It has, as such, been decided to initiate action against the concerned officials for their supervisory lapses because of whom the genuine beneficiaries of NFSA had to suffer in spite of figuring in the ePDS Portal. The department would like to thank you for highlighting this important issue through a scrutiny undertaken by you and your team, which is akin to social audit. Notwithstanding, the Department has already decided to complete 100% Aadhaar Seeding of all the NFSA beneficiaries on a mission mode and complete the same within 50 days. Aadhaar authentication shall be made the only mode of drawing ration from the Fair Price Shops/Ration Shops operated by the department from September 2020, onwards. This will completely eliminate the problem that was highlighted by you "
Needs a thorough probe
For the last one month we are getting phone calls and messages about similar bungling in other villages and towns. Even in Srinagar city there are many poor families who are not provided BPL or PHH ration cards and we believe that they would be enlisted as BPL or PHH on the e-portal . Many women who have been married and taken cards in other places or expired are not deleted from the list of ration card holders. Even children as young as 12 years of age and unmarried persons have been enlisted as ration card holders. This is done only to get more ration from Food Corporation of India (FCI) for selling in black-market.
Under ICDS and Mid Day Meal (MDM) scheme there are mismanagement and corruption. A ration for which Rs 3 per kg is only deposited in the Govt Treasury for which the Govt storekeeper charges Rs 15 or 16 from the consumers and makes an illegal benefit of Rs 12 or 13 from a one kilogram itself. How big a scam would this be across Jammu & Kashmir when tons of ration is sold in the black-market ? This is not the case of only Jammu & Kashmir, it is happening across India. An indepth investigation should be undertaken by some central agency into this.
For almost 11 years I have been urging upon the authorities to make voluntary disclosure of information by digitizing the official record and uploading it on Government websites. This is also mandated under section 4 of RTI Act 2005 as well. In the majority of cases J&K Govt has failed to make proactive disclosure. In the past, we tried to get the details of BPL ration card holders using the Right to Information Act (RTI) but in many cases the information was either denied or misleading information was provided. Fortunatly, since the whole Public Distribution System (PDS) data is digitized now one can obtain circle and village / mohalla wise information of ration card beneficiaries.
I would urge educated youth to check the Government Ration Card beneficiaries of their area and see who are enlisted as AAY, BPL or PHH and then go to such families and see if they are getting benefits of this scheme or not. JK RTI Movement volunteers are always ready to assist such public spirited people. Let us make sure that disadvantaged communities are not looted by Food Department officials. The only way to ensure transparency in the entire Public Distribution System (PDS) is to wake up and make use of technology. I would also request philanthropic organizations and NGOs working on providing ration to poor families to work on transparency in the Public Distribution System (PDS) as well.
Views are personal only.
(Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat is a Srinagar based activist and columnist. He is Chairman J&K RTI Movement and Acumen India Fellow,Feedback : email@example.com)