|Right to Food Campaign|
In the context of pervasive corruption, the right to food depends a great deal on securing the right to information and restoring public accountability. Parivartan's fearless campaign to eradicate corruption from the public distribution system in Delhi, in the face of powerful interests, is an inspiring initiative in this regard (see item 1 below). This Update also brings you news from similar struggles in Bharawan (Uttar Pradesh) and Dhar (Madhya Pradesh). Further, we attempt to cover some recent developments relating to mid-day meals, the right to work, the right to health, and related matters. As always, we are unable to keep up with all the activities that are taking place around the country, but we hope that this is a fair sample of what is happening. Please remember to check the campaign website (www.righttofood.com) from time to time, for further information.
FLASH NEWS: TWO ACTIVISTS OF PARIVARTAN WERE BEATEN UP BY PDS DEALERS; SEE PRESS RELEASE AT THE BOTTOM OF THE UPDATE
Parivartan, an organisation working for the right to information in Delhi, has been at loggerheads with the Delhi administration and the PDS dealer's lobby over transparency in the public distribution system (PDS). Parivartan decided to obtain the records of all ration shops in Sundernagari, a resettlement colony in East Delhi, under the Right to Information Act. The idea was to do a social audit of all the ration shops and expose the corrupt practices of the PDS dealers.
As a test case, an application was made by Triveni, a destitute widow who has been routinely deprived of her food rations. The records showed that Triveni had been receiving her full quota, and the `cash memos"had thumb impressions. However, Triveni is educated and never puts her thumb impressions. To probe more such cases, Parivartan decided to obtain the entire records of the ration shop. Waking up to the danger of sharing this information, the Food and Civil Supplies Department wrote to Parivartan saying that the records of the ration shops would not be disclosed as they were "private records".
Denying access to records is a violation of the directions of the Supreme Court, an of the PDS (Control) Order, 2001. Parivartan did not give up and initiated a long battle with the Department, in spite of dire threats from the dealers. After many rounds the administration finally agreed to share information. While they were still collecting the records, seventeen ration dealers approached the High Court of Delhi and obtained a stay against Parivartan. Since the stay was only against Parivartan, and not against the citizens of Delhi per se, it was decided to bring together people from across Delhi to demand records. On 29 August 2003, three hundred people from across the city met to file applications under the Right to information Act.
The same day a delegation including Parivartan, Aruna Roy, Sandeep Pandey and others met the food commissioner of Delhi. The food commissioner said that she would go by "legal advice" which is being read as "no to transparency" by the activists. But Parivartan is determined not to give up, and is planning a whole series of follow-up activities. More on these in future updates.
2. BHARAWAN (U.P.): STRUGGLE FOR TRANSPARENCY AND ACCOUNTABILITY
The right to information movement is also spreading in Uttar Pradesh, notably in Bharawan block of Hardoi district. Starting in December 2002, Asha has been trying to invoke the right to information and obtain records pertaining to various panchayats. After a series of protests, the group met with some success in February 2003. They obtained the records of some Panchayats. As expected, the records showed clear evidence of corruption. This led to further efforts to restore accountability.
Asha submitted the details to the District administration. An enquiry committee was set up, but Asha did not get any news from the committee for a long time. Finally, they decided to approach the High Court. To their surprise, they learned that the enquiry committee had already given a report giving a clean chit to the Panchayats in question.
A new collector has recently been posted in Hardoi District. The issue was revived, and a new enquiry committee has been set up. Meanwhile, many village pradhans have started `confessing"to Asha and are offering to share records with them. Asha has taken a stand that the records should be shared with the gram sabha, and not just with them. A meeting is being planned on 19 September 2003, where Asha is hoping that some of these Pradhans will present the records in public.
The struggle for greater transparency and accountability in Bharwan has come a long way since the first dharna, almost a year ago. Uttar Pradesh is not exactly on the forefront of the right to information movement, but initiatives of this kind have started springing up in many places, and there are good prospects that the movement will gain strength in the near future.
3. RIGHT TO WORK UPDATE
Efforts continue to link the right to food with the right to work, and in particular to campaign for "employment guarantee acts"in various states. There are few concrete results so far, but at least the issue is on the political agenda and there are hopes of significant progress in the near future. In fact, semi-official announcements of imminent initiatives on this front have been made in several states including Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Karnataka. For instance, in a recent letter addressed to Dr. N.C. Saxena (Commissioner of the Supreme Court), the Chief Secretary of Karnataka states that his government is planning to introduce an Employment Guarantee Act very soon. The proposed guarantee includes unemployment compensation of at least Rs 10 per day for those who are not provided with employment within a stipulated period. A dedicated "employment guarantee fund?is to be set up to finance the whole operation. Whether and how soon these good intentions will materialise remains to be seen.
In Rajasthan, regular demonstrations for the right to work have continued during the last few months. Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan's "truck yatra"across the state in early July attracted large crowds wherever it went. Akal Sangharsh Samiti organised several events in Jaipur, including a week-long dharna coinciding with the latest session of the State Assembly, at the end of August. Mr. Ashok Gehlot, Chief Minister of Rajasthan, claims to be fully committed to the idea of an employment guarantee act, but he wants the centre to foot the bill. Meanwhile, a high-level committee has been formed to examine the financial implications of an employment guarantee act in Rajasthan, and plans have been framed to introduce a "pilot scheme?in a few blocks. This pilot scheme does not sound promising and Akal Sangharsh Samiti dismissed it as tokenism.
4. TOWARDS THE RIGHT TO HEALTH
A national campaign for the "right to health care"has recently been launched by Jan Swasthya Abhiyan (JSA), a close relative of the right to food campaign. The launch followed a national workshop and "public consultation"on the right to health held in Mumbai on 5-6 September 2003. Over 250 JSA delegates from 16 states attended this lively event, aimed at nothing less than "chalking out a campaign strategy to make the Right to Health Care a fundamental constitutional right and an operational reality" An insightful 4-page summary of the proceedings, prepared by Abhay Shukla (National Secretariat, JSA), is available here.
At the end of the public consultation on 6 September, all the participants took the following pledge: "We regard the right to the highest attainable standard of health as an inalienable human right. We declare that the Right to Health Care should be made a Fundamental Right in the Indian Constitution, and that this right must be enforced immediately through appropriate legal and executive measures. We pledge to work tirelessly to resist the denial of this right in all forms and at all levels, and to mobilise our fellow countrymen, women and children towards the establishment of the Right to Health Care as an important milestone on the way to the realisation of the dream of Health for All."
5. MID-DAY MEALS UPDATE
The "mid-day meal movement"(so to speak) continues to grow. According to official data, 50 million children now get a free school lunch, with another 50 million or so in the queue. The states where mid-day meals are yet to be initiated are mainly Bihar, Haryana, Jharkhand, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Uttaranchal, and West Bengal (in Orissa, it seems that mid-day meals are still confined to tribal areas). Elsewhere, the quality of mid-day meals varies a great deal, and leaves much to be desired in many cases, but at least the programme is in place and there is a basis for further action.
A survey of mid-day meals in three states (Chhattisgarh, Karnataka and Rajasthan) was recently conducted under the auspices of the Centre for Equity Studies (CES), New Delhi. The findings suggest that mid-day meals have made a promising start, but that quality issues need urgent attention if this programme is to realise its full potential. Positive findings of the survey include: mid-day meals are very popular, especially among underprivileged households; school attendance has shot up after MDMs were introduced; MDMs provide an essential protection against classroom hunger; and the mid-day meal is a useful socialisation experience, as children of different castes and communities learn to sit together and share a common meal. Important concerns include inadequate funding, inadequate infrastructure, inadequate quality safeguards, and (last but not least) the low nutrition content of mid-day meals.. A summary of the survey findings was recently published in Frontline (see http://www.flonnet.com/fl2016/stories/20030815002208500.htm) A lot of useful evidence on mid-day meals also emerged at a recent workshop convened by the Nutrition Foundation of India (New Delhi, 1 August 2003). The background papers provide a wealth of insights into the achievements, failures and potentials of mid-day meals across the country. If interested, please contact the Nutrition Foundation of India (email@example.com).
On 15 August, 2003, the Prime Minister "announced"the introduction of a national mid-day meal programme, up to Class 10. Given the history of these 15 August announcements, it would be na´ve to expect this one to be implemented in a hurry. But at least it provides a basis for further consolidation and expansion of the mid-day meal campaign.
6. DALITS AND MID-DAY MEALS
Dalit families have a special stake in mid-day meals, not only because Dalit children are particularly exposed to hunger but also because mid-day meals can help to break the barriers of caste. The CES survey (see above) suggests that in most schools, children are quite happy to sit together and share a common meal. However, in many places there is staunch resistance (mainly from upper-caste parents) to the appointment of Dalit cooks. In Rajasthan, for instance, Dalits are almost never appointed as cooks, except possibly in hamlets with no upper-caste children. In north Karnataka, the survey found that half of the cooks were Dalits, and that this arrangement had gained fairly wide social acceptance. However, the recent extension of mid-day meals to other parts of Karnataka has not been so smooth, with reports of upper-caste resistance to Dalit cooks pouring in from many areas. In Tumkur district, an upper-caste boy apparently had to go through a purificatory bath in cow's urine after eating food prepared by a Dalit cook at school. In other places, Dalit cooks have been dismissed due to parental objections. The right to food network in Karnataka is actively investigating these issues, and campaigning for firm implementation of the policy of appointing Dalit cooks.
7. HOME MINISTRY SAYS NO TO RATION CARDS FOR THE HOMELESS
The homeless are among the poorest people in urban areas, and special initiatives are needed to protect them from hunger and undernutrition. Instead, the homeless are being systematically excluded from most public services and welfare programmes, including the public distribution system (PDS). Many state governments claim that they are unable to provide ration cards to the homeless, due to a Home Ministry circular. The circular says that no ration cards should be given to people who do not provide a clear proof of address. The Ministry argues that "illegal immigrants" use ration cards to establish their citizenship.
Ration cards are vital in many contexts (not just the PDS), as many welfare schemes are now restricted to households with BPL cards. The Home Ministry's concern can easily be addressed by providing special ration cards that cannot be used as a proof of address, or by some other administrative arrangements. But most states have preferred to sweep the issue under the carpet rather than search for creative ways to address the problem.
A significant exception is Karnataka, where the administration recently organised a meeting with various NGOs on this issue. The government has already issued a circular stating that it will provide free grain to any NGO that runs night shelters and other facilities for street children. A census of homeless people is also being initiated, to facilitate further action.
8. DHAR (M.P.): DALIT WOMEN'S STRUGGLE FOR FAIR WAGES AND EMPLOYMENT
For the last two years, Dalit women in Dahi village (Dhar district, Madhya Pradesh) have been struggling for fair wages and employment. The struggle began after they were denied the legal minimum wage on relief works. In fact, they were given less than half the minimum wage. When they organised to demand the minimum wage, they were summarily dismissed from the relief works and later subjected to physical harassment. A local school teacher who took the side of the Dalit women also faced harassment and lost her job (she was teaching in a private school). The women of Dahi approached the local administration many times, but no action was taken.
Last month, they sent a complaint and detailed report to the Commissioners, Dr. N.C. Saxena and Mr. S. R. Sankaran. The Commissioners took up the matter with the Chief Secretary of Madhya Pradesh and prompt action followed. All the labourers who had been employed on relief works finally received their full wages. Compensation for non-payment of minimum wages is also being initiated in other parts of the district. The school teacher, we hear, has also bee reinstated. This victory gave a major boost to the Dalit women of Dahi.
9. COMMISSIONERS' UPDATE
The Dahi incident is yet another example of the potential effectiveness of the Commissioners in redressing violations of the right to food. The Commissioners are making efforts to expand their work, with regular field visits, periodic reports to the Supreme Court, prompt response to local complaints, sustained correspondence with all the state governments, and much more. For further information, please contact their assistant, Shonali Sen (C/o Centre for Equity Studies; C 17 A, DDA Flats, Munirka, New Delhi. E-Mail: firstname.lastname@example.org), or consult the "Commissioners Work" section of the campaign website (www.righttofood.com).
Dr. Saxena recently visited Bihar and prepared a report on the situation there. The report can be obtained from Shonali Sen. Mr. Sankaran, for his part, is touring West Bengal currently, to enquire about the implementation of Supreme Court orders. He is expected to be in West Bengal during 21 "24 September 2003.
PRESS RELEASE 24 September 2003
DARE TO ASK People seeking ration related records beaten up by ration shop keepers
On the afternoon of 23 September, 2003, Panini Anand and Rajiv Kumar, volunteers of Parivartan who had gone to assist people who were seeking records in the Assistant Commissioner's office of the Food and Supplies Department, North East Delhi, were abused and attacked in his office premises by local leader and ration shop owner, Jagatpal Singh, along with some other ration shop owners of the area. The volunteers were severely beaten up in the office premises and one of them was, later, hit by a brick while he was on the way to the Nand Nagari police station to file a complaint. An FIR (No. 548/2003) has been filed. Subsequently, some ration shop owners surrounded the Nand Nagari police station and threatened the Parivartan volunteers with dire consequences. It was only on the intervention of the Deputy Commissioner that the volunteers, including four women, were evacuated by a police vehicle and driven to safety.
Based on the threats issued by the ration shop owners, it is clear that this attack was in retaliation to Parivartan's role in helping the people of Delhi to file applications under the Delhi Right to Information Act, seeking to inspect records of ration shops. Obviously the attack was an effort to create insecurity and a sense of fear among the people, especially as many of the applicants have also reported receiving verbal threats and have been asked to withdraw their applications for information.
It is worth noting that, fed up with the problems of corruption plaguing the public distribution system, several residents of resettlement colonies across Delhi have been asking for access to information, related to records of ration shops, under the 'Delhi Right to Information Act'. In fact, a meeting attended by over 300 resettlement colony residents was organised by Parivartan and other groups, on 29 August, 2003, at the Gandhi Peace Foundation, to discuss and highlight the problems that these people were having with ration shops in their areas. The participants also went in a delegation to meet the Commissioner, Food and Civil Supplies, Delhi Government and over 150 applications were filed for inspecting records concerning the distribution of rations.
It was in this connection that on 23rd September, records of ration shops of Circle 46 were to be shown to the applicants in the office of the Food and Supplies Officer. However, when people reached the office of the Food and Supplies Officer to inspect the records the local ration shopkeepers were already present there and seemed determined to prevent public access to the records, in order to hide discrepancies in the distribution of ration and kerosene oil, and the modus operandi and quantum of corruption. Even before this attack, they had tried to threaten and bribe the applicants to prevent them from applying for information.
The National Campaign for People's Right to Information strongly condemns this action of the ration shop owners. Although the ration shop owners are obviously trying to intimidate the people, their resorting to violence reveals their desperation and further confirms our conviction that empowering the people of Delhi through the Right to Information Act is an important, and perhaps the best, way of fighting entrenched vested interests.
Shekhar Singh On behalf of NCPRI