Musmat Musarrat has two children to support on her own - she is a widow - but she earns a mere Rs.1000-1200 each month to run her family's finances. One source of succour for people like her is the Below Poverty Line (BPL) card she is entitled to from the government. But getting and keeping this document has proved quite difficult.

In Bawana'a JJ Colony in Delhi, Musarrat and many others have been hopelessly pursuing government officials, enquiring about the status of BPL cards that were deposited with them for renewal back in 2007, during a 'renewal drive' by the Delhi government. If the card were with her today, she could have purchased basic food items at subsidised rates under the government’s Public Distribution System (PDS), which is one of the largest welfare distribution systems in the world. But having surrendered the old card for renewal, she is caught between the loss of that card and the yet-to-be-issued new one.

Musarrat represents not only the plight of people of Bawana Colony but also that of poor people spread out in various parts of the city, who are fighting a PDS that is both corrupt and functions dismally.

The ration shops, which should open for 25 days a month, are in fact open only for about five days.

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Pardarshita, a non-profit organisation, has been working to make various governmant departments in Delhi more transparent and accountable through extensive use of the Right to Information Act 2005, and also including communities in this struggle for social justice. "Like Musmat, about 1.5 lakh poor people in Delhi are struggling to make ends meet and running around government offices to find out status of their card. [This is the case with] not only those who have applied for renewal of BPL cards but also those who have applied for new ration cards, the status of which they should ideally know within 45 days of the first application," says Ritu, an activist with Pardarshita.

"This is not the only problem with PDS," adds her fellow activist Rajiv Kumar, "even the ration shops, which should open for 25 days a month, are open only for about five days, if you enquire!"

With complaints piling up from people of many resettlement colonies - Bawana, New Seemapuri, Sundernagari to name a few - Pardarshita filed a complaint under Section 18 of RTI Act 2005 to the Central Information Commission that the Delhi Food & Supply Department is not following Section 4 of the RTI Act, which mandates government departments must sou moto disclose information about their work. Pardarshita sought the list of people whose BPL card applications were cancelled, as well as the reasons for their rejection. Additionally, a list of beneficiaries of PDS system was also asked for.

Following this complaint, Central Information Commission member Shailesh Gandhi notified the Food Secretary, and held a hearing on 21 December. The meeting was followed by an order the following day, directing all concerned to display the following information online and outside 70 ration shops/circles of Delhi, before 31 January. A complaince report detailing how much of this order has been carried out, has also been demanded by CIC, to be provided by 5 February 2010.

The information to be published includes:

  • Entitlement of essential commodities for all type of Ration Cards.

  • Scale of issue of each essential commodity for all types of ration cards.

  • Retail price of each essential commodity for all types of ration cards.

  • Working hours of Fair Price Shops.

  • Stock of essential items received during the month.

  • Opening and closing stock of essential commodities.

  • Name, designation and contact numbers of officials for redressal of grievances with respect to quality and quantity of essential commodities.

  • Daily updating of stock position information.

  • Information about inspection of records by any citizen on every Saturday except for second Saturday as per the PDS Control Order 15/06/06.

  • Display of samples of food grains being supplied through Fair Price Shops.

Soon after these directions by the Commission, its impact can already be seen, at least on the Government of India's Food & Supply Department website, which now provides some information on the above-mentioned lines. According to the order, such information is also to be provided at the points-of-delivery of the rations (i.e. the fair price shops themselves), and that will be an even bigger boost to the transparent functioning of the distribution system.

Disclosure of all this information will be an important milestone in larger struggle for effective PDS in India, which has been going on for many years now. When information regarding the quality and price of grains and other essential commodities becomes available at every FPS, daily, including lists of bonafide card holders and people to contact for grievance redressal at Circle Offices, then there will be much less scope for corrupt officials to deny proper rations to the beneficiaries, or to seek bribes from them to give them what is their due. This should also bring down the practice of shop-owners hoarding essential items for sale in the open market, after diverting them from the beneficiaries.

Moreover, an increasing number of citizens and activist groups will know what to do about unjust practices rampant, and they can in turn intervene on behalf of the poor, even if the beneficiaries themselves are not confident of taking on the system. "The other advantage," says Rajiv Kumar, "is that through the new lists of beneficiary card holders, all bogus card holders will stand exposed. A lot of essential items were earlier taken away from the PDS under the guise of distribution to such fake beneficiaries, and these are instead sold at market rates for earning hefty profits,".

This CIC's order promises to cast new rays of light on the dark corruption of the PDS, and offers hope that poor people like Musmat Musarrat will be able to get the rations they desperately need.