By many accounts, there is a massive siphoning off of food grains from Public Distribution System in U.P. Likewise corruption in ration card allocation and the Food for Work (FFW) scheme continues, denying people food even for completed manual work. In the meantime the new National Rural Employment Guarantee Act has come in and initial reports give the impression that the bureaucracy in U.P. will not implement this scheme any differently. But first, the food grains and the food for work stories.

People's diary

In village Panchayat Atwa Danda of Hardoi District, Below Poverty Line ration card holders have not received a single food grain in the last five years. The situation is not better in other villages across the state. Antyodaya and Annapurna ration card holders, people who are living in extreme situations of poverty, consider themselves lucky if they get their quota of food grains once in 3 or 4 months. The ration shop owners, mostly in collusion with the panchayat Pradhans, keep the ration cards with themselves and by making fake entries on them, take away the food grains meant for the poor. The officials at the godown, supply inspectors, other officials and private people in the chain between the food and the beneficiaries, are happily part of the racket.

Dharna and hunger strike

Hardoi district villagers have been staging a sit-in at Sandila (tehsil) since 7 February. They have decided to convert it into a hunger strike.

On 18 February they plan to start walking towards the district headquarters at Hardoi and then begin their hunger strike on 21 February.

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Currently the nexus of mafia and contractors, patronized by officials and politicians, has monopoly over the food grains meant for various schemes for the poor. In most cases the ration supply in full quantities doesn't reach the fair price shop in the village. And, in violation of a Supreme Court ruling, no records are available for public examination, making the whole system totally unaccountable to the people.

During the last two years we see a new phenomenon in U.P. There are reports, from mostly eastern parts, of people dying of hunger and committing suicides when they are not able to pay off their debts. In every single case the administration, of course, denies that these deaths are due to starvation and ascribes them to illness or something else. However, the fact remains that poor people are dying in large numbers and if the food grains meant for them as part of Food for Work scheme or PDS were to reach them, at least some of these deaths could have been prevented. The failure of PDS is representative of the failure of government's poverty alleviation schemes.

In Godwa Khem Village Panchayat of Hardoi District, the Ambedkar self-help group (SHG) staked a claim to desilt the Kashipur Minor (branch of a canal) under the National Food for Work scheme. Both under this scheme and the new Employment Guarantee Act, no contractors can be employed for works. There is a clear instruction that the work has to be done directly by government departments, village panchayats, SHGs or NGOs. Thus Ambedkar SHG's claim was legitimate. In addition, the villagers were also hoping to get water into the canal for irrigation. There has been no water in the canal since 1989.

The Irrigation Department chose to give work to another group of labourers on a different segment of the same canal more than 15 kms away, and even here the food component was not given. Back at Godwa Khem, after requesting the administration for over 6 months, villagers decided to begin the work on their own initiative on 2 January 2006. They have since claimed wages 1592 person-days of work put into desilting the canal. The Irrigation Department maintains that they do not intend to supply water to that point and hence cannot sanction this work. It has instead issued legal notices to 42 villagers in Godwa Khem for having illegally dug the canal!

The issue here is that Irrigation Department charges the villagers money for using water from this canal. People are routinely harassed, sometimes using arm twisting tactics, to pay up for the water from the canal even though they might not have got the water. The department is also denying people the right to work by saying that they do not intend to supply water to the point where people have desilted the canal. But the department charges people money for having used water from the same segment. The villagers are now waging a struggle to get their due wages, and also water in the canal. The Irrigation Department appears to be behaving in an arbitrary and contradictory manner. The engineer responsible at the department is R C Verma.

The new Employment Guarantee Act promises work for the rural poor, but similar norms of the FFW program continue to be blatantly violated. Contractors and machines are being employed in most cases to get the work done. Muster rolls are being fabricated with false entries and are not available for public scrutiny. As noted earlier, workers do not get their full payment, especially the 'food' component in almost never given.

A young Samajwadi Party leader, Chandrashekhar Yadav of village Dharhaura in Kushinagar district complained that machines were being used to dig a pond in violation of the norms of the FFW programme. On 25 May 2005 he discovered the anomaly and complained to the District Magistrate, the district's top bureaucrat, on 26 May. The tractor was seized and the contractor's assistant arrested. However, because of pressure from a local politician, the tractors were released after having been shown as seized under the Motor Vehicles Act, even though the tractor drivers had given it in writing that they were employed to dig the pond, i.e. a violation. Even though FIR was lodged against the contractor, the enquiry report was manipulated to let the suspects go.

Counting eligible BPL cardholders

In making simple decisions as these the bureaucracy does not want to give up its control and in most cases the wishes of the people are ignored. Until the people have an important say in determining decisions there doesn't appear to be any hope that things will improve.