Until three years ago, Abdu Rehman, a retail ration dealer for more than 20 years in Ambayathode village in Kerala’s Kozhikkode district, could make a decent living. Having 1700 ration card holders on his rolls, he enjoyed a certain status in the community and his ration outlet was a hub of activities. During the festival seasons villagers, including farmers and government employees, formed long lines in front of his shop. But, all of a sudden the scene changed. His business ran into trouble. Off-take from the outlet dwindled as there were not many takers. The stocks turned rotten. He borrowed money at high interest rates from local money-lenders. One day, a Vigilance squad raided his shop and fined him Rs 10,000 for certain accounting irregularities. That was the last straw on the camel’s back. “My father opted the easy way out,” says Abdul Rahman’s son P K Kader. “Last year, he hanged himself.”

But Abdul Rahman’s suicide did not make headlines as he was just one of around 50 retail ration dealers who had ended their lives in the last three years.

The implementation of the Targeted Public Distribution System by the Central Government in 1999 as part of its economic reforms, and the consequent collapse of the efficient statutory distribution system in the food-deficit Kerala, have driven around 50,000 families depending on the ration business for their livelihood into a miserable existence. Of a total of nearly 15,000 ration dealers, many have quit in search of other profitable business and some 1000 outlets have been attached by the Government.

“Almost all of us are in the grip of debt. The Central government turns a deaf ear to our woes and the state government pleads helplessness. What shall we do now? ” asks T Mohammedali, a ration dealer for the last 25 years and the general secretary of Kozhikkode district committee of All-Kerala retail Ration Dealers Association (AKRRDA). In Kozhikkode district alone, 10 dealers have committed suicide. And, two of them hanged themselves in their own ration shops..

Kerala , a food-deficit State which boasted of the most successful PDS in the country and which provided access to foodgrains for almost the entire population, is the worst hit by the shift in the food policy of the Central Government in the late nineties. Till then, the PDS the state served the whole population equally. But with the shift in food policies at the Centre and the decisions of the Central Government to restrict the coverage of the subsidised PDS to what it considered to be poor and to unilaterally increase the prices of the food grains, Kerala too was forced to follow the national pattern. Before the TPDS, on an average 1,85,000 tonnes of foodgrains (that included 1,55,000 tonnes of rice and 35000 tonnes of wheat) were sold through the PDS in Kerala every month. But now the offtake of rice, which is the staple diet of the population, has come down to 4000-50000 tonnes per month. The sales turnover of the Kerala State Civil Supplies Corporation has fallen drastically since 1999-2000—from Rs 630 crores to Rs 548 crores in 2000-01 and to Rs 406 crores in 2001-02. The main reason for the fall has been the heavy drop of the sale of PDS items.

The PDS in Kerala was first established when food rationing was introduced in India at the out break of the second world war as a consequence of mass action.The system was then expanded during 1965 when the state was undergoing an acute food crisis. The Nehru Government at the Centre undertook to sully foodgrains-mainly rice and wheat- to the PDS in Kerala. It was agreed that it would not be generally necessary for the state to procure any quota directly from other states.

Ever since the statutory PDS started in the state in the mid-1960s, it had had a near-universal coverage. It played an important role in providing food security and ensuring availability of essential commodities at fair prices in the state. As of April 2003, there are 63.83 lakh cardholders in the state and irrespective of the income status, more than 90 per cent of the population depended on the PDS for their food security. According to the Government, almost all the villages have a ration shop within a two-kilmetre radius. While there was an urban bias in the PDS in most of the states, there was no such bias in Kerala. Nearly two-thirds of the total requirement of rice of the poor was met from the PDS. Also, the poor could purchase their ration in installments depending on their purchasing power.

“What should have been a model for other states in the matter of food security, given the acute inequalities in accessing food in India, is now left to fight for its very survival,” says Dr KP Kannan, Director of the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram. “The PDS in Kerala before the policy changes at the Centre had contributed to improve a wide range of human development indicators that are closely related to access to food and the alleviation of poverty. The change in national policy is really a devastating blow to Kerala.”

Under the TPDS the Central Covernment supplies subsidised rice only to 25% of the Kerala population (15.35 lakh families) considered living below poverty line (BPL). But the Kerala Government continued with its universal coverage of the PDS and introduced a dual pricing system. Under this, 42 percent of the cardholders have been identified as BPL and are supplied subsidized rice, thus causing an additional burden of Rs 113 crores on the state exchequer a year. The population was divided into BPL and APL under the TPDS and prices of foodgrains and other essential commodities were increased unilaterally by the Centre. This forced a substantial section of the APL people to drop out of the PDS. “The APL category now includes even agricultural labourers and farmers. Since the prices for foodgrains for APL are almost the same as those in the market, they naturally go to the open market where better quality foodgrains are available,” points out M V Basheer, General secretary, AKRRDA.

Rural ration shops with 400-600 cards attached to them have on an average around 150 BPL cardholders. In urban areas the BPL card number is 20-50. Under the BPL scheme at present only rice is subsidised and that too often of very poor quality. Though in August 53,851 MT of rice was allotted in the BPL category only 43,191 MT was sold through the PDS. It is the responsibility of the Food Corporation of India to procure rice and wheat for the PDS. But in the last few years the FCI has been supplying only the old stock of rice to the ration dealers while the new stock is held down under its `first come first go’ policy. The quality of the BPL rice and the Antyodaya rice distributed to the poorest of the poor are so poor that it is often not suitable for human consumption. “The fact new stocks from the FCI finds its way to the open market is no longer a secret. But proper action has not been taken against the corrupt FCI officials,” says T Muhammadali. “It is the PDS in the state that has to pay the price for this type of corruption.”

The distribution of wheat and rice through PDS system in the state shows a decline since 1999. It came down sharply to 4.61 lakh tonnes of rice and 0.79 lakh tonnes of wheat during 2001 compared to 16.39 lakh tonnes and 4.58 lakh tonnes of rice and wheat respectively during 1998. During 2002 it further went down to 3.28 lakh tonnes of rice and 1.25 lakh tonnes of wheat.

"The APL category now includes even agricultural labourers and farmers. Since the prices for foodgrains for APL are almost the same as those in the market, they naturally go to the open market where better quality foodgrains are available”
Though the state developed a second tier of public distribution outlets, a network of Maveli provision stores, super markets, mini super markets and Labham stores to work outside the Central Government - FCI-ration shop system, the collapse of the primary tier of the PDS certainly have a serious impact on the food security of the population, say experts. Though the 45th round of National Sample Survey states that Kerala is one of the five states with least incidence of poverty, the problem of hunger seems to persist in the state. The food deficit in the state was 50 to 55 per cent in the mid-1970s and since then the deficit has increased steadily to reach the current over 75% . “Given the continuing trend in the decline of the area under rice cultivation, and the continuing increase in the requirement as a result of population increase, the deficit is likely to go up to 80-85 per cent of the requirement in a few years,” says Dr K P Kannan.

While the ration dealers accuse the State Government of inaction and demand an integrated food policy for the state in view of its food deficiency, the State Food Minister G Karthikeyan claims that the State has been persistently pressurizing the Centre to abolish the BPL-APL divide in the state and go back to the single-price regime. As a vast majority of the population depended on the PDS for the last four decades, the fall of a most effective system will create serious implications. Since some of the North Eastern States and Union Territories still benefit from the special subsidy, ration dealers ask why not let Kerala to continue with the earlier pattern of PDS. (Quest Features and Footage)