An Open Letter To Shri Ram Vilas Paswan, Honorable Union Minister of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution
Kindly permit me to write this open letter to you to convey some concerns regarding the decision of the Union government to permit use of surplus rice for making ethanol based sanitizers. I do agree with you that poor also need sanitizers to protect themselves from gems and viruses. They need it as much as the rich. I also do not have an issue in using rice to make ethanol if our land produces surplus rice over and above what is required for the food security of one and all in our country. I am sure that both of us can agree that the poor need food first and sanitizer later. Knowing your predicament as the Central Minister who needs to care for both the poor and the rich, we can agree on a compromise formula that the poor needs both food and sanitizer at the same time.
Before I pen down my concerns let me acknowledge that I have a special affinity to you although we have neither met nor known each other. Both of us are from the same state, Bihar. You and I have a heart, a feasibility to understand the life of the poor; of those who are hungry and work hard to make both ends meet. Above all, for me and for so many, you represent a voice, a powerful voice of us, the poor! You being in the cabinet gives us much assurance, sir!
Sir, allow me to tell you that I am personally aware of a large number of households in Bihar who do not have food security as intended in National Food Security Act. Knowing well that market cannot ensure food security to the poor, we have acknowledged, and rightly so, that food security is an inalienable right of every individual. The state has taken upon itself the duty to ensure that every one of its citizens are food secure.
The households that I spoke about are excluded from NFSA for various administrative reasons. I know that these households have made innumerable trips to block development office to apply for ration card. Let me be honest sir; they have not received ration card yet. If our knowledge is any indication, most of the villages / tollas in Bihar have anything between 10 -15 percent poor and eligible households who do not have ration card and thus are excluded from food security under NFSA. I am not sure if our Chief Minister is aware that there is a considerable per cent of households eligible for ration card are excluded from their entitlement. He relies more on files and you know it well that one cannot find poverty and hardship within the files piled up!
I need not tell you how terrible it is to encounter our brothers and sisters going from pillar to post demanding, requesting, and pleading for ration under NFSA. Sir, permit me to request you to bring out a government order that would give ration to these brothers and sisters. It is as simple a decision as the decision that you took at the stroke of a midnight to convert the surplus rice to methanol! Sir, to impress upon you that I am presenting a real situation in our state, I can take names of some localities that, I am sure, you too are familiar with!
There are only a small percentage of villages / tollas in Bihar where the people get full ration at the cost stipulated by the government. In a majority of villages (I mean the hamlets where poor resides), ration is received only six months. And when they receive, they receive only four kilos of rice instead of 5 kilos and they pay one rupee more than what is stipulated. How much to monitor; how many times to demand! It is terrible, sir! I am aware of many steps government has taken to check such corrupt practices. But! There is always a way out! The ration dealers inform us that they do not get sufficient remuneration and such practices are necessary to remunerate their hard work. Kindly address their concerns too so that they need not steal from the poor!
Given to our general opulence and exponential growth we have registered in the recent decades, it is very dehumanizing for our brothers and sisters to keep pleading day after day for a square meal. It is the responsibility of the state that all of us, without a single exception for whatsoever reason, have access - easy and dignified access - to a basket of food which we would consider as reflective of a minimum standard of living today. You once represented these ordinary struggles of our own brothers and sisters. Kindly affix your signature to that order which would not exclude any of our brothers and sisters from their accessibility to food. Let your first order be that all those who do not have ration card be given monthly ration and the ration announced as a relief measure is given in two days time. Sir, the number of days is an important factor. In our state, I hear that list is being prepared. When would the list be ready; when would the poor receive ration. In fact this decision should have been taken, sir, before you decided to convert surplus rice to ethanol.
Let me share with you an incident. I was requested from labor commissioner’s office to help a family in a village. It was about 45 kilometers from the place I was staying. On visiting the village, I wondered how someone in this village can be hungry. There is certain level of opulence in the village. Most houses were concrete. The family which needed help also had a house with two or three rooms. I could not examine the house in full detail as I was a stranger entering the house for the first time. They were neatly dressed too. How they can be poor, I wondered. The main breadwinner of that family had been employed in one of the small factories in Delhi. I am sure when you read this those vivid pictures of migrants from our cosmopolitan cities panicking; crowding bus stands and railway stations, walking back home along the highway with their belongings and their little children may come to your mind. The breadwinner of this family too was among those lakhs of migrants.
Anyway, for the last two months, he had not sent any money home and the family had no money. They did not have any stock of rice or anything. They greatly depended on the money that he regularly sent home. Suddenly, their food security collapsed. They had no purchasing power. I am reminded of Nobel Prize winning study of Amartya Sen – on the great famine in Bengal. He had argued that Bengal famine was not because of lack of food grains, but because of collapse of the purchasing power of the poor. The food grains moved from the places where there was no purchasing power to places where there was purchasing power. When people died of starvation, train passed through those villages carrying away the food grains! Sir, kindly, ensure that the government’s decision to convert food grains into ethanol is not like the train carrying food grains through the dead bodies to those cities which had purchasing power.
You are a powerful voice of each one of us. I am sure your heart would resonate with these feelings. Well, I was saying that this household which I visited was food insecure although it was not visible to my naked eyes! Even if I were to use the government criterion, this family would be excluded from NFSA. In fact, it was so the case. The household did not have ration card. A sudden collapse on their just enough income, made them all hungry. When I reached that home, her little babe was endlessly crying; probably for milk. I believe there is sizable number of households who may become or have already become food insecure in situations that we are encountering these days. This is a good invitation for you take a prompt decision to universalize public distribution system. Anyone who wants rice, wheat flour, daal, let them have them. After all, they are labouring to produce so much, over and above, in surplus that we can make ethanol out of food grains.
To conclude, sir, kindly (1) Universalize Public Distribution System making food grains and other essentials available to all in abundance; (2) Direct all concerned governments / departments to provide, with immediate effect, ration cards to all those eligible households, but as of now excluded; and (3) Give directions / assistance to state governments to ensure that all receive – with or without ration cards – regular as well as special free ration announced by central government – at the beginning of each month starting from April (well April is already over!); and (4) Address the corrupt practices that deprive the poor of the full ration in all the twelve months in a year.
At the end of it all, kindly do make sanitizer too available to the poor.
Dr. Anto Joseph(Published on 27th April 2020, Volume XXXII, Issue 18)