Gina writes:

India has a subsidized food program to provide basic items (rice, sugar, kerosene) to the poor. In theory, poor people have an identity card that places them in a group (basically "poor" "very poor" or "extremely poor"). On certain days of the month, they take this card to a special shop selling the subsidized items, and purchase the amount their card says they're entitled to at the price the government has set. In reality, there is corruption and inefficiency in every step of the process, making it just another system that has potential to help the pooor but fails.

SPREAD decided to draw attention to the issue by holding a public hearing. A public hearing is a gathering of affected beneficiaries talking about their problems in front of key people -- district administration and other decision makers, people involved with the system/program at various levels, and press.

During the month of November, 34 staff members of SPREAD spent 2 weeks visiting every household in 94 villages. 5,531 households were surveyed and focus groups were held to collect information about ration card violations, the quantity and quality of items received, and whether shops are following rules of operation. They found the following:

  • 28% of the families don't have ration cards at all, even though it can be assumed that every family is poor enough to qualify.
  • Instead of providing 2 kg of sugar per month to each card holder, most shops are providing 1 kg. Instead of providing 4 L of kerosene, most shops are providing 1-2 L. (However, each shop receives 2 kg of sugar and 4 L of kerosene per beneficiary; selling it on the black market is more profitable than providing it to the poor.)
  • The rice is in bags that say 50 kg, but all weigh 4-5 kg less than that.
  • The shops are supposed to be open on certain days every month, but instead are open on 2-3 random days. Villagers that give up a day's wages and take time to travel to the nearest shop for their items have to return home empty-handed.
  • 76 families were listed in government records as having cards, but were never issued any. (More items allotted to the shops that they can sell on the black market.)

Last week, I spent a lot of time with the SPREAD staff, helping them to analyze the data and compile a report that would be read at the hearing (an Oriya version to be read at the hearing and an English version to be issued to the press). It was an interesting process, since I'm not a researcher by training. My experience editing reports over the past year did prepare me to ask some good questions and develop a decent report. And it was good to be right in the middle of the craziness, working late and being a part of the team.

The hearing itself was last Friday. I was really excited to witness this opportunity for the villagers to confront some of the people who are making their lives more difficult and some people who can actually improve the situation.

Before the hearing even started, one of the SPREAD staff members led a cheer of sorts with the participants. I don't know what they're saying, but the video gives a feel of the environment.

The official count of attendees was 460!

The report that I helped to write was read through. At each finding, 4 or 5 villagers would come up to the front and give their testimony about how that specific issue has affected them. It was pretty amazing to watch.

(Sorry for the low quality pics. The lighting did not allow me to get good shots from across the room.)

There was a big downside to the day, though. The district sub-collector (sort of like the assistant mayor) promised to come, but never showed up. She apologized later in the day, but an excuse of "I was involved in other work" seems pretty insufficient when there are more than 400 villagers traveling hours to make their case about their situation. Hopefully, she'll read the report and pass it on to the appropriate people. Hopefully, local press articles will draw some attention to the issue. Hopefully...