Volume 19 Number 3
Scourge of Delhi's Rations Thieves
01 June 2006

SANTOSH’S SMALL size is no indicator of her gutsy fight for justice.
SANTOSH’S SMALL size is no indicator of her gutsy fight for justice. Nor of the mammoth task she’s taken on in her resettlement colony in Delhi’s north-east.

In theory the residents of Sundernagari have been moved out of appalling slums into planned and properly-serviced communities. In reality, most have been moved from one slum to another, well away from the capital’s gracious architecture.

Based in a small godown (warehouse), a grassroots group called Parivartan (meaning ‘change’) is fighting for what is due to the people of this community. Their main weapon is India’s tough ‘Right to Information’ (RTI) legislation. Parivartan’s founder, Arvind Kejriwal explains that this gives every Indian five rights: to ask any question of government and get a reply; to inspect government documents; to receive photocopies for a nominal sum; to inspect government work and to take specimens of materials used. Penalties for non-compliance can lead to dismissals and loss of wages.

Sounds great in practice. How does it work on the ground in Sundernagari?Ask 22-year-old Santosh. She’s been working for three years with Parivartan. Parivartan mobilises residents to get copies of government contracts and check what actually has been delivered—road works, water and drainage systems. One of their first campaigns was for electricity connections. Some had waited for two years. When RTI was used to ask the reasons for delays and the names of officers involved, 200 applications were cleared, each within 10 days.

Santosh began researching the food distribution system. Going door to door through a labyrinth of alleyways, she found most of the poorest women had got their ration cards, which entitle them to subsidised grains and groceries. But they complained that the 17 ration shops in Sundernagari were usually closed, or ‘out of stocks’. In February 2003 Parivartan assisted one slum-dweller, Triveni, to lodge a RTI request for her records. Though she had not received rations for two years, Triveni’s account showed thumbprints (not hers) in receipt of monthly supplies. When 20 others got their records, the pattern began to emerge: up to 90 per cent of recorded deliveries were never received by cardholders. Stolen food was being sold off in the open market by the ration shop owners.

Parivartan organised a community ‘hearing’. Triveni was threatened to keep quiet. She didn’t. In three months Santosh lodged 109 RTI complaints for women from the community. Then Santosh was cornered in an alley and her neck was slashed.

She survived. But the brutal warning backfired. Angry women demonstrated, shouting, ‘They won’t get away with killing our Santosh.’ Sundernagari residents boycotted all ration shops for a month; then checked to see how supplies were sold off anyway. Parivartan called a media conference, and started an awareness campaign through 15 slum clusters across Delhi. Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit intervened, threatening to revoke the licenses of ration shop owners who didn’t comply with distribution procedures. Five were suspended. A food commissioner was transferred.

‘Shops which had never opened for years suddenly started begging residents to come,’ remembers Santosh. A year after Triveni’s first complaint, the system was working. Now twice a month, records are available at each shop for inspection.

And Santosh? She admits than no man seems ready to marry such a fireball. But she’s happy. ‘A lot of people talk about ways to change the country but don’t do much. I have decided we can at least change our neighborhood.’
Mike Brown