PDS and MGNREGA: Food Security and Livelihoods in North Bengal

Abdul Hannan*
The countrywide lockdown has impacted livelihoods of millions of workers in unorganized sectors. It is also known to all of us that the migrant workers are returning homes either on foot, bicycle, and of late bus services arranged by state governments or recently by trains. The callous approach of national and provincial governments have made migrant workers into miserable conditions and consequently some of them died on hunger on the way, some of them met train accidents before they reach their destinations and native villages. It is a complete denial of citizens’ rights to access the transportation services by the State. All these migrants have been contributing to our economy and deriving their livelihoods in most of the cities in India particularly in construction sector and petty urban services. If we look from the labour market point of view, it is seen that there is a demand-supply relationship that exists of Labour Supply Zones and Labour Demand Zones throughout the country. In this light, most of eastern states like Bihar, UP, West Bengal, Assam, Odisha are predominantly supplying labour to most of the cities in India.
In this situation, if we travel through districts of North Bengal, tea, tourism and timber are the backbone of the economy. Tea economy has fix set of demand of labour force and it has already reached saturation. Tourism sector has been hardly hit due to COVID-19 pandemic worldwide and North Bengal is not any exception. Timber related furniture industry is not an essential requirement of households as people are confined of their purchase to essential food items and groceries during pandemic. Therefore, when the migrant workers have returned to their home and add to existing labour force in villages, it is going to pass through a deep crisis during the pandemic and post-pandemic. Since, the local administration and governance was not under pressure as people in past used to migrate for alternative livelihoods out of the state. Now the reverse trend and incoming of laborers would create additional burden and responsibility to the state to provide food security and employment to migrants. In this context, the provisions of PDS and MGNREGA are likely to play major role to lift the people of North Bengal from food crisis and alternative employment.
Unfortunately, the PDS and MGNREGA suffer from lack of transparent governance in West Bengal. During pandemic, various representations and complaints are submitted at Block and Panchayat level against ration dealers and their deliveries in different parts of the State. This corruption of PDS is an old phenomenon and there is nexus of Panchayati Raj Institutions, local leaders and ration dealers since years which have been received immunity from any form of challenges at local level. In fact, ration dealers are also funders of elections in panchayats. Most of philanthropic works and distribution of food items are performed by ruling party leader by siphoning the PDS at very local level. The Government of West Bengal has announced to provide free ration for six months from April to September. In the first month itself, government has received several complaints against 263 rations dealers and out of which 87 are from North Bengal. Jyotipriya Mallik, Minister of Food Supply has released press statement that all of them have been sent show-cause notices and few ration Dealers are fined. However, they have not been suspended keeping in mind of COVID-19 pandemic and kept functional of the food distribution to poor. But the Block Development Officers have been advised to monitor the food distribution system by appointing some officers at block level. All the ration dealers are asked to build a permanent godown within three months and have been given permission to open a temporary godown within a radius of 500 meters (Uttarbanga Sambad:29.04.2020).
During field survey (May, 2020) in Chopra block in the district Uttar Dinajpur it is found that there is no transparency followed in distribution of Ration Slips. Since many people are yet to receive the digital Ration Card. At times, many ration cards are kept in safe custody of the ruling party leaders and they enjoy the loyalty of the downtrodden in exchange of vote. It is reported that around 67,000 Ration Slips have been issued by the Office of the BDO, Chopra but official list is yet to notify and published (see Fig.1). No one knows their Shop-wise distribution till date. There are eight Gram Panchayats in Chopra Block of Uttar Dinajpur and the Panchayat-wise distribution of Ration Dealer Shops are as follows: Haptiagach-5; Sonapur-5; Chopra-6; Majhiali-5; Daspara-3; Ghirnigaon-4; Lakhipur-5; and Chutiakhore-5. In some cases, Ration Slips are given to the beneficiaries where ration shops are at a distance of 10-12 kms instead of his own locality. Hence, complete system is in mess and needs revamping to augment leakages and prevent duplication. This happens at block level offices and its poor governance where people find difficulties and run after block administration time and again which is unseen and invisible from above. When it is looked down further at ration shop level, it is bluntly told by the villagers in most of the Gram Panchayats that the people receive less than the prescribed amount of grains. In Daspara Gram Panchayat people have lodged a formal complaint to the BDO, Chopra Uttar Dinajpur against one ration shop on May, 01, 2020 and expressed their unhappiness of not getting proper ration items last 4-5 years (see Fig.2 below). Hence, the ineffective delivery and poor governance worsen the situation of marginalized people who are under severe threat of local politics and heavily dependent of Public Distribution System.
Public Distribution System and Grievance in Chopra Block of Uttar Dinajpur
Fig.1.Complaint Letter of Opposition Leaders to BDO, Chopra Block
Fig.2. Complaint Letter of Villagers against Ration Shops Chopra Block
In continuity of PDS, the rural employment under MGNREGA is also mismanaged at village and Gram Panchyat level in different districts of North Bengal. It has reported and covered widely in local media time and again but yet to bring desirable results. Many cases the Job cards are not available to the Job seekers or beneficiaries rather they are kept at the bank of local ruling party leaders. They manage who are to be given work and who are to be denied in providing employment. The yardstick is that whether a beneficiary is the follower of ruling governance or opposition or neutral. In such context, many genuine poor are marginalized to access job under MGNREGA. At times, Tractors and JCBs are engaged in replacement of mandays (see Fig. 1) under MGNREGA which itself is violation of law. Further, it is also seen and evident that tree planting is considered as one of the major activity under material component in providing jobs to rural people under MGNREGA in various districts including Uttar Dinajpur. The plant saplings and agricultural inputs are supplied or purchased from a particular agency from Kolkata which is considered to be a Government Agency (Memo No. 224/1 (2)/MGREGS: 06.05.2019 and Memo No. 375/1 (12)/MGREGS: 30.07.2019). But if we compare the rates of sapling and materials of the prescribed supply during 2019-20, it is much above and higher rates than locally available sapling of such plants and material (Memo No. 390/1(12)/MGREGS: 06.08.2019 and Memo No. 493/1 (12)/MGNREGS: 18.09.2019). At the same time, if saplings and materials are bought at locally available sources, it would further multiply job opportunities for local people and promote local nurseries and boost local economies which are the major objective of MGNREGA. In this perspective, creating a nodal agency of state for procurement and delivery defeats the objective of creating and generating job opportunity, asset formation and multiplier effects at regional level.
In nutshell, it can be concluded that the PDS and MGNREGA in North Bengal vis-à-vis West Bengal suffer from poor governance, better design of asset formation and mapping of resources at Gram Panchayat (local) and District (regional) level. Hence, during COVID-19 pandemic when most of the migrant workers are returning from cities of various parts of the country to their native villages, there is likely to have chaos of effective delivery of rations and food grains to the poor and downtrodden. This may lead to food crisis, hunger and ultimately increase crimes like robbery, theft, suicide etc. If MGNREGA is not able to deliver optimum man-days and job opportunities, people may be underemployed which further exacerbates and worsen the village landscape and its economy. To augment such scenario, the Block and Panchayati Raj Institutions must publish and notify the list of Shop-wise PDS Ration Card holders under each scheme and village-wise MGNREGA Job Card holders each Gram Panchayat of every Block and Districts. Mapping and planning of resources and local assets, detail project evaluation, consultation of stakeholders and dissemination of Gram Panchayat plans through MGNREGA website is pre-requisite for effective local economic development and people’s participation at grassroots.
*The author is working as Assistant Professor, Sikkim Central University, Gangtok, Sikkim and the comments and views may be sent to the author directly at ahannansku@gmail.com / ahannan@cus.ac.in .
Annonymous (May, 2020), Complaint Letter of Villagers against Ration Shop Dealers, BDO, Chopra Block Office, Uttar Dinajpur, Dt. 01.05.2020.
Farazul Islam and Others (April, 2020), Complaint Letter of Opposition Leaders, BDO, Chopra Block, Uttar Dinajpur, Dt. 27.04.2020.
Government of West Bengal (2019), Memo No. 224/1 (2)/MGREGS: 06.05.2019; Memo No. 375/1 (12)/MGREGS: 30.07.2019; Memo No. 390/1(12)/MGREGS: 06.08.2019 and Memo No. 493/1 (12)/MGNREGS: 18.09.2019, Office of the District Magistrate, MGNREGS Cell, Uttar Dinajpur.
News Bureau (April, 2020), ‘State Governments Acceptence of Corruption in Public Distribution System in West Bengal’ (Translated from Bengali), Uttarbanga Sambad, page-3, 29.04.2020.