Last year Maharashtra government had provided close to 42 lakh bogus ration cards, reveals a RTI. These things are taking mafia colours, as is evident in the case of a Mumbai-based RTI activist who was assaulted for seeking info on ration card frauds
Last week, an untoward incident took place in Mumbai wherein RTI (Right to Information) activist Mahendra Thakur was seriously assaulted with iron rods and bricks by fair price (ration) shopkeepers of Mumbai for having invoked the RTI Act to get information on the foodgrain supplies to the shops in the Varsha Nagar area of Vikhroli. Earlier, he tried to get information from shopkeepers themselves but they got into a heated argument with him and hence he had decided to take the RTI route. Strongly condemning this incident, former Central Information Commissioner Shailesh Gandhi has recommended that, “he should file a complaint with the SIC (state information commission) and ask for support. The SIC could write to the police and the chief secretary/ home secretary of Maharashtra and a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) should also be filed.”
Very importantly, if ration card holders, who do not get their quota of foodgrain or are harassed for procuring their ration card use RTI then RTI activists would be less under threat and assault. An increasing number of RTI applications in the food and civil supplies department would put pressure on the authorities and the fair price shopkeepers, too, as both allegedly work in nexus, most of the time. In order to invoke RTI for a ration card, you have to send your application to the food & civil supplies department.
Such an effort by an individual was highlighted in MoneyLife last year (18-year-old’s persistence leads to mandatory stock disclosure for fair price shops in Gujarat: http://www.moneylife.in/article/78/18619.html). Teenager Bhadresh Wamja of Saldi village in Gujarat had used RTI to not only to ensure that the two fair price shops in his village distribute foodgrain to every ration card holder but it inspired the state government to announce a mandatory rule for every Public Distribution System (PDS) shopkeeper to compulsorily put up details of his weekly stock supplies for public display.
NGOs and RTI groups should also chip in by helping individuals to file RTI in the ration card issue. Way back in 2004, social reformer Arvind Kejriwal’s NGO Parivartan had helped a daily wager to procure his duplicate ration card (he had lost his original one). A resident of a slum area in East Delhi, he made several rounds of the local food & supplies office for a good three months but the officials ignored his request. With the help of Parivartan, he filed a RTI application seeking information on “the daily progress made on his application, names of the officials who were supposed to act on his application and what action would be taken against these officials”. Within a week of filing the application, an inspector from the department visited his house and asked him to collect his card from the office. That was of course when the RTI Act was very new and was yet to become a national Act. Much water has flown down the track ever since, but an interesting recent research conducted by students of a US university showed that even the underprivileged can get their rightful ration cards very effectively by using the RTI route.
Sometimes, ration card holders are denied their rightful quota due to error in technology. In 2011, Sandeep Gupta had received information under RTI that rations have been stopped to 44,172 ration card holders in Delhi due to an error in the computer system of the food & civil supplies department. He invoked the RTI yet again, this time asking what action has been taken against the officials for this error. Since he did not get an adequate reply from even the First Appellate Authority, he had filed an appeal to the Central Information Commissioner. CIC Shailesh Gandhi ordered on 21 March 2011: “It is scandalous that since computer systems and connectivity is not proper 44,172 families in Delhi which should get rations at a fixed price are unable to get them. Government policies appear to be the victim of a completely inefficient computer system.
``The Respondents also informed the Commission that a large number of cardholders (around 70000) in the category of un-reviewed cards are also suffering because of inefficient operation of the computer systems. The Commission directs the Food Commissioner to look into the disenfranchisement of over 100,000 families in Delhi because of improper functioning of the computer systems according to the respondents.
“…The Commission also directs the Food Commissioner to send a compliance report to the Commission about the action taken about disenfranchisement of over 100,000 families to the Commission before 20 April 2011.”
Interestingly, a research in 2010 found that use of RTI is very effective in the issue of ration cards. The two research students, Leonid Peisakhin and Paul Pinto of the Department of Political Science, Yale University, New Haven, CT, USA, conducted a field study on access to ration cards by the underprivileged in Delhi through the Right to Information Act. They chose 100 slum dwellers who had not received their ration cards or were following up on their applications. They were divided into four groups. The first group followed up their application by asking for information under RTI. The second group submitted request by a letter with a certification letter from a NGO; the third group gave their applications to a middle man who charged them Rs200 and the fourth group served as a control group as it applied under the standard format.
The group of 100 slum dwellers were chosen on the following criteria: their annual income should be around Rs20,000; he or she should possess an electricity bill, a driving license, or a voter identity card for residential proof. Going door-to-door in the slum, the research team enlisted the help of about 100 individuals who consented to participate in the study. Finally, 86 participated.
The research report published in late 2011 observes: “The results were striking: while those paying speed money predictably had the lowest median processing times, approximately two and a half months, virtually all those who had ﬁled a RTI request received a ration card in a median time of approximately four months. Very few confederates in the other two experimental groups received a ration card during the one-year window when data collection was ongoing. If we discount various non-obligatory waiting periods, recourse to the RTIA is almost as effective as bribery.”
The researchers have correctly observed that: “India’s PDS—the institution responsible for the provision of subsidized food and core commodities to the public—is highly corrupt and functions more in the interest of civil servants and affiliated business owners than the poor.”
The research paper also notes that: “Foodstuffs like wheat, rice, sugar, and cooking oil are purchased from farmers by government contractors and are then shipped from procurement centres to regional depots and from there to approximately 500,000 “fair-price shops”. Overall, between 15% and 61% of all subsidized food managed by the PDS goes missing on its way to the consumer. The central government spends more than 5% of its total budget on procurement of subsidized foodstuffs, up from 2.5% in the early 1990s (Jenkins & Goetz 2002). Ration card holders can obtain free or subsidized food from fair-price shops in cities or from specialized stores in the countryside. Provincial politicians regularly promise to have ration cards issued to potential voters in exchange for their electoral support. As a result, strict eligibility criteria for different types of ration card are commonly disregarded, and certain communities are oversupplied with cards, whereas many individuals in dire need of subsidized food never receive theirs. The government estimates that there are 223.2 million ration cards in circulation, although only 180.3 million households are eligible for them (Government of India, Planning Commission, 2007).”
(Vinita Deshmukh is the consulting editor of Moneylife, an RTI activist and convener of the Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She is the recipient of prestigious awards like the Statesman Award for Rural Reporting which she won twice in 1998 and 2005 and the Chameli Devi Jain award for outstanding media person for her investigation series on Dow Chemicals. She co-authored the book “To The Last Bullet - The Inspiring Story of A Braveheart - Ashok Kamte” with Vinita Kamte. She can be reached at [email protected].)
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As the price of oil goes up and one weekly job report follows another, the pressure on President Obama can only mount. To see in which direction the voter will swing on Election Day keep a lookout for the price of a barrel of oil
What a barrel of oil will cost in November is going to have a huge impact on the US presidential polls. On the price of crude depends the price of gas (petrol) in petrol pumps across America and that is a pocket book issue that will sway voters come November. After being in the 80s for the last few weeks, price of oil has been inching up steadily of late (rising five days in a row) and the price of Nynex crude is now in the high 90s. The price of gas is inching up too in America and last heard it was $3.50 a gallon in Colorado.
What is a little curious about the price of oil rising at this time is actually that the world economy is slowing and despite that the price of oil is rising. This obviously indicates a speculative element to the price but no one is able to do much with oil speculation. The other reason that the price of oil is rising is the fact that a considerable amount of Iranian oil is out of the market because of American sanctions and though the Saudis are pumping away furiously, the market can sense the tightening of supply. The other aspect is the fact of the possible turmoil in the Middle East with the situation in Syria having become destabilized. Whereas Syria is not an oil exporter, it is right in the heart of the oil producing countries of the Middle East and has potential of turning the Middle East into a tinderbox. That does not augur well for the price of oil. Also there is the issue of a pre-emptive strike against Iran by the Israelis that hits the news every couple of weeks which causes disruption in the oil market. If there were indeed an Israeli strike on Iran with or without the co-operation of the US it would really set the cat among the pigeons and the price of a barrel of oil could spike to $150 to $200, if only for a temporary period and then President Obama can kiss his re-election chances good bye. The fact of the matter is that in the short-term President Obama does not have control over the price of oil and therein lies the danger for him.
But it is likely to become a big election issue as the prices rise because of new developments in America in the last four years. One is the Keystone Pipeline to be built from Alberta, Canada to Texas carrying oil from Canadian oil sands to Texas for refining. This oil is not as ecologically friendly as the Middle Eastern oil and releases more greenhouse gases. But there are simply huge reserves in Canada which could potentially change the oil scenario for America and the world as it is nearly unlimited. Trans Canada, a Canadian company, wants to refine the oil in Texas after carrying it through America in what is known as the Keystone Pipeline. The oil will be carried from Alberta to Texas by way of a pipeline which criss-crosses America. Building the pipeline will be a challenge as it carries a not so environmentally friendly substance—oil—and it requires both the Federal and state permissions. Wikepedia puts it like this “The Keystone Pipeline System is a pipeline system to transport synthetic crude oil and diluted bitumen (dibit) from the Athabasca oil sands region in north eastern Alberta, Canada to multiple destinations in the United States, which includes refineries in Illinois, the Cushing oil distribution hub in Oklahoma, and proposed connections to refineries along the Gulf Coast of Texas. It consists of the operational ‘Keystone Pipeline’ and ‘Keystone-Cushing Extension’, and two proposed pipeline expansion segments, referred to as Keystone XL Pipeline and the Gulf Coast Project. After the keystone XL pipeline segments are completed, American crude oil would enter the XL pipeline at Baker, Montana and Cushing, Oklahoma.”
Because of the environmental concerns President Obama has only approved the southern half of the pipeline and has asked Trans Canada to resubmit the plans for the northern half of the pipeline which among other things passes through the state of Nebraska. He has also postponed the time for approval of pipeline to 2013. The plan of the pipeline through Nebraska is being contested by citizens groups and environmentalist groups alike and is a hot button issue in the keenly contested Senate race in the state. It is believed that if the pipeline were approved the building of the pipeline would create several thousand jobs though they might be temporary rather than permanent. The reason that they would be temporary is that once the pipeline is built and ready to go it will be controlled by a station in Canada. The lure of jobs however temporary they be has got the Republicans rooting for the pipeline. Mitt Romney has said that if he were to become president he would approve the Keystone Pipeline on his first day in office.
Environmental groups who support President Obama have said that if the president approves the Keystone Pipeline as it stands then they will stop funding the Obama campaign. To add another wrinkle to the entire issue, Trans Canada has said that if the American approvals do not come they will carry the oil to China. All this puts President Obama between a rock and a hard place. The ambivalence on the part of President Obama is bound to be exploited by the Republicans. It has been an avowed foreign policy goal of both the Republican and Democratic Party to reduce the dependence on Middle Eastern oil and the Keystone Pipeline is one way of doing it. As the price of oil goes up and one weekly job report follows another, the pressure on President Obama can only mount.
A related issue is shale gas which can be produced through the process of fracking, which is a process by which oil or gas is extracted from cracks in the surface or earth, and this has become possible only in the last four years as technology has advanced. There are environmental concerns about this, too, particularly water pollution. President Obama and the Democrats are less enthusiastic about this than Mitt Romney and the Republicans. But this too has potential to ease if not solve the energy problems of the United States. Then of course is the cosy relationship between the oil and gas industry and the Republican Party. All this makes for an interesting and volatile decision-making process regarding energy policy.
To see in which direction the voter will swing in the swing states on Election Day keep a lookout for the price of a barrel of oil.
(Harsh Desai has done his BA in Political Science from St Xavier's College & Elphinstone College, Bombay and has done his Master's in Law from Columbia University in the city of New York. He is a practicing advocate at the Bombay High Court.)