Controversy

Egg on the face

Print edition : February 19, 2016

Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik distributing rice to Bonda tribal women at a village in Malkangiri district in 2013. Photo: PTI

Odisha Pradesh Congress Committee president Prasad Harichandan addressing the public in front of the Bhubaneswar Municipal Corporation headquarters during a State-wide agitation on the ration cards issue, on December 11, 2015. Photo: LINGARAJ PANDA

Anganwadi workers demonstrate in front of the Odisha Assembly building in Bhubaneswar demanding that they be absolved of any role in the ration card controversy, on November 23, 2015. Photo: LINGARAJ PANDA

The humble egg comes in handy for Congress activists to protest against the Odisha government’s large-scale bungling in issuing ration cards for cheap rice.

The cheap rice scheme that Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik promised the poor and which helped him win two major elections seems to have boomeranged on him now in the shape of eggs. Patnaik, his Ministers and the State police are all running scared of the harmless egg these days following mounting egg attacks on several Ministers in protest against large-scale irregularities in the issuance of ration cards under the National Food Security Act (NFSA).

The security arrangements for Patnaik have been strengthened after activists of the National Students Union of India (NSUI) threw eggs at the vehicles of some Ministers in protest against the inclusion of leaders, workers and sympathisers of the ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD) and the non-inclusion of vulnerable households in the list of beneficiaries under the NFSA.

Over a dozen vehicles now form part of Patnaik’s cavalcade even if he travels just a kilometre from his house to the Secretariat. A large number of gun-toting policemen man his route, unlike in the past, and those attending his meetings are frisked by security personnel to ensure that no one in the audience has eggs in their possession. The police are also launching an egg hunt ahead of any Minister’s visit to any place in the State. Egg vendors are being asked to stay away until the Minister leaves the locality.

The attacks on Ministers’ vehicles began after the inclusion of BJD leaders and workers, including the Mayor of the Cuttack Municipal Corporation, in the public distribution system (PDS) was reported from almost all regions.

Student activists of the Congress hurled eggs at the vehicles of Food Supplies and Consumer Welfare Minister Sanjay Kumar Das Burma, Panchayati Raj Minister Arun Kumar Sahoo, and Health and Family Welfare Minister Atanu Sabyasachi Nayak in different districts.

A war of words soon erupted between BJD spokesperson Pratap Keshari Deb and senior Congress leader Lalatendu Bidyadhar Mohapatra after the former warned that they would retaliate if the Congress did not refrain from hurling eggs. In fact, the BJD did retaliate. An NSUI activist was beaten up by youth activists of the BJD even when the police were present when he was caught hurling an egg at a Minister’s vehicle in Cuttack.

Even as the attacks continued, much to the discomfort of Patnaik and his party, senior Congress leader and former Union Minister Jairam Ramesh, during a visit to Bhubaneswar, supported the tactic, calling it another form of protest.

Citing the example of former British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who was once the target of an egg attack, Jairam Ramesh told newspersons that large-scale irregularities had occurred in the distribution of ration cards in Odisha and that it was the opposition’s job to expose it.

Complaints all round

The Patnaik government did not take any step when the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) alleged that undue favours were shown to BJD leaders, workers and loyalists in the course of implementing the NFSA. It also kept mum when poor villagers agitated before government offices at numerous places across the State in protest against the exclusion of their names.

Then, Cuttack Mayor Anita Behera was asked to resign after it came to light that she had been issued a new ration card. An employee of the city’s municipal corporation and a schoolteacher were suspended the day she stepped down.

Patnaik placed a senior administrative officer under suspension a day after Anita Behera’s resignation. The officer was earlier in charge of the preparation of ration cards in the corporation area. The Cuttack District Collector soon cancelled the ration cards of many people against whom objections were received from the public.

More cases of irregularities started emerging from different parts of the State. Those found to have managed to obtain ration cards included councillors, corporators, panchayati raj institution representatives and even the spouse of the BJD’s Baliguda legislator. In a face-saving move, the government clarified that the legislator’s wife had applied for cancellation of the card days before the inclusion of her name came to light. Earlier, the State had a PDS in which families in the below-poverty-line category were eligible for 25 kilograms of rice a month at Re. 1 a kg. Families above the poverty line in eight districts in the backward Kalahandi-Balangir-Koraput region were also getting the same benefit.

Although the NFSA came into force before the 2014 elections, the Patnaik government took more than two years to implement it owing to a delay in the identification of beneficiaries. Instead of relying on the Socio Economic and Caste Census 2011, the government asked people to apply for the new ration cards while giving them a clear notification about the criteria for exclusion.

The vast majority of the public applied for the new cards, which were meant only for poor and vulnerable households. Since the number of applicants turned out to be more than the total number of such people, the government issued another set of guidelines to exclude ineligible persons, restricting the total to 3.26 crore people.

not verified properly

The real problem, however, began after the list was finalised. It was found that many priority households had been left out and better-off families loyal to the ruling party had pocketed the cards. This happened primarily because the authorities, who were asked to draw up the list with the help of anganwadi workers, accredited social health activists known as ASHA workers and panchayat representatives, did not verify the applications properly.

Most of these workers belong to the BJD, which has been ruling the State for the past 16 years. They took instructions from party bosses at the local level and included their supporters on a priority basis, excluding non-BJD supporters from the list. Also, as most households sought to obtain cards in the name of the oldest woman of the family according to Section 13 of the NFSA, it was difficult to ascertain whether the family had other members with substantial incomes. The intention of the NFSA is to leave no poor person out of its purview. However, many poor families were left out because they did not have the right kind of support and, in many cases, simply because they did not know how to apply.

The government has now come out with a new plan to issue cards to deserving families until all poor families are covered. More than three lakh ineligible persons have surrendered their cards, indicating that large-scale bungling took place in the identification of beneficiaries. As for the receipt and disposal of complaints, the State government has “notified” the State Information Commission as the State Food Commission and appointed the project directors of all district rural development agencies district as grievance redressal officers.

Politics of rice

Politics of rice has been Patnaik’s forte. Taking on extra financial burden over and above the subsidy that the Centre pays to make rice available to the poor at low prices, Patnaik won the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections that were held simultaneously in 2009 and 2014. He first launched the scheme of rice at Rs.2 a kg with effect from August 1, 2008, a few months before the elections. Even though he severed ties with the BJP days before the 2009 elections, the BJD performed better by fighting the elections in alliance with the Nationalist Congress Party and the Left parties, which had little strength in Odisha.

Patnaik further lowered the price to Re.1 a kg with effect from February 1, 2013, and the BJD’s strength in the State Assembly increased in 2014 although it fought alone. For rice distributed under the existing PDS system in the State, the Centre gives a subsidy of Rs.27 a kg and the State government Rs.2. Under the NFSA, each beneficiary gets 5 kg of rice a month instead of 25 kg a family.

Patnaik has also announced the extension of the Aahar cheap meal scheme to 57 places across 29 of the 30 districts with effect from February 25. The scheme was first launched in April last year in Bhubaneswar, Cuttack, Berhampur, Sambalpur and Rourkela. Four Aahar outlets run in each of the five cities, and each outlet sells 1,000 meals a day at Rs.5 a meal, with financial assistance from three State government-run public sector undertakings and Tata Steel.

The government has announced that it will make available 32,300 meals in the 57 outlets to be set up in the district headquarters and industrial hubs. The new outlets too will be supported by eligible funding agencies. In his fourth consecutive term as Chief Minister, Patnaik is now aiming for victory in the gram panchayat elections in 2017, urban body elections in 2018, and a fifth consecutive victory in the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections in 2019. With the opposition parties trying their best to politicise the ration card issue, Patnaik’s consultants are now working overtime to launch a few more populist schemes with the elections in mind.

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