Power of literacy

Print edition : January 13, 2012

Interaction with Kunji at a Paniya colony in Ponkuzhi, Wayanad district, Kerala. - ANUROOP SUNNY

Most of the respondents in Uttar Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh and Kerala prefer an effective PDS to cash transfer.

THE survey of the public distribution system (PDS) in nine States, of which I was a part in Himachal Pradesh (Sirmaur district), Uttar Pradesh (Jaunpur district) and Kerala (Wayanad district), came as an eye-opener to me on many counts. If Himachal Pradesh stood out for the innocence of its people, Uttar Pradesh was full of scary realities.

Our main goal was to find out how the PDS functioned in rural areas and what the people thought about the idea of replacing it with a cash-transfer system. Economic theory might tell us that cash transfers put the consumer on a higher indifference curve than subsidising the prices. However, the survey found that the reality is quite different from the theory.

The PDS in Himachal Pradesh, for instance, worked quite smoothly except for the fact that the ration shops opened only for a certain number of days. The majority of the respondents all below-poverty-line (BPL) or Antyodaya cardholders said they got their full quota of rice and wheat regularly. Most of them owned a piece of farmland, which gave them just enough for their sustenance. They rarely bought foodgrain from the market; the reasons cited were the harsh hilly terrain and inadequate transport services. No wonder people here were averse to the idea of cash transfers as banks and markets were quite far from the villages.

One of the respondents was so scared about the idea that she pleaded with us with folded hands: We are poor and illiterate. You people are educated. Please do not put us into trouble. We just want our ration and nothing else. It was hard to convince her that we were just students and not government officials. When they had a ration shop in their own village, which gave them much of what they needed (rice, wheat, pulses, kerosene and edible oil), an alternative arrangement was unthinkable.

The Kerala experience

High literacy is an important feature of Himachal Pradesh, akin to Kerala but in sharp contrast to Uttar Pradesh. Most of the respondents in Himachal Pradesh had studied at least up to Class 5. In Kerala, as expected, the proportion of literates was high and the education level of the respondents was rarely below Class 8. The people were ever watchful and voiced their opinions freely, which meant a comparatively less corrupt PDS.

In Kerala, unlike in other States, rations are distributed on a weekly basis and ration shops remain open on all weekdays for nearly eight hours. Rice is given at the rate of Rs.2 a kg to all BPL and Antyodaya cardholders. This ensured that even the poorest of the poor got foodgrains even in the worst of financial conditions. The shops are well maintained and have adequate storage facilities, electronic weighing machines and complete' information boards displaying the entitlements to different cardholders (above poverty line or APL, BPL and Antyodaya) and the respective price lists. The majority of those surveyed in Kerala preferred rations over cash transfers, thanks to food security ensured through ration shops. Frittering away of money on alcohol was a common objection that respondents (especially tribal women in Wayanad) raised against the cash-transfer system.

PDS dealers have a strong association but make only meagre profits. The main complaint that most of them voiced was that the commission was not indexed to transportation cost and that often they had to pay it out of their pockets. Regular inspections and alert villagers left no opportunity for corrupt practices.

Uttar Pradesh's poor

Kerala, a recent article stated, was 25 years ahead of many other States in India. The stark contrast in the condition of Antyodaya families in Kerala vis--vi s other States illustrates this. A majority of the Antyodaya families surveyed in Kerala had pucca houses with two or three rooms, while in Uttar Pradesh, people and cattle sometimes shared living spaces. The small, dingy huts were inhabited by eight to ten people. Open-field toilets added to the unhygienic nature of the villages. Illiteracy was widespread, and on being asked their age, women would cover their blushing faces with their pallus and say, Ham kya jaane hamara umer! Aap hi andaze se bataaiye! (What would we know about our age? You make a guess and tell us.)

The illiteracy of the people was often exploited by the pradhan (headman) and the dealer. In one village, almost all the residents had deposited their ration cards with the dealer believing that it was mandatory to do so in order to get their rations. One woman narrated how the pradhan used to bribe the officers who were deputed for inspection and how the injustice done to them remained unknown to the world outside. Some of the residents even mistook us for government officers who had come to solve their problems. It was disappointing to tell them that we were just students and that we could only write about them.

But one optimistic woman told us, Aap likh do, taaki duniya dekh sake, taaki koi to hamare madad ke liye aa jaaye. (Write, so that the world knows and someone comes to our help.) I was too dumbstruck to reply. Though an illiterate, she believed in the power of the written word. The power of education was demonstrated again in another instance, where a man who had studied up to Class 8 (which was rare in our Uttar Pradesh sample), raised his voice against a corrupt dealer for cancelling his ration card. He motivated his fellow residents who were subjected to the same injustice to approach the Subdivisional Magistrate (SDM) for redress. His efforts resulted in the dismissal of the corrupt dealer.

A RATION SHOP in Chail Chowk gram panchayat, Mandi district, Himachal Pradesh.-REETIKA KHERA

Illiteracy was one of the main reasons why people in Uttar Pradesh did not prefer any dealings with banks. They knew they could easily be cheated by anyone. Moreover, the PDS would at least ensure food security and prevent them from slipping into destitution. Bad as the condition of villages in Uttar Pradesh was, grain leakages from the PDS were relatively low. Corruption mainly affected the distribution of commodities such as sugar and kerosene. Though the ration shop opens only for two or three days in the State, rarely did the people miss a chance to procure their foodgrain quotas.

The major problem was the people's lack of awareness about their rights. They did not know that they were entitled to an unemployment allowance if they did not get work within 15 days of applying for work under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA). They do go to the pradhan and ask for work, but they do not get any written acknowledgement and hence the promise of work remains just verbal.

In one case, the pradhan himself did not know how to go about implementing the NREGA scheme. In another village, the pradhan, an illiterate a woman, was just a puppet in her husband's hands. From all this, one can conclude that the root cause of many of our policies failing in rural areas in States like Uttar Pradesh is the widespread illiteracy. Unless people are able to read and write and are made aware of their rights, they will not be able to raise their voice against the injustices done to them.

Though all the respondents in all the States were categorised as BPL' or Antyodaya', there was a stark contrast in the way villagers in Uttar Pradesh and Kerala responded to their needs. The poor in Kerala were not scared of raising their voices before anyone and knew how to secure their rights. In Uttar Pradesh, the poor were scared and meek.

Hence, the foundation of literacy has to be laid for the effective culmination of all welfare-oriented policies and programmes in rural India.

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