In Malegaon, subsidized kerosene meant for the poorest is diverted by the distributors.
Hundreds of villagers from Malegaon district walk for miles from remote areas and far away villages, and gather around one of the public distribution shops of the district, with the hope of receiving some 2 liters of kerosene at a subsidized rate. Most of them dreadfully need this kerosene provided at much lower rates than market prices (Rs.20 against Rs.35 to 40 at a non subsidized rate), which they will use to fulfill most basic needs such as cooking and lighting up their houses. If the cost of the kerosene was not partially covered by the government through the system of subsidies, they would be totally unable to afford it, and would rely on wood and dry cow dung, traditional sources of fuel that requires grueling work from women to be collected.
But even after their visit to the public distribution shop, many will have to resort to these. As one woman villager explains angrily, “I have come from my village to get my ration, but nothing is happening!” And indeed, a large number of public distribution shop workers, in charge of distributing kerosene to all families entitled to it, indulge in corruption and divert part of the goods to sell it in the open market at higher rates.
Anand Pagare, community Correspondent in Malegaon, witnessed and covered the whole kerosene distribution in Malegaon. Being on the villagers’ side throughout the process, he collected their testimonies and recorded their feelings, the expression of their anger, their frustration, at seeing a system supposed to benefit them being corrupted by the greed of a few. Their ire is all the more acute – and legitimate – because they are aware that the distributor is diverting a product that is essential to their living, and taking advantage of their illiteracy and their weak social status. Anand’s camera follows them in their struggle against dishonest distributors, showing their growing distraught and despondency while they become aware of how the system is corrupt and of their impotency to get their rights respected. These simple stories of struggle for survival rarely hit the headlines in India, though they make up the harsh reality of millions of the rural poor.
The lot of these Malegaon villagers is unfortunately not an isolated case. The Public Distribution System, which has been in existence in India since Independence, is fraught with malpractice across the country. The system originally aimed at ensuring food security and reducing poverty by providing basic food items (such as rice, wheat, sugar, edible oils) and non food products (kerosene, coal, standard cloth) at a subsidized rate, through a network of shops spread out over the country. Since 1997, the government attempted to improve the system by turning it into a targeted PDS. In the new system, the poorer sections are entitled to a larger quantity and lower rate than the rest of the population. But the system, that consumes around 1% of the country’s gross domestic product, has been heavily criticized for not reaching the poor and encouraging corruption. In the case of kerosene, a 2005 study done by Indian’s National Council for Applied Economic Research has shown that 38.6% of kerosene subsidized by the PDS was being diverted for black marketing and adulterated in transport fuels.
Behind these figures are hundreds of thousands of families for whom subsidized kerosene is the only source of energy, indispensable for cooking, heating and providing light. They bear the brunt of the corruption that plagues this system. The two liters of kerosene they are entitled to every month would not be a big deal for those enjoying the comfort of Shining India, but for the country’s poorest it determines whether they lead dignified, human lives.