World Consumer Rights Day: Digital Literacy and Way Ahead

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SECTION 4 (1) (b) of RTI Act 2005 impresses upon public authorities to make voluntary disclosure of information through their official websites. When the information is officially available, this  ensures transparency in the functioning of Government plus people do not have to access the information by filing applications under RTI Act and waiting for 30 days or more.

When Mushtaq Ahmad Lone a dedicated RTI campaigner from remote Bonen village of District Budgam told me that he was being denied the information sought under Right to Information Act (RTI) by Govt officials of Food Civil Supplies and Consumers Affairs Department (FCS & CA) for many months, I thought he would have asked for some sensitive information. When Mushtaq told me that information pertained to BPL, PHH and AAY ration card beneficiaries of some villages in his area, I was astounded why this basic information was being denied ? The details of Below Poverty Line (BPL) also called Priority Households (PHH)   and Antodaya Anna Yojna (AAY) , Non Priority Households (NPHH) and Above Poverty Line (APL) ration card beneficiaries  is actually available on e-portal of the FCS & CA (www.jkepds.nic.in) for last several years but the Government never created awareness about the same in past. This should have been on the top priority of the FCS & CA Department to make sure consumers know in which category they have been registered. The officials of this department don’t want to provide the details of BPL or AAY or PHH beneficiaries to the public under RTI Act with their seal and signature as the beneficiary list on the e-portal was not acceptable to most of the storekeepers until 6 to 7 months back. There are many blacksheep who still keep consumers in dark about their subsidized ration entitlement. These officials  have created their own kingdoms and are selling rice and wheat flour at exorbitant rates to the poorest of the poor. This unholy practice has been curbed to some extent because of the Digital Literacy campaign launched by people like Mushtaq Ahmad and activists of  Jammu & Kashmir RTI Movement but a lot more needs to be done in this direction by Government and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO’s).

Exposing the scam

Last year in March we exposed a scam wherein around 50 BPL consumers in Loopipora village of Budgam were being sold subsidized rice at highly exorbitant rates for more than 3 years by the Government storekeeper of FCS & CA Department. The rice was sold @ Rs 15 / Kg which otherwise was to be sold @ Rs 3 / kg only to these poor families. Before exposing a scam in Loolipora one of the residents from a nearby village Bonen namely Sona Ullah had contacted Mushtaq Ahmad. He was provided a ration on exorbitant rates by the storekeeper of FCS & CA Department. The aggrieved man’s statement was video recorded by Mushtaq and sent to the Assistant Director  Food Civil Supplies and Consumer Affairs (FCS & CA) Budgam. The officer took quick action and suspended the storekeeper. The video went viral. More and more aggrieved consumers got in touch with Mushtaq which included some three to four persons from Loolipora village in Chadoora. They  complained about the denial of free rations because the local storekeeper had given them fake Non Priority Household (NPHH) ration cards (also known as Above Poverty Line (APL)ration cards.)

Mushtaq Ahmad Lone

The RTI movement decided to undertake a kind of social audit in Loolipora village. Mushtaq got in touch with another activist, Nazir Ahmad, a lawyer from the same village . With others  they undertook a random survey of households, cross-checking about 80 NPHH/APL ration cards against the lists on the ePDS portal. Of these 80 households, 50 turned out to be BPL/PHH on the ePDS portal. For three to four years each of these 50 consumers had paid Rs 15 per kg of rice instead of the Rs 3 per kg that they had been entitled to pay under the National Food Security Act (NFSA). Their APL and NPHH cards were fake. They had been created by local storekeepers in league with the Tehsil Supply Officer (TSO). In some cases, the consumers had been given school notebooks with the seal and signature of the storekeeper and TSO.

NFSA in J&K

The National Food Security Act (NFSA), better known as the Right to Food, is a people-friendly legislation that aims to benefit the disadvantaged and marginalised communities of India. Despite the existence of Article 370 at the time, the NFSA was extended to Jammu & Kashmir in full with effect from April 1, 2016, when the PDP-BJP led government was in power. The then J&K legislature had assented to this bill.

The NFSA provides highly subsidised rations of wheat flour for Rs 2 per kg and rice for Rs 3 per kg to about 75 lakh people in J&K who have been listed as PHH. Another 45 lakh people listed as NPHH get their rations at higher rates. This means that more than 95% of J&K’s population is covered by the NFSA. But have the benefits of the NFSA actually reached the people it is meant to serve?

Each of the 50 consumers in Loolipora village who had bought rice at exorbitant rates for the last five years had been cheated of Rs 20,000 to Rs 25,000 in total. Altogether, more than Rs 15 to 20 lakh had been embezzled from a single village only. Who has benefited? Had these people been made aware that they were supposed to get subsidized ration , they would not have been looted. Imagine how much money would have been embezzled by FCS & CA officials in other villages of J&K where there is no awareness about e-PDS ?

Complaint Filed

On June 6th 2020  we brought the Loolipora issue to the notice of Secretary Food Civil Supplies and Consumer Affairs (FCS & CA) JK Government. A team of two senior officers from FCS&CA Department was tasked to probe the fraud. On June 9th  the Joint Director FCS & CA Kashmir visited Loolipora village. People raised slogans against corrupt officials of the department. We were asked to submit our statement of the facts. The preliminary inquiry into the Loolipora ration scam revealed the involvement of nine to ten officials of the food department, of whom a few have retired from service. The letter from the office of Secretary, Food Civil Supplies and Consumer Affairs (FCS & CA), dated 5.07.2020 assured that action was being taken against the erring officers. The Secretary FCS & CA encouraged us in his thank you note and remarked that our work was akin to a ‘social audit.The money embezzled is yet to be recovered from the storekeeper who is under suspension since the last 9 months ?

e-POS Machines

Around 4 years back the Government decided to install electronic Point of Sale (ePoS) machines in all government run ration depots across J&K which includes private fair price shops as well. The then Minister FCS & CA Chowdhary Zulfiqar termed introduction of ePoS machines as one of the biggest reforms in bringing transparency in the Public Distribution System (PDS). Crores of rupees were spent on purchase of these machines and for many years the machines were not put into use. It took the Government more than 3 years to actually put these machines into use at ration depots.The Loolipora incident compelled the Government  to make effective use of ePoS machines and aadhar linking all consumers.  This was only possible due to personal efforts of the Secretary FCS & CA Mr Simrandeep Singh a young IAS officer.

In July last year we again exposed a similar scandal in Tarzoo village in Sopore. In this village around 150 BPL consumers were sold rice @ Rs 15 / Kg (APL rate) which was actually to be sold @ Rs 3 / Kg.  After bringing both the issues into the notice of Govt, a probe was initiated. The accused are yet to be taken to task. Through this piece I request the Govt to make the probe details of Tarzoo public. In Loolipora case, many officials were taken to task  few of whom had retired  and the amount was to be deducted from their pension as per the order issued by Govt. How much amount has been actually deducted from their pension in the last 9 months is not actually known. We will be again following up the case with the Government soon or will get the details using RTI. We are waiting for the action to be taken against other officials. If the Govt does not act , we may seek judicial intervention by way of filing a Public Interest Litigation (PIL). When complaints continued to pour in, the Government decided to put into use the electronic Point of Sale machines (ePoS).

How does an ePoS machine work ?

The Aadhaar-linked electronic Point of Sale machine (e-PoS machine) used at ration stores displays price, the weight of items and the credentials of a consumer. The field officials of the department of Food and Civil Supplies were thus reluctant to use these machines as there was no space left for corruption, mismanagement and black-marketing. The Govt storekeepers as well as fair price shop owners were supposed to sell the ration on the fixed rates to consumers plus his or her category under BPL , AAY, APL, PHH or NPHH is also very much visible on these machines. At the end of the transaction the consumer is supposed to get an electronically generated receipt which would show all these details.

Around 3 years back Food and Civil Supplies Department of Kerala deployed electronic point of sale (ePoS) machines in all the 14,374 ration shops in the state.Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan declared the complete digitization of the state’s ration distribution / supply chain, in compliance with the National Food Security Act (NFSA) at a function in Kannur on May 21st 2018. The Department completed the task of installation of ePoS machines across all retail ration outlets after connecting the 3.41 crore ration beneficiaries in the state with the ration card management system utilizing the Aadhaar database. The department gave training to all 14,374 ration dealers and their staff in managing the sales through ePoS machines on a single day at 348 centres in the state. Around  1,500 Civil Supplies Department officials also underwent training in the ration card management system.

Social auditing  

With an aim of ensuring transparency in the public distribution system (PDS), the Food & Civil Supplies Department Kerala signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) for conducting social auditing to ensure a smooth ration distribution system. A pilot social audit on the National Food Security Act (NFSA) was conducted last year in Chengal Choola area of Trivandrum, Kerala. The TISS report found that several beneficiaries were deprived of their true entitlements under PDS. The audit report, full of poignant pictures of the living conditions of the people revealed that food-kit distribution had been discontinued but was resumed a week before the audit, many receiving them for the first time. Though all Asraya beneficiaries (Kerala Govt scheme for poor) were eligible for Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY), the audit found that only 44% got them. A similar social audit conducted by RTI Movement volunteers also revealed a lot of mismanagement in Loolipora and Tarzoo areas as mentioned above. In order to ensure transparency in PDS, J&K Govt also needs to undertake a massive social audit in association with some reputed institutions as complaints against Govt storekeepers are constantly pouring in.  Some months back one more store keeper from Chara e Sharief circle in Budgam was suspended by the Administrative Department  as he was found to be involved in serious offences and looting poor consumers.  The Kerala government has started GPS tracking of vehicles transporting food grains in the distribution chain as well as installation of surveillance systems in all distribution centers as part of the PDS renovation. J&K Govt must also follow this model.

Revivification of ration cards

In most of the villages across J&K Govt, employees and well off people have been provided Below Poverty Line (BPL) or even Antodaya Anna Yojna (AAY) ration cards and they are getting  subsidized ration for years and years. These influential people are actually snatching the right of genuine poor and disadvantaged people who are deprived of this entitlement. There are cases wherein A class contractors , Sarpanches and members of panchayat owning land and property have been provided BPL ration cards and are getting subsidized ration from Govt.  Under an order No : FCS & CA/Bud/2020/1128-34 Dated 1.10.2020 the Assistant Director FCS & CA Budgam assured to undertake re-verification of BPL, AAY beneficiaries within 3 weeks but till date the re-verification is yet to be initiated. The DC Budgam had actually directed for this re-verification in 2017 and it took FCS & CA officials 3 years to issue an order and actual work is still not done on ground.

Conclusion

The proactive disclosure of information of BPL, APL , PHH or NPHH consumers on electronic public distribution system (e-PDS)  portal proved to be helpful. This didn’t only help the villagers of Loolipora or Tarzoo but people in most of the districts in J&K. There are still many villages , towns , colonies and mohalla’s where awareness is needed. The Government needs to involve NGOs and women self-help groups (SHG’s) to reach out to people regarding digital literacy. Mushtaq’s limited digital literacy helped to expose the corrupt practices being undertaken by officials of the Food Civil Supplies and Consumer Affairs Department (FCS & CA) for the last many years. We need to create more and more people like Mushtaq who would act as whistleblowers in their respective areas. Women can especially play a great role in this. They need to be trained how to access information from e-PDS portal. The digital literacy will ensure transparency in the public distribution system (PDS)


Views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the editorial stance of Kashmir Observer

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Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat

Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat is an Acumen Fellow and Chairman Jammu & Kashmir RTI Movement. Feedback [email protected]

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