By Geeta Pandey BBC News, Lucknow
The poorest of the poor in India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, are at the heart of a major food scandal.
The Indian media has described it as “the mother of all scams”.
It appears to show elements of the state bureaucracy diverting food from citizens who are right at the bottom of the economic ladder.
Officials say massive quantities of food grains and fuel, meant to be distributed through the public distribution system or to be given to the poor under welfare schemes like food-for-work and school meals for poor children, have been stolen over the years and sold on the open market.
This is being investigated by India’s federal police and there are countless pages of court documents setting out the extent of the deception.
The scale is immense. It involves thousands of officials from top-level bureaucrats to middle-level officers to ground-level workers. It also involves thousands of transporters, village council leaders and fair-price shop owners.
It stretches across 54 of the state’s 71 districts, and investigators say the food is carried out of the state and sometimes even beyond Indian borders to Bangladesh and Nepal.
India’s top investigating agency – the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) – once tried to withdraw from the case saying it did not have the manpower to deal with it. It said it would require the registration of 50,000 police cases.
One official said that if all the guilty are convicted, a new jail may have to be built to accommodate them.
‘Alarming’”The subsidised supplies were siphoned off and sold in the open markets at much higher rates. In government records, they were shown to have been distributed among the people,” says Vishwanath Chaturvedi, who filed a petition in court in 2005 demanding that those involved be punished.
In a recent order, the judges described the corruption in Uttar Pradesh as “alarming” and said the “administration has failed to disburse food to the poor and down-trodden”.
The court ordered the investigating agencies to go after the guilty regardless of their position and the power they wielded.
Mr Chaturvedi’s complaint was based on the report of the government’s food cell, a police unit set up to examine corruption in food supplies, which covered a period of 19 months from April 2004 to October 2005.
The food cell conducted raids across several districts. “We found massive discrepancies,” a senior official involved with the raids said.
“The scam was so brazenly carried out that when we checked vehicles which were used to carry grains, we found that the registration numbers were of motorcycles, scooters and even bicycles.”
The micro-economy around the stolen supplies was estimated to be worth $7.45bn (£4.8bn) in the year 2004-2005.
In December 2007, officials told court they had evidence to show that supplies were stolen from 2002 to 2007.
Mr Chaturvedi says the practice continues and if you calculate for the last 10 years, it adds up to more than $42.6bn (£27.5bn).
‘Deep rot’A senior official in the food cell says even today 40% to 70% of supplies from the public distribution system are stolen.
“The rot is very deep,” a CBI official told the BBC. “In the districts of Sitapur, Balia and Lakhimpur Kheri, our investigation found very clear-cut proof of diversion of grains.”
This claim is substantiated on the ground.
In Kasta Colony, a dusty little village in Lakhimpur Kheri, Gangajali invites me into her house where she lives with her husband and seven children.
From 2003 to 2005, the family possessed a little white booklet – called the BPL card – which officially recognised them as “living below the poverty line”.
The card entitled the family to 35kg of rice and wheat and some fuel every month at a rate fixed much below the market price.
“Between 2003 and 2005, I got ration only twice,” she tells me. “Every month I would go to the store and the man who ran the store would say – we haven’t received any supplies. If I insisted, he would throw my card and my money at me.”
Gangajali says she was forced to buy grain from the local market at a much higher rate.
Her neighbours, Leelavati and Gaya Prasad, tell similar tales of how they were cheated, month-after-month, of the supplies that came in their names but never reached them.
The three don’t have BPL cards anymore – in 2005, they were told their financial situation had improved and they were no longer entitled to government benefits.
Inside her mud and brick home, Gangajali shows me her meagre possessions. She says her roof leaks every time it rains and she has no funds for repairs.
“Some well-off people in the village have got BPL cards while we’ve been denied them. Where’s the justice in all this,” she asks?
A short distance away in Pachdeora village, several people line up to show me their BPL cards. I ask them if they have been getting regular supplies. “Off and on,” they say. In the current month though, no one got any kerosene.
Vinod Kumar Singh of NGO Roji Roti Sangathan, who has been working on the issues of food security and jobs in the area since 2005, says: “If they are lucky, they receive ration once in three months.”
‘Organised crime’With 190 million people, Uttar Pradesh is a state filled with poverty: 56m people here earn less than $1 a day and 300,000 don’t even get one square meal a day.
“There is no bigger crime than stealing from such poor people. This is organised crime,” says Mr Chaturvedi.
His court case has forced the authorities to investigate corrupt officials and led to hopes that things may change after all.
The newly-appointed state Food Commissioner Rajan Shukla told the BBC the government “is committed to plugging the leakages” in the distribution system.
“As a first step, we have digitised the entire list of BPL card-holders and weeded out 400,000 fake cards. To stop pilferage, we have decided to fit in GPS devices in trucks and fuel tankers to track their movements.
“We are also trying to introduce biometrics into the system to ensure that the supplies reach the people they are meant for.”
Mr Chaturvedi says for far too long, the government has ignored its responsibility by letting the scam go on unchecked.
“The government is morally committed to feed the poor and now they must act against those who are stealing from the poorest of the poor,” he says.
BBC © MMXI