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Corruption eats PDS pie

A recent study has revealed that Meghalaya diverts roughly 80 per cent of its essential commodities meant for the targeted public distribution system (TPDS) into the open market. The scam was recently unearthed by ORG-MARG — a leading research group in the country.
That foodgrains and other subsidised items meant for the poorest of the poor find their way into the open market was never a mystery. But what has come as a surprise is the scale at which this has been happening and is still being allowed to happen.
Like every other scheme conceived for the poor but enjoyed by the rich, the public distribution system (PDS) too has never benefited the poor. It has been a milking cow, which the politicians, bureaucrats and the business community ruthlessly exploit to feather their nests.
Political parties, particularly the Congress, are notorious for using the PDS as an emergency fund for meeting expenses connected with the party and for frequent travels of party functionaries to Delhi and back. This is an open secret and all are aware of this vicious nexus. The only surprise is that it has taken a long time for such a reality to come into the public domain.
If ORG-MARG so desires, it could very well come up with the names and addresses of those who have derived maximum profit from the PDS.

Role reversal

In Meghalaya, there are at least 10 millionaires who have got to where they are today by virtue of being government stockists and wholesalers of foodgrains.
For about 30 years, since the creation of Meghalaya in 1972, these tribal businessmen/women, who earlier on were a part of the orchestra that sung the familiar chorus of exploitation by non-tribal businessmen, quietly slid into similar roles without a hitch. So while the exploiters changed, the exploitation went on even as the quantum of rice and wheat diverted into the open market rapidly increased.
While openly declaring war on non-tribal businessmen for public effect, politicians and tribal traders cavort with them after darkness. After all, a tribal must have a non-tribal partner who will handle the dirty business of selling off the rice and wheat released from the Food Corporation of India (FCI) godown in Guwahati at the open markets there. For decades, the so-called chakki mill owners never had any need of a mill or a chakki to grind the wheat, for the simple reason that wheat never came to Meghalaya.
Every state legislature has a committee called the Public Accounts Committee authorised to oversee the function of government registered food distributors.
In Meghalaya, the committee is a big, sick joke. Legislators visit the homes of contractors to inform them that they would be visiting the non-existent chakki mills. What do you think happens then? The payoff to political parties and individual MLAs is huge.


After the PDS assumed its new nomenclature as a part of TPDS, which basically targets those living below and above poverty line, the quantum of rice, sugar, wheat and kerosene coming in through the government controlled system has reduced substantially. So too the profits. But those who carried out the business continued to do so, thereby, in effect, milking a cow that is no longer able to produce the quantum of milk it used to in the earlier days.
Naturally only 20 per cent of the essential commodities reaches the poor while the remaining 80 per cent continues to reach the coffers of the rich. Yet in this country such criminals are never brought to book.
Minister for food and civil supplies in Meghalaya, M.N. Mukhim, put up a show of shock and surprise at the startling discovery, as if this was news to him. Some bureaucrats, who were called to the marathon meeting to discuss strategies to better manage the TPDS, felt it was sheer hypocrisy and a big waste of time.
They felt that unless the government completely revamped the food and civil supplies department by sacking corrupt officials and naming and shaming ministers who have used the department to make money, it is useless to talk of streamlining the system. But which government has the courage to do that? All governments, notwithstanding their political lineage, use the PDS as their mint. That is why not a single political party or politician reacted to the news of the biggest-ever scam in Meghalaya. In recent times, much of what remained hidden from the public eye has now come to light, thanks to the correct use of the Right to Information (RTI) Act.

RTI power

Pressure groups and individuals in Meghalaya are finding out more and more about how the system has taken them for a ride for well over six decades. However, we are yet to hear of groups or individuals approaching the law courts for redressing the grievances. Despite the RTI, there are still several underhand deals happening in Meghalaya, especially in the departments of industries and geology and mining.
All the public sector undertakings in the state have been used as milch cows by successive governments. After the downsizing, MLAs who supported the ruling party were accommodated in these PSUs, so much so that even those that used to make profits are now in the red.
The Meghalaya Industrial Development Corporation has been milked dry, by above all, the state congress chief, O.L. Nongtdu, who happens to be one of its chairpersons.
So, too, the Meghalaya Tourism Development Corporation, which was recently indicted by the CAG for not having a business plan nor a marketing strategy. It did not even have a record of the number of tourists who visited Meghalaya in 2005-06. There were no sales promotion brochures or publicity through the media.
In short, the state tourism corporation has been reduced merely to an employment agency for the MLA who is appointed its chairman.
It is not that the people are unaware of this systematic squeezing of the economy by a few elected representatives, a select bureaucracy and business people. However, they have become too cynical to even start trying to correct the system. Yet the system is failing us and this failure is becoming more grotesque by the day.
Meghalaya earns very little by way of revenue. Even that little is diverted into private pockets, depriving the larger population from benefiting from the earnings. We only have to conduct a research on the check gates at the various coal and limestone mining areas supervised by the Directorate of Mining and Geology to see how much money is made by the inspectors and how much actually comes to the state exchequer.

Vigilance squad

In 2002, the government had formed a vigilance squad to put a stop to corrupt practices and to improve revenue collection. Surprisingly, up until this time the vigilance squad has not conducted a single surprise check, thus defeating the very purpose of its constitution. The excuse given was that the officials in the vigilance squad were too busy with their normal duties.
The bottomline is that corruption has become the overarching preoccupation of those in governance. While Meghalaya is on a downward slide, corruption is spiralling up. People are concerned but do not really know what to do. A sense of desperation is palpable. The state is set to go to the polls by March 2008. But no political party will address the corruption issue for obvious reasons.
At this time, what we need is a peoples’ vigilance squad to traverse the length and breadth of Meghalaya, educating people on their rights as voters and how they can vote out the corrupt if only to redeem the system from its present morass. All right-thinking people and institutions should join hands in this attempt at bringing democracy back to the people.

The Telegraph - Calcutta : Northeast
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