Fellow Since 1999
Rationing Kruti Samiti
This profile was prepared when Leena Joshi was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1999.
Leena Joshi is creating a broad-based movement, led primarily by marginalized women, to reform the Indian government's centralized food subsidy system. She is seeking policy changes that will reduce corruption, make the system accountable to its beneficiaries, and result in more equitable and transparent food distribution.
The New Idea
India distributes subsidized food grains and other essential edibles to the poor through the Public Distribution System (PDS). Led by the Ministry for Food and Civil Supplies, PDS is a large, rigid institution, mired in corruption, with cumbersome channels for procurement and distribution of grains. As a result of the scarcity and poor quality of grains in ration shops, corruption in procuring ration cards, and gradual cuts in food subsidies, hunger has increased in the country, despite record agricultural growth. Recognizing that food security (and therefore the PDS) are survival issues for the urban poor, Leena Joshi is building Rationing Kruti Samiti (RKS), a collaborative federation of consumers, citizen-based organizations, and citizen organizations, to assert people's right to food. As a consumer vigilance movement, RKS aims to cleanse the system of corruption at every level and build partnerships with providers and consumers at critical points in the government's food distribution stream. As the movement develops a mass base, it will address broader economic issues of food procurement, conduct research in alternative systems of food distribution, and launch policy initiatives to mainstream new alternatives within the PDS. RKS is a network of groups and individuals spread across twelve districts of the state of Maharashtra. After successful attempts at reforming food distribution mechanisms and policy in the area of Mumbai-Thane (the largest region of PDS's operation in Maharashtra), RKS is now moving toward statewide reform. Leena's long-term goal is to research and build acceptance for alternative systems within the PDS, thus transforming cumbersome government machinery into an agent of change.
As economic changes alter development patterns in India, food security has emerged as a full-blown national crisis. While distribution of food by PDS has dropped nationally, prices of edibles have increased and the poor have been forced to turn to the open market for essential grains. For example, the annual distribution of PDS in Maharashtra dropped from 19 million tons of food grains in 1991-92 to 14.3 million tons in 1996-97. At the national level, prices of edibles rose by 85.8 percent for rice and 71.8 percent for wheat. As a result, the differences in prices of food sold in ration shops (PDS) and the open market narrowed 70 percent between 1993 and 1994. Simultaneously, the cost of distributing food through PDS has increased by 274 percent in less than 15 years. Even as the national ministry has been reducing the allocation of food to states, states have been inefficient or politically apathetic at increasing their stocks. The food distribution department itself has to contend with frequent transfers of officers, minimal orientation and training of its staff, and political interference, all of which has made reforms within the system extremely difficult. The Ministry of Food and Civil Supplies, at the federal level, and the states demarcate policy for grain procurement from farmers and distribution to consumers. The policies flow down through a hierarchy of rationing officers and superintendents, to independent ration shop owners at the lowest level of the stream. The shop owners make up the human face of PDS for consumers. They often pay bribes to gain licenses for running the outlets but thereafter are frustrated by the low profit margins that the government allows them. Most of the time they sell the food allotted to them in the black market. As a result, consumers have to deal with an irregular food supply, poor-quality grains, corruption in procuring ration cards, and cheating in weights and measures. There is little awareness of the laws and policies that govern the right to food. This has led to severe misinterpretation of the law. For example, the law states that any person who has lived in the country for more than the fifteen days and wants to cook food should have access to a ration card. But practices across the country have made a ration card definitive proof of a citizen's nationality. It is imperative to furnish proof of residence before one can procure a card. Without a card, a citizen cannot apply for a passport or even be listed as a voter. This has biased PDS against the poor, who often do not have proof of residence. The cost of running cumbersome, inefficient, and expensive machinery has forced PDS to scale back its programs, leading to the development of the Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS). Under the TPDS, the income threshold for families considered below the poverty line is far lower than the criteria used by other economic or poverty alleviation programs. This unrealistic calculation could hurt those who cannot afford food from the open market and deserve access to PDS. Furthermore, as TPDS reduces its grain quota, it reduces the total caloric intake of families. For the first time ever, human rights activists in Mumbai are fighting against starvation among the poor. Despite occasional public outcry over the cumbersome mechanisms of PDS, there is limited information about the operation of the system and even less about the government's shrinking food subsidies. Consumer activists have restricted their ire to attacking or raiding shopkeepers. There has been no effort as yet to conduct carefully researched, strategic programs that will reform the entire system.
As the first step, Leena makes consumers aware of how the state food distribution system works, and mobilizes them around the idea that reform at the shop level is possible in three key aspects: transparent access to a ration card, better grains, and local availability. These issues make up the trinity of basic food rights for the urban poor. The origins of the RKS go back to 1993, when communal riots paralyzed Mumbai (then known as Bombay). Citizen organizations and voluntary groups joined with the government in riot relief. Food availability became pivotal to slum reconstruction. Leena seized the moment and, with the assistance of the then Controller of Rationing for Bombay, organized the movement of essential supplies to riot-hit areas and created quick-response systems for the food crisis. The initiative became a loose platform - the RKS - and has since grown into a 50 member network across 12 districts of Maharashtra, which has swung from collaborations with the government to outright confrontation against it on food security issues. Leena views national awareness and advocacy as her springboard for replicating RKS in other parts of the country. She has developed numerous communication tools including newsletters, pamphlets, booklets, training workshops, and public meetings. Growing public awareness has enabled her to organize a large sector of citizens around food security. Women in every cluster have taken the lead in the process because, as providers of food at home, they have the greatest contact (and frustration) with the PDS. Simultaneously, members of the state PDS have requested Leena to design similar training and orientation programs for government staff. In every area of a district, RKS builds linkages between citizen groups and members of the rationing department of the area. Interfaces range from trainings on the processes and shortfalls of the PDS, to monthly meetings between rationing departments, individuals, and activists of an area, to confrontational campaigns against corruption in the food distribution processes. Even the confrontational campaigns are assisted by members of the Rationing Department, and have established RKS's position as a force in streamlining the operations of the PDS. With greater information and collective action, RKS has won many significant successes in Maharashtra. For example: · Procedures and rules for issuing new ration cards have been clearly documented, and access is quicker, decentralized, and transparent. · A Kerosene Distribution Improvement Committee has been established to make the procurement and distribution of kerosene efficient and reliable. · RKS is regularly consulted by the Department of Food and Civil Supplies for negotiations about food-security policy. · RKS is now advocating for effective timetables for kerosene distribution, strict penalties against black marketing, and greater allocation of ration shops to cooperative societies and women's groups. A cluster of RKS groups in every district comes together to form the RKS district chapter. District chapters keep in touch with each other through monthly meetings, newsletters, and annual gatherings that draw as many as 7000 participants. District chapters often consult each other for problem-solving, expertise, and sharing methodologies of action. Leena coordinates the statewide activities of the RKS from the Mumbai chapter with assistance from three full-time staff. Membership fees and a grant from an Indian foundation fund the growing programs of RKS. Regarding policy initiatives, RKS has launched several with its chapters in Maharashtra, including: · Terminating the use of a ration card as definitive proof of a citizen's nationality and stopping the practice of allocating a ration card only after the applicant has furnished proof of residence.The Maharashtra government has already ended the practice at RKS's behest. · Questioning TDPS and providing alternative definitions of below-the-poverty-line families. · Advocating against the government's reduced food quota and thus highlighting that the PDS ration fails to meets minimum caloric requirements. Leena feels very challenged by the task of building a sense of ownership and solidarity among RKS members. In a two-year time frame, Leena aims to consolidate the initiative into a professional association of food activists. Her tools are: rigorous contextual orientation and team-building, creating a broad leadership base, and establishing decentralized mechanisms and communication methods to encourage greater dialogues among RKS chapters and institutional decision-makers.
Leena Joshi was trained as a professional social worker in the prestigious Tata Institute for Social Service (TISS). In 1976-77, she joined Apanalaya, a pioneering slum-improvement organization that demonstrated citizen ownership of high-impact programs. Leena's association with Apanalaya taught her about the professional commitment to social responsibility. As her role within Apanalaya increased, until she became the organization's director, Leena focused on creating citizen participation in urban affairs and governance. She established a slum-networking program that trained residents how to address their concerns and share experiences. Contacts with other organizations in the field helped Leena realize the need for a collective response to PDS-related concerns, because of the serious implications for urban poverty. Leena is now ready to quit Apanalaya and begin full-time work with RKS.