For Lakshmi, the Re.1 a kilo rice scheme introduced by the government has come as a boon. She uses this rice to make batter for idli and dosa which she sells at the small tiffin shop she runs outside her house in C-Kalyanapuram, Vyasarpadi. In this locality alone, there are at least 25 tiffin shops run by women.
Lakshmi says the cheap rice distributed in ration shops is better for making tiffin items than for cooking. She says she uses most of the 20 kg rice obtained every month through her BPL (Below Poverty Line) card to make idlis and dosas at her shop. With the rice now available for Re.1/kg instead of Rs.2/kg, her profit has improved, she says.
Poor women across the city who run road-side eateries (or idli kadais as they are known locally) have thus been able to capitalise on the subsidised rice offered by the government.
However, there are several issues plaguing the Public Distribution System (PDS) in the city which comes in the way of insulating the poor from inflation. According to a Government Order passed in Tamil Nadu in 1997, there ought to be one ration shop for every 1,000 card-holders. The government order, if implemented, can go a long way in helping the poor to maximise the benefits already offered by the government.
N. Umapathy, who does slum development work in North Chennai, says that information obtained under the Right to Information (RTI) Act shows that most ration shops in this part of the city have between 1,200 and 3,000 card holders. This, he says, affects the efficiency of distribution in fair price shops.
To get around the problem, most ration shops follow a rotation system, wherein card-holders are specified particular days in a month to collect their quota.
“This affects the livelihood opportunity of daily wage labourers. Much of their time is wasted waiting in the queues and bickering with shop-keepers over under weighing of the commodities purchased,” he says.
The government’s problem, according to an official, is the availability of space to set up new fair price shops. The rotation system ensures that every one is covered, he says.
In Semmenchery, at a resettlement colony for the urban poor developed by the TamilNadu Slum Clearance Board, there is only one ration shop for the 5,000 families living here. T. Kanta, who works as a maid in Santhome and lives in Semmenchery, says she cannot go to work on days when she has to go the shop to pick up her rations.
There are also complaints from some quarters that PDS rice is diverted to departmental stores. Many people end up buying the diverted rice for a higher price, says M. Sundar, a scrap metal dealer in Moore Market.
(Originally published in The Hindu, Tamil Nadu edition for the column ‘Prices & People’ dated Sep 23, 2008)