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Fake Ration Cards

Fake Ration Cards

Author: Sunanda Sanyal
Publication: The Statesman
Date: February 28, 2006

Left Front Paves The Way For Vote Fraud

On coming to power in 1977, the CPI-M hit a gold mine through Bangladeshi infiltration. Many of the Hindus that sought refuge in West Bengal during East Bengal's fight for independence stayed back. The rest, both Hindus and Muslims, who returned to newly independent Bangladesh, had been coming back in droves since 1971. They needed to be domiciled first to be able to apply for ration cards. The CPI-M won them over by reversing the process. It gave them the ration cards with which they could claim to be domiciled.

Earlier, the area food inspectors, working for the Department of Food and Supplies, a statutory authority, used to grant ration cards. The Left Front, having gained a majority in the panchayat election in 1978, practically made the panchayats the granting authority. The food inspectors signed on the dotted line. In the 1980s, however, a number of food inspectors were charged with helping Bangladeshi infiltrators gain citizenship on production of fraudulently obtained ration cards.

Partisan gains

The food inspectors objected, refusing to become scapegoats. The food and supplies secretary sided with the inspectors, and was quickly transferred. The panchayats - that is, the political masters - have since been deciding the number of ration cards to be issued per year; the food inspectors, who had perforce joined the CPI-M-led coordination committee of state government employees, tamely agreed. The ration cards racket, both a source of unaccounted money and a captive fake-vote bank, burgeoned to the benefit of the CPI-M.

Admittedly, the rationing system is intended for those who cannot afford the market prices. The CPI-M changed the beneficiaries for strictly partisan gains. It raised a new rank of cadres by appointing them ration dealers who, under normal circumstances, do not earn much profit. The party circumvented the problem by allotting a quota of extra cards to each dealer who sold off the heavily subsidised provisions in the black market, some of which were smuggled out to Bangladesh. They have since been providing expensive logistic support - transport for "jonogon" (the masses) attending rallies and so on - in addition to paying hefty monthly "levies" to the party.

The reckless faking is apparent from the fact that the number of ration cards in circulation far exceeds the total population of the state (79,005,120) by 8,508,160, according to Mamata Banerjee. However, D Bandyopadhyay, the state's first Director of Rationing in the post-war times, who should know better, puts the number of fake ration cards at two crore. Of these, according to him, one crore generates black money while the other one subsidises the upkeep of the illegal immigrants who eventually turn up as "ghost voters".

CPI-M leaders naturally deny such charges. The hollowness of the denial is clear from the ration cards issued for those who live below the bread line. Unsurprisingly, the state government never discloses the names of the actual beneficiaries of the BPL scheme. The media, however, have repeatedly reported a large part of it being cornered by the up-and-coming apparatchiki, resulting in numerous deaths from starvation in the lean districts like Purulia and Murshidabad. However, when the state government announced the issue of millions of new ration cards, obviously in view of the election ahead, the outraged Union government threatened to cut its supply from the central stock, following "partisan misuse of subsidised food grains".

'Exclusion error'

The Union food and agricultural minister, Mr Sharad Pawar, while presiding over a zonal conference in Kolkata on 30 January, accused the state government of an unacceptably high percentage of "exclusion error" (31.74 per cent) - as against Bihar and Orissa's 29.81 per cent and 26.56 per cent, respectively - in drawing up BPL lists. Chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee rebutted the complaint by admitting that "only 17 per cent of those who have received the BPL cards could be considered to be ineligible". This amounted to an admission nevertheless of great quantities of fake cards.

The CPI-M is no doubt the chief beneficiary of the ration card racket - the total takings from dealers being recurrent and huge. But it's not as if no other constituent of the Left Front has benefited from it. When Kalimuddin Shams of the Forward Bloc (Marxist) was food minister, ration cards were up for grabs for Rs 25 apiece at pan shops in the Kidderpore, Ekbalpore, Metiabruz and Watganj areas of Kolkata.

The Election Commission has, meanwhile, put pressure on the state government to cleanse the voter lists in the face of mounting evidence of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants having enrolled as voters on the strength of ghost ration cards. In a futile attempt to come clean, Anil Biswas, state secretary of the CPI-M, has claimed that the administration has detected 600,000 illicit ration cards so far, adding that the figure could rise to five million, of which a great many might have already been cornered by Bangladeshi infiltrators.

The state food minister, Naren De, on the other hand, claims that 1.9 million ration ghost cards have been seized. The conflicting figures handed out by the leaders point to remorseless doctoring. Hearing a PIL in 2001, the Supreme Court stopped the issue of new ration cards pending the preparation of an accurate list of BPL beneficiaries. Having sat over the matter for four years, the Left Front government now, on the eve of the election, announces that the BPL lists are ready and that it would soon issue 15 million new cards. On a conservative estimate, these cards will fetch at least Rs 15 to 20 crore for the election fund of the CPI-M, besides enriching the party's local committees, individual leaders, ration dealers and so on.

A section of the Bengali press reports that a sub-divisional food administrator has discovered a number of dealers at Swarupnagar, North 24-Parganas, who have fake cards carrying the names of family pets. And the local authorities, under pressure from EC observers, have detected a "factory for manufacturing" fake ration cards, voter identity cards, and even holograms.

Complex process

The food minister's claim, then, to have cancelled 1.5 million ration cards at one go has to be considered against this background. In any case, these cannot be individual cards, the cancellation of which would involve a complex process, estranging numerous beneficiaries - a risk that the Left Front would not take at this point. More probably, some dealers are handing over a part of their stash, having been promised a quota out of the 15 million being freshly issued.

This is in keeping with Anil Biswas blowing hot and cold over the deletion of lakhs of fake voters from the electoral rolls by the EC observers. Chances are, cashing in on the new cards being issued, his party is finding quick replacements for the deletions. He has already admitted the introduction of 45 lakh new voters into the lists.

In the circumstances, the EC should immediately stop the issue of any more new cards before the election, strike off the new names that tally with those on the ghost cards, and most importantly, bare all the teeth it has and bite into those, including government employees, that are aiding and abetting vote fraud. This will give the genuine voters the much needed feeling that the EC is on their side after all. Thanks to its observers, commoners, including housewives, have already begun to hope that this time the EC will brook no nonsense. Anyway, it need not care a hoot for Anil Biswas' threat of mass upsurge. His desperation is understandable.

The author is former member, West Bengal Education Commission.

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