x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

India's poor starve after food stocks looted

Food meant for some of India's 350 million families who live below a poverty line of 50 cents a day has been looted by politicians and criminal syndicates.

Ram Kishen, 52, half-blind and half-starved, has received nothing from his Satnapur Village shop in Uttar Pradesh for 15 months, despite having a government provided ration card.
Ram Kishen, 52, half-blind and half-starved, has received nothing from his Satnapur Village shop in Uttar Pradesh for 15 months, despite having a government provided ration card.

NEW DELHIi // Ram Kishen, 52, half-blind and half-starved, holds in his gnarled hands the reason for his hunger: a tattered card entitling him to subsidised rations that now serves as a symbol of India's biggest food heist.

Mr Kishen has had nothing from the village shop for 15 months. Yet 20 minutes' drive from Satnapur, past bone-dry fields and hamlets where children with distended bellies play, a government storage facility as long as five football fields bulges with wheat and rice.

By law, those 57,000 tonnes of food are intended for Mr Kishen and the 105 other households in Satnapur with ration books. The storage units are meant for some of the 350 million families living below India's poverty line of 50 cents (Dh1.8) a day.

Instead, as much as US$14.5 billion in food was looted by politicians and their criminal syndicates over the past decade in Mr Kishen's home state of Uttar Pradesh alone, according to data compiled by Bloomberg News. The theft blunted the country's only weapon against widespread starvation - a five-decade-old public distribution system that has failed to deliver record harvests to the plates of India's hungriest.

"This is the most mean-spirited, ruthlessly executed corruption because it hits the poorest and most vulnerable in society," said Naresh Saxena, who, as a commissioner to the nation's supreme court, monitors hunger-based programmes across the country. "What I find even more shocking is the lack of willingness in trying to stop it."

This scam, like many others involving politicians in India, remains unpunished. A state police force beholden to corrupt legislators, an underfunded federal anti-graft agency and a sluggish court system have resulted in five overlapping investigations over seven years - and zero convictions.

India has run the world's largest public food distribution system for the poor since the failure of two successive monsoons led to the creation of the Food Corporation of India in 1965. The government last year spent a record $13bn buying and storing commodities such as wheat and rice, and expects that figure to grow this year.

Yet 21 per cent of all adults and almost half of India's children under 5 years old are still malnourished. About 900 million Indians already eat less than government-recommended minimums. As local food prices climbed more than 70 per cent over the past five years, dependence on subsidies has grown.

From the government warehouses, millions of tonnes are dispatched monthly to states including Uttar Pradesh, which are supposed to distribute them at subsidised prices to the poor. About 10 per cent of India's food rots or is lost before it can be distributed, while some 3 million tonnes of wheat in buffer stocks is more than two years old, according to the government.

Even after accounting for the wastage, only 41 per cent of the food set aside for feeding the poor reached households nationwide in 2005, according to a World Bank study commissioned by the government and released last year.

In Uttar Pradesh, where the minister of food, Raja Bhaiya, stands charged with attempted murder, kidnapping, armed robbery and electoral fraud, the diversion was more than 80 per cent in 2005, the World Bank report said.

Fully 100 per cent of the food meant for the poor in Mr Kishen's home district was stolen during a three-year period, according to India's Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), the country's leading anti-corruption agency.

When Mr Kishen and other residents of Satnapur sought their monthly quotas at the village's Fair Price Shop, as the ration stores are called, they would either find a locked door or be told to return the following month, said Javeed Ahmad, the CBI officer leading the agency's investigation of the scam for more than three years.

"Who is a person who holds a below poverty line ration card? A person of no influence," he said. "If he shows up at the Fair Price Shop and there is no below poverty line wheat, you can just tell him to buzz off."

The scam itself was simple. So much so, that by 2007 corrupt politicians and officials in at least 30 of Uttar Pradesh's 71 districts had learned to copy it, according to an affidavit filed as part of an investigation ordered by the high court in Allahabad, one of the biggest cities in India's most-populous state. All they had to do was pay the government the subsidised rates for the food. Then instead of selling it on to villagers at the lower prices, they sold to traders at market rates.

The first person to figure out how to run the theft on a mass scale was a man named Om Prakash Gupta, Mr Ahmad said.

"Gupta was definitely the big daddy of the scam," said Mr Ahmad. "Over time, every district came up with more efficient executions of this system."

Gupta was a six-time member of the Uttar Pradesh legislative assembly and the owner of a family run grain-trading firm. By the time he ran for national parliament in 2009, he had been charged with 69 criminal offences, including five murders, two armed robberies and gangsterism, according to a declaration he filed with the Election Commission of India.

In June last year the CBI also charged him with forging documents and other offences in connection with food theft from the ration programme. Gupta, who lost the parliamentary race, died of a heart attack in April at the age of 69 before a trial could begin on the food case. He wasn't convicted of any crime.

So far, he is the only senior political figure to have been arrested by the CBI over the food scam.

In one transaction investigated by the CBI, Gupta sold 17.7 million kilograms of wheat to four different companies hundreds of kilometres away in the cities of Kolkata and Raipur. The companies paid $2.1m to Naimish Oil.

Over the past seven years, different court orders and changing state governments have resulted in at least three agencies being tasked with probing the theft: the CBI, a special investigative team of the Uttar Pradesh police and the economic offences wing of the central government. In addition to the special investigative team, both the state police's food cell, and its criminal investigations division are carrying out probes.

In the state capital, Lucknow, CBI officer Ahmad, 52, said the inquiry he heads is the largest he has undertaken. Mr Ahmad's team, cobbled together by a 2008 government order that allowed him to poach 14 officers from around the state, is only authorised to look at the period between 2004 and 2007 and the investigative area is limited to six districts because of a lack of manpower.

Mr Ahmad said he will wrap up his inquiry by the end of the year, and he thought it unlikely he would charge any more senior politicians.

"As a layman, you would say that there must be a big man on top, but can I prove it?" he said. "Even if there is a top gun, I won't get legally tenable evidence."