Ujjwal Pal watched the television crackle with news of the attack on a CPM conference when party leaders refused to listen to complaints of a delegation of local people against their ration dealer on September 16.
Next day’s newspapers told the story of Sonamukhi, where the ration dealer had not been selling wheat for nearly a year. Sonamukhi’s people had had enough.
Ujjwal, a lanky young man who has passed Madhyamik, realised his village, Gonnaserandi, was no different. There too the ration dealer, Bipattaran Mondal, had been short-changing the villagers.
“We got no rice or wheat for months, only a little kerosene oil,” said Suchana, the widow of Dhanupada Das, who died in police firing on food protesters.
To say that power flows from the tube of the television may be an exaggeration, but quick and easy access to information certainly lit the spark in Ujjwal and his young friends, who organised the ration protest at Gonnaserandi. It also explains the rapid spread of the violent unrest in South Bengal. One village followed another — by seeing on TV and reading in the papers that ration dealers could be made to pay for their alleged sins.
Ujjwal narrated how after being challenged the ration shop owner admitted selling wheat in the black market under the quota for white card holders (above poverty line, or APL, people) and promised to make amends.
“We discussed with the villagers and fixed the fine on the dealer at Rs 1,000 per family,” he said.
The rate was set following examples of fines in other villages that “we learnt about from TV and newspapers”.
In festival season, some cash was welcome.
If it took an eruption in one village to trigger a chain reaction, the soil had been ripe for some time. It wasn’t just that villagers were not receiving their ration quota for months, possibly years. They didn’t even know their entitlement in a state that claims to have empowered the rural poor through land reforms.
In ones and twos, a crowd gathered outside Suchana’s thatched hut as she recalled how she had desperately looked for some sign of life in her husband’s still body. The police had opened fire on the villagers as they resisted the attempt by CPM leaders and panchayat members to take the dealer out of Gonnaserandi and out of their grasp.
Most people in the crowd — wage labourers, share croppers and small farmers — hold the white card. They said neither party leaders — and party here means the CPM — nor panchayat members had told them that every adult white card holder was entitled to 250gm of wheat a week at Rs 6.75 a kg. White card holders are also supposed to get 200ml of kerosene a week per adult at Rs 9.49-9.59 a litre and 1.5kg of rice a week at Rs 9 a kg.
Said Pradyut Das: “But the dealer never gave us the wheat or the right quantity of oil. If he did, he charged Rs 10.50 per litre of kerosene. If we protested, he told us to fill our cans with water from the pond.”
White card holders had been buying their wheat from the open market. But this is that time of the year when many, like the now dead Dhanupada, don’t have the money.
Dhanupada was a wage labourer who earned Rs 45 plus a kilo and a half of rice the day he found work. The crop is ripe and rippling in the dry autumn breeze. But it’s not ripe enough to be cut to make way for the next sowing and yield work for the Dhanupadas.
“There is no work because harvesting is yet to begin. We didn’t have the money to buy food from the open market every day,” said Suchana.
Food prices have been rising in the open market despite weekly government claims of dipping inflation based on the wholesale price index. Wheat prices have risen from Rs 11-12 a kg to Rs 15-16 in the past one year and vegetable prices have soared.
Dhanupada and Suchana might have wondered at times why the APL crown had been thrust on their heads when the man of the house brought in Rs 45 and 1.5kg of rice when he got work. A BPL green card would have fetched each of them a kilo of rice at Rs 6.15, 750gm of wheat at Rs 4.65 a kg and 250gm of sugar at Rs 13.50 a kg. But they had the misfor- tune of being clubbed with people earning over Rs 350 a month.
With the cut-off at Rs 350, Bengal has 5.71 crore white card holders and around 2 crore green card holders (below poverty line, or BPL, people).
Those in Delhi who decide what the tipping point in the poverty scale is may never know that Ayub Sheikh might be alive today had he been given the BPL card that was promised to him. Instead, he fell to a police bullet after joining a team that had gone to the block development officer at Labhpur in Birbhum to demand action against corrupt dealers.
The white card still lies as a sign of his existence among the family’s meagre belongings in their shack.
Brinda Karat, the CPM Rajya Sabha member, wrote to agriculture minister Sharad Pawar blaming the Centre for triggering the crisis by cutting allocations for Bengal.
That may just be a footnote in the lives and deaths of Dhanupada and Ayub.