Puducherry Lieutenant Governor Kiran Bedi kicked up a controversy with her announcement on Saturday that the administration’s Free Rice Distribution Scheme to villagers would be “made conditional to the certification that the village is open defecation free and free of strewn garbage and plastics”.
Bedi, who had also set a deadline of May 31 for villages to clean up and qualify for the rice scheme, later issued a “clarification”, saying she was withholding her order.
Responding to Bedi’s statement, CM V Narayanasamy said her order showed she “has no clue about its implications”. “It is against the National Food Security Act, 2013, which ensures free rice as a statutory right for 75 per cent of the rural population. She cannot issue any formal order and implement it without consulting us… In the past too, she has returned several files on the free rice scheme by raising flimsy queries. Agricultural labourers, women, school children, the physically challenged and those in unorganised sectors are the major beneficiaries of this rice scheme. She will definitely face the consequences,” Narayanasamy, who has had several run-ins with Bedi, said.
Under the rice scheme, the Puducherry administration gives 20 kg of rice for those below the poverty line and 10 kg for those above the poverty line.
Bedi, who made the announcement on Twitter, also sent a WhatsApp message to ministers, MLAs and journalists, which read, “I hereby direct that distribution of free rice to the villagers shall be conditional to the certification of the village being open defecation free and free of strewn garbage and plastics by submitting a joint certificate given by the MLA and the Commune Commisioner to the Civil Supplies Commissioner.” She added that until such a certification is issued, “the free rice supplies will be kept on hold and in safe storage. It shall be distributed to the beneficiaries on the village being certified clean”.
Bedi later sent a letter to the Chief Minister and copied it to the Chief Secretary and other senior officials, with details of her directions to the Director of Civil Supplies. “A notice to the villages be given for a period of four weeks till 31st May 2018 to make the villages clean,” she wrote.
As part of the “clarification” Bedi issued later, she said, “The intention of my direction in linking rural Open Defecation and cleanliness with free rice distribution is NOT To DENY any poor persons of their entitlement, since I have already sanctioned and directed to provide quality food grains to needy families… To avoid misreading of this intention and in view of the forthcoming commitment made by the UT Government that villages in Puducherry will achieve ODF by June end, I am happy to give them some more time. Therefore I am WITHHOLDING my earlier communications.”
Earlier, speaking to The Indian Express, Bedi had said the “successful completion of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan was the key objective and aim” behind her decision to make the rice distribution scheme conditional.
When asked what influenced her decision, she said, “Today was my 155th round of field trip to see the same littered neighbourhoods. I realised that there is no other way but to implement this. When I visited some villages today, doctors reported of many diarrhoea cases. Why? Because their neighbourhoods are not clean… I am sure my order will make community leaders proactive and they will make their villages clean within the one-month deadline that I have set,” she said.
When asked if the order amounted to denying food to the poor, she said, “What is the problem in keeping your neighbourhood clean? I am doing it for the people and their health. Certain responsibilities have to be learnt. I did not say that I will deny them food. I used the word conditional. I am sure all villages will be cleaned within the time limit. If not, let them clean it and come for their share of rice. It will be in safe storage. You clean your village, and take your rice,” she said.
When asked where she got the idea from, Bedi said there was a “research report” that proves that “a family can save up to Rs 15,000 annually if they keep their neighbourhoods clean”. “Parameswaran Iyer, secretary of the Union Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation shared that report with me today morning. That was a confirmation of my order,” she said.
The Lt Governor’s order created an uproar, with many calling it hasty and “illegal”.
Former Madras High Court judge K Chandru said, “PDS is a very emotive issue and a matter of existence for the majority who live in villages. If you want a Swachh Bharat, there are be a hundred ways to achieve it. This order shows nothing but over-enthusiasm and a lack of knowledge in law. It’s totally illegal.”