Food riots expose how corruption hurts India's poor

BURDWAN, India, Oct 12 (Reuters) - Hundreds of government food distributors were hiding in fear of their lives in eastern Indian on Friday after riots that were triggered when villagers accused them of stealing and hoarding food meant for the poor.

Police in the state of West Bengal said three ration distributors have committed suicide in the last two weeks since villagers gave them an ultimatum to pay millions of rupees as a "fine" for diverting grain to regular markets at huge premiums.

"We admit there are some corrupt members, but everyone is being targeted, forcing most of us to either hide or risk getting killed," Ashok Saha, the food distributors' association chief in Burdwan district, told Reuters from a secret location.

The protests follow a central government inquiry that revealed widespread corruption in the food distribution system.

The investigation found that most rural poor in eastern and northern India were not getting regular supplies of the food to which they are entitled.

In India, villagers living below the poverty level -- about 28 percent of the rural population in West Bengal -- are sold heavily subsidised paddy, wheat and sugar under a central government scheme through thousands of private franchisees.

Villagers in the communist-ruled state have looted and set storehouses on fire over the last week. Police have shot dead two villagers during the riots, and more than 300 villagers have been injured in clashes, officials said.

"For years, they have been cheating us," said a weeping Arjina Bibi in Burdwan, as she stood next to her three hungry children. "They were saying there were no stocks available, while we have seen lorries carry away wheat to flour mills at midnight."

Burdwan is projected as a model of efficient governance.

But the district bore the brunt of the latest riots with shops and homes of food distributors ransacked.

Angry villagers dug out roads to show their anger and forced their way into homes, snatching jewellery and food grain. In another village, people attacked the distributors.

"Come and see how we share a morsel of rice among eight members," Noor Jahan, 45, said in another village in West Bengal, as police walked past a burnt food storehouse next to her.


The riots have been a major embarrassment for the state's ruling communists since it involves people living below the poverty line, the vote bank of the left for the last 30 years.

"This agitation is perhaps the biggest test for the communists," economist Abhirup Sarkar said.

Earlier this year, a government inquiry showed how most of the rural poor in five states, West Bengal, Bihar and Jharkhand in the east, Assam in the northeast and the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, were not getting regular rations.

The survey showed how only 10-15 percent of the poorest were getting some supplies in remote villages of West Bengal, a state of 80 million people. In Uttar Pradesh state, barely 6 percent of poor villagers got the food.

A report in the Hindustan Times newspaper said this week that a food ministry panel found 53 percent of wheat meant for the poor in India's capital, New Delhi, was diverted to open markets. ((Editing by Alistair Scrutton; Reuters;Tel +91 9831608877))