Gangtok: Amid images of delivery of free ration at people’s doorstep doing the rounds of social media, some questions are bound to arise: Are people in Sikkim so devoid of ration supply?
Are residents of the Himalayan state really suffering amid the COVID-19 pandemic or are they just securing ‘freebies’ from the government? Or is the charity merely for photo ops?
To find out the answers to some of the questions, EastMojo reached out to food and civil supplies minister Arun Upreti.
Here are the edited excerpts from the interview:
EastMojo: Why is so much ration being given as charity?
Arun Upreti: The lockdown affects the poor and those involved in daily wage earning. Such people suffer in 20-22 days. Hence in respective areas, people are coming forth to help them with basic ration.
EM: Where are these donors getting their ration from?
AU: This is being done through collective buying from ration shops, on their own. They urge the shopkeepers to segregate ration packets for delivery. Depending on their budget, they are being given as charity to the poor.
The initiative of a few led to a wildfire across different organisations. They are taking it as a direction from the party. Being aware of the current situation, they are doing this charity. Those that are unable to deliver individually are making groups or if they are part of any organisation. There is no party or politics in delivery of ration, this is being done purely as service to the people.
EM: Does it not become imperative for your department concerned to deliver the ration?
AU: So far, the situation has not come where the food and civil supplies department has had to deliver the ration. When the situation arises, the government will do so. But so far in the pandemic, the way budget is coming from the central government and the economy has slowed down, the expenses on the government are huge.
We feel such a situation will not arise where we fear shortage, but if the lockdown has to continue, the department will intervene.
EM: Are the ration shops asking for supply?
AU: Sikkim people primarily eat rice. Those below the poverty line (BPL) are getting rice at Rs 3 per kg from the government, 35 kg each. Also in May-June, people in the BPL category get free rice from the central government. It is not termed as BPL rice but they get that rice supply. Beyond all of this, they are now getting extra rice and ration as part of the charity. They are getting what they are in need. It is equally happening from the government’s regular ration delivery system.
EM: Apart from rice, are other essential commodities reaching the state?
AU: They come under the essential commodities, so they are being delivered to the state. It has not reached a situation of shortage, which can only happen if roads or transportation gets closed. But in the current lockdown essential commodities needed in kitchen are properly stocked. There has not been a situation when we are in complete shortage. Only during emergencies or agitation in the past, when essential commodities were under a threat, we used to feel such shortage would arise. But it has never come, the situation is normal everywhere currently.
EM: How much of charity have you done?
AU: I have helped 300 families in Arithang, as the legislator of the constituency, personally. There are organisations such as Sarathi, where I am the chief patron. There are many senior leaders from the party with us in the organisation, so they have covered all four districts.
We are also asking from those interested in helping. These rations are being taken to old-age and children’s homes. The youth cadre in the Sikkim Krantikari Morcha is coming forward and helping people in their respective villages.
EM: Is this an exhibition of the generous side of Sikkim?
AU: During this pandemic, the generous side of Sikkimese people is being exhibited. Those that work, those that donate and those that care for each other. Our chief minister has a similar thought on serving the people. Taking that as inspiration, the legislators and the common people have been captivated by that feeling of charity.
EM: Is the civil supplies department maintaining the books on such delivery?
AU: We have not been able to keep tabs on the supply, we have not even looked for it as most of us are busy with the charity. But this is not being done by the government that we have to keep tabs on how much is coming or going. But if needed in future, we can always inquire and find how much was delivered to the people in need.
EM: How charitable are you on field?
AU: Currently, with the lockdown when the workforce is being urged to stay home, we can and have to be boots on ground. We can all extend a hand in basic things as loading and unloading sacks of rations onto vehicles. Every one is doing something to help. It is not a case of government sitting with folded arms, currently charity is sufficing the state’s need. When the time arises that even the resources of different organisations are extinguished, we will intervene as part of the government.
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