PDS protests in West Bengal

bithari village, Swarupnagar block, North 24-Paraganas: the men of Uttarpara hamlet in Bithari are hiding out in the fields every night despite the winter chill in the air. Better brave the cold than the police lock-up, they say. This remote village near the Bangladesh border is one of the many in West Bengal where people have protested violently against corruption in the public distribution system (pds)in the past one-and-a-half months.

On October 24, after waiting in front of a ration shop for seven hours for the dealer, Bappa Mollah, to appear and answer their queries about missing ration stocks, about 3,000 villagers went on the rampage.What came first, police lathicharge or villagers' aggression, is up for debate, but at the end of it the ration shop had been ransacked, a couple of vehicles set on fire and one child and two policemen injured. The police nabbed six protestors and issued arrest warrants against another 150. Ever since, unsure about which ones among them are on the wanted list, the villagers have been sleeping in the fields, leaving the women and children to face the brunt of police aggression. Policemen turn up every night, the women say, breaking open doors, threatening them, rifling through their possessions and sometimes making away with torches, light bulbs, jute bales and money.

"My bones ache from the cold at night. My wife is left all alone. How long will we continue to live like this?' asks 67-year-old Hajidulla Sardar, whose son Roshan Sardar, 35, is among the six arrested. The villagers' anger and resentment at perceived manipulation by the dealers spills out as they talk about how they have often been overcharged for ration cards and food grains, had irregular access to pds provisions, and been bullied by dealers who, once poor like them, are now living in big concrete houses and driving around in cars. Meanwhile, the dealer and his family have fled the village. The police are guarding the ration shop.

Law and order
Food rights' activists say they are observing the same pattern across the state