A feud over grains in Gujarat

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Kanti Parmar lies on a cot under a tree in his courtyard, fussing over the white plaster wrapped over the stump of his left leg. Kanti, 60, is the owner of the sole ration shop in Kanosan village in Patan district of north Gujarat. His son Mukesh says Kanti, a Dalit, was deeply affected after villagers, a majority of whom are upper caste Thakors, stopped picking up rations from his shop a while ago. Earlier this year, Kanti attempted suicide in Patan, and was rescued by passers-by. He lost a leg in the process.

To add insult to injury, on September 12, the Patan district collector, Arvind Vijayan, issued an order that all the 436 ration card holders of Kanosan can now buy rations from the neighbouring village, Edla. Vijayan says he issued the order after 300 ration card holders wrote him a letter on March 23 saying that they were unwilling to pick up grain stock from Kanti’s shop.

“While about 230 families used to visit our shop to collect rations earlier, we lost our customer base after the village boycotted us,” Mukesh says. While Kanti’s family allege that they are being discriminated against because they are Chamars, Scheduled Castes (SCs) who traditionally skin dead animals for a living, the Thakors, who are agriculturalists and land owners, allege that the villagers would not get the grain that was due to them at Kanti’s shop. They were therefore compelled to turn to other villages.

An old rivalry

Nearly 2 kilometres from Kanosan, a muddy kuccha road leads to 12 acres of lush green farms. White blobs of cotton, short shoots of castor, and tall flourishing pearl millets await harvest. The entrance of the farm is gated. The owner, Jakta Thakor, 78, enjoys an afternoon nap while a dozen of his cows moo in the shed nearby.

 Jakta Thakor at his farm house in Kanosan.

Jakta Thakor at his farm house in Kanosan.
| Photo Credit:
Vijay Soneji

Jakta is currently tadipaar (legally restrained from entering the village limits) and has been living on his farm since June 9 this year. Jakta and three of his associates — Prakash Abhesang Thakor, 37; Gena Shambhu Thakor, 55; and Laxman Madhu Thakor, 75 — have all been barred from entering the village by Bipin Barot, Special Judge (Atrocities), Patan, after Mukesh filed a First Information Report (FIR) against them claiming that they were responsible for harassing Kanti and for his subsequent suicide attempt. The FIR mentions Sections 506(1) (criminal intimidation), 294(B) (uttering obscene words), and 114 (abettor present when offence is committed) of the Indian Penal Code; and sections 3(1)(r), 3(1)(s) (arrest without warrant), 3(1)(zc) (imposes or threatens social or economic boycott of SC/Scheduled Tribe (ST) person), and 3(2)(va) of the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.

Jakta and Kanti began the ration shop in 1994, with the service being in Kanti’s name. “In the 1990s, SCs could more easily obtain licenses for ration shops or fair price shops. I had proposed that Kanti get a license in his name, and had given him space and investment to start a fair price shop. We were supposed to run it as partners,” Jakta says, meaning that they had an agreement to split the profit in half. But the ‘joint venture’ turned ugly as the two men repeatedly fought on the question of dividing profits. “I eventually decided to withdraw from the shop and Kanti shifted its location,” says Jakta, of his decision in 1999.

Soon, lines were drawn in the village. Nearly 200 of the 436 ration card holders stopped patronising Kanti’s shop. For every 100 kg of stock sold, a ration shop owner earns a commission of ₹150. “We used to earn between ₹10,000 and ₹15,000 a month as only half the cardholders in the village were coming to us to pick up grain. The other half used to pick it up from a makeshift store running out of Prakash Thakor’s house,” says Mukesh. These provisions were bought from the neighbouring villages of Melusana, Nayta, Vagdod, and Edla, Kanti alleges.

Between 1994 and 2023, Kanti registered multiple police complaints against Jakta and his friends, including a case of kidnapping in 1998 and another case of violence against Kanti’s wife Kantaben, and his father Virabhai.

Laxmanji Thakor at his farm house in Kanosan, near Patan.

Laxmanji Thakor at his farm house in Kanosan, near Patan.
| Photo Credit:
Vijay Soneji

Kantaben, who has faint scars from stitches on her head, alleges that while she, Virabhai, and two other members of their family were walking towards their house, about five upper caste men attacked them and hit them on the head with sticks in 2001. “I cannot forget the horror of that day. My fingers were badly hurt and one of them has been badly twisted since,” she says pointing to the middle finger of her left hand.

The feud between Kanti and the Thakor community was reported in the local media at the time. In 2005, the elders in the village urged them to resolve their issues. “We arrived at a samaadhan or a mutual conclusion that we will end our fight by signing papers. But our problems have continued,” says Mukesh. Not only did the Thakors turn the people who were collecting rations from Kanti’s shop against him, and pass a resolution in the Panchayat with written representations of people saying that they want their ration cards transferred to another shop, but they also blocked the sewage line of his house, alleges Mukesh.

Indirect control

Following collector Vijayan’s order of September 12, the Thakors in Kanosan have indirectly assumed control of the grain supply.

Shailesh Thakor, an associate of Jakta, takes out his mobile phone and deftly punches in the login ID and password of Edla’s ration shop owner on the e-public distribution system (PDS) website run by the Gujarat government. Shailesh says he runs the Edla shop “in partnership with” Vinu Rabari, who is cited as the official owner of the Edla shop.

“With the collector’s order that all ration cards be transferred to the neighbouring shop, Kanti does not have sales. On the other hand, doubling the number of cards in Edla’s ration shop is a way of ensuring that the shop owner of Edla gets more commission,” Shailesh explains.

On March 9, 2022, Kanti wrote to the Patan district collector saying that he was unable to supply ration to Prakash Abhaysingh Thakor, as Thakor’s APL (above poverty line) ration card was not functional. After Kanti’s refusal to disburse grain, he alleged in a written representation that in a bid to take over supply of ration, Jakta, the former sarpanch of the village, along with his associates, tried to take over the disbursement.

A fair price shop owner needs to obtain the biometrics of all the ration card holders who punch in with their thumb before collecting their monthly quota of rice, wheat, bajra (pearl millet), sugar, salt, and oil. The ration shop owner must ensure that the ration card holder receives the ration allotted to them. They must also give the holder a printout of a coupon or a receipt, which provides this information.

In his written complaint to the collector, Kanti alleged that Jakta had earlier borrowed the PDS software system of an e-PDS from the neighbouring village of Nayta, where the ration shop is run by Odharji Thakor. He also alleged in his written complaint to the district collector that Prakash, Shailesh, and Gena addressed him by a slur used for “lower” caste communities, which were for a long time considered “untouchable.”

He said in the complaint that the upper caste men told the villagers not to go pick up grain from the homes of lower-caste people. He said they say, “Saalo Thakor na gaam ma Dhedh ketlaak varsho thi badhane nachaave che (A lower caste person is making everyone dance to his tunes for many years in a Thakor-majority village)” and “Saala Dhedha tane to amo licence radd karavi ne rahishu, karan ke tu khubaj maatha bhaare thai gayo che (We will ensure that your licence gets cancelled, as you have become a headache for us).”

Mukesh says they have no problem if the villagers go to another village on their own to pick up stock, but they do have a problem with the Thakors systemically turning the villagers against them and facilitating alternative modes of stock distribution. “They want to snatch away our licence,” he says.

Different versions of the truth

After receiving multiple complaints from Thakors in the district collector’s office and taluka office since 2021 alleging irregular supply of ration, the executive magistrate of Saraswati tehsil ordered a detailed inquiry under the Gujarat Essential Commodities Order, 2004.

After the probe, the district collectorate slapped a penalty of ₹51,397 on July 7 on Kanti. The collectorate said there was a mismatch in the online quantity of grain stock sold and the physical stock at Kanti’s shop. “When the physical stock was compared with the online stock, an excess of 728.5 kilos of wheat, 254 kilos of rice, 71 kilos of salt, 95.75 kilos of sugar, two pouches of cottonseed oil, two kilos of bajra, and 8 kilos of pulses were found in the shop,” noted D.S. Ninama, district supplies officer, Patan, in his penalty notice.

But Kanti’s case is not a lone one. In 2021, 291 ration shops were fined up to ₹60 lakh for misconduct, show the audits accessed by The Hindu from the district collector’s office. In 2022, 252 ration shops were fined ₹9.17 lakh.

“I have acted in the capacity of head of supply of the district,” says Vijayan. “Post-COVID, there were a series of allegations in writing against the ration shop owner that he was not meting out adequate supply to the beneficiaries and that certain stock irregularities were also found. Pursuant to these allegations, we launched an investigation and found a mismatch in stock. It is unfortunate that an administrative order has been twisted, and a caste angle has been attached to it.”

Mukesh says he spent ₹8-9 lakh after his father’s hospitalisation, and was unable to cough up the penalty levied by the district collector’s office.

Mukesh says he spent ₹8-9 lakh after his father’s hospitalisation, and was unable to cough up the penalty levied by the district collector’s office.
| Photo Credit:
Vijay Soneji

Mukesh says he spent ₹8-9 lakh after his father’s hospitalisation, and was unable to cough up the penalty levied by the collector’s office.

Refuting the inquiry by the collectorate of the grain mismatch, Mukesh claims that villagers would give their biometrics, go out to work in the field, and then return later to collect their ration. Sometimes, they would delay stock collection, he says. The collector’s office says that the onus of timely disbursement of grain lies on the ration shop owner.

Mukesh also alleges that the villagers gave their representations and signatures under duress and that one of the signatories, Mogha Thakor, was long dead. “Mogha died on December 25, 2017, at Dharpur Hospital. I have submitted his death certificate to the collector’s office,” says Mukesh. “So how did they get his thumb print?”

Jakta alleges that Kanti has been slapping cases of atrocities against him and others for money. Under the SC and ST Act, each time a complainant files an FIR or a charge sheet is filed and the accused convicted, the complainant gets compensated. The sum ranges from ₹1 lakh to ₹8 lakh based on the severity of the offence.

The village sarpanch of Kanosan, Raghu Thakor, is Jakta’s grandson. Raghu, who is in his 20s, refuses to comment on the issue. His grandfather runs all operations in the village, he says.

Villagers say Kanti would often delay giving them the grain stock that they were entitled to get, and that they had to pay multiple visits to him to receive their ration. “We were dissatisfied with the experience at Kanti’s ration shop. However, we also fear that he will slap false cases of atrocities on us as he has done with a few members of our community. We constantly live under this fear. Therefore, we go to pick up stock from the neighbouring village. We want to steer clear of any controversy and do not want to be caught in ugly long-standing fight,” says a Thakor who did not wish to be named.

While the majority of the households belong to Thakors, the rest belong to Dalits and Other Backward Classes. “I support Kanti vira (brother) in his fight, but I’m scared of what will happen if my name comes out in the public domain. So, I choose to stay silent,” says a villager of the Valmiki community, another SC.

Meanwhile, Kanti has been issued a show cause notice for a hearing at the district collector’s office on October 9. He has been asked to explain why his licence should not be cancelled given that nearly 258 ration card holders have alleged they do not get adequate ration in a timely manner from his shop.

“The collector’s order is very harsh. We are contemplating moving the High Court against it,” says Mukesh.

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