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Last Updated: Monday, 22 October 2007, 14:34 GMT 15:34 UK
India 'ration' shops go on strike
By Subir Bhaumik
BBC News, Calcutta

Ration shop being attacked
Attacks on the shops started in September (Photo: Prasenjit Hom Chowdhury)
Dealers of government-licensed "fair price shops" have begun an indefinite strike in India's West Bengal state in protest against attacks on them.

More than 50 dealers have been attacked by mobs complaining of corrupt practices. One dealer took his life.

Others have been forced to pay up for allegedly selling subsidised grains meant for the poor in the black market.

The outlets, commonly known as ration shops, are licensed by the state to sell subsidised grain to India's poor.

Tens of thousands of ration shop dealers downed their shutters on Monday in protest against the attacks.

"We will continue the strike until we are satisfied our people are safe. We cannot do business in the present kind of atmosphere," said Mukshed Ali, vice-president of the West Bengal Ration Dealers Association.

Nearly 5,000 dealers - out of a total of some 20,370 dealers - have also given their licenses back as part of the protest.

The "rations shops" are the backbone of the public distribution system in Indian states.

Rampant theft

But they have been accused of large scale pilferage of food grains meant for the poor into the black market.

Rice being harvested in paddy fields
The government subsidises the cost of rice and wheat for the poor

West Bengal's has the worst record on the theft of public grain after the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, authorities say.

According to data released by the federal government, wheat and rice meant for rural poor worth more than $800m was stolen in Uttar Pradesh in the last financial year.

West Bengal came next, with stolen rice and wheat worth $467m.

Mob violence first erupted against dealers at Sonamukhi in Bankura district on September 15.

It has now spread to at least six districts and sporadic attacks have been reported from a few more districts.

Federal agriculture minister Sharad Pawar blamed the West Bengal government for alleged failure to check the pilferage of food grains - a large part of which, he alleged, was finding its way across the border into Bangladesh .

The West Bengal government denied the charge and said the present crisis is because the federal government has not been supplying enough.

Analysts say the incidents are a source of major embarrassment for West Bengal's left-wing coalition government which usually prides itself on the issue of food security in rural areas.

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