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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 10 New Delhi February 23, 2019

What ails the Public Distribution System?

Sunday 24 February 2019

by Santosh Kumar Biswal

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) witnessed its catastrophic failure in three Hindi heartland States—Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan—in the recent State Legislative Assembly polls, when these are compared to the 2013 elections. Its strongholds of MP and Rajasthan saw its declining mode in these regions. Moreover, the BJP was badly routed in the recent polls in Chhattisgarh. Could the failure of the Public Distribution System (PDS) be responsible for triggering the accumulated anger among the public? Could the incessant flaws and nepotism with the PDS be the attributing factors behind the poll debacle of the party?

Eyeing the upcoming polls and to tame the voters, a few months back Union Food Minister Ram Vilas Paswan promised that the prices of grains supplied through the PDS would not be increased till June 2019. However, in the entire nation, the scheme, mired in various short-comings, has disappointed a staggering 80.72 crore population comprising two broad categorisations of beneficiaries including those below the poverty line (BPL) and those above the poverty line (APL). Probably, Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas (Collective Efforts, Inclusive Growth) is not going well with the BJP.

Needless to say, it is not just the poll results that have indicated the flaws in the PDS. In fact, the issue was signalled much before. There was an alleged starvation death of 58-year-old Savitri Devi in Giridih district of Jharkhand in the middle of 2018. She was denied food and starved to death as her family could not procure a ration card, which could provide access to subsidised ration through the government’s PDS scheme. Now, the poll results have been affected by the issues involved with this scheme in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan. These are not isolated incidents and hence demand concrete deliberations. This leads us to introspect the modus operandi of the scheme over the years.

The objective of food security through the PDS was undermined in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan. There is no space for the popular saying laagat ghate, upaj badhe aur upaj ka sahi daam mile (Costs should reduce, outputs should increase, and production should get the right selling price). The mechanism of supplying of foodgrains to the poor at a subsidised price, has become flimsy and dysfunctional. The inferior quality of foodgrains, poor supervision of the Fair Price Shops (FPS) and lack of accountability have galvanised the levels of corruption and the very essence of this scheme has been diluted. As a result, the poor man has vented his ire by voting out the BJP from power. The glaring disparity between the mission and implementation of this scheme went haywire.

Chhattisgarh was the first State in the entire nation to adopt information technology at a greater pace in the Fair Price Shops to bring transparency and ensure accountability in the system. The Economic Survey Report 2016-17 found that the development of the PDS in Chhattisgarh was an ‘important exception’. However, it has been alleged that there was a corruption of Rs 36,000 crores in the scheme. The State was under pressure to follow the diktats of the Central Government and resorted to the Aadhaar-based technology despite the inappropriateness of the technology and shoddy acceptance by the public. The Congress Party also alleged that Chief Minister Raman Singh’s son, Abhishek Singh, was named in the Panama Papers. There is no doubt that the Raman Singh Government had doled out plenty of sops and schemes to the poorest of the poor in the poll-bound State.

Rajasthan is among the worst cases of destabilisation of the PDS. The biometric authentication has caused chaos, evident even in the government’s own transactions data. The State was compelled to impose Aadhaar-based biometric authentication or move towards direct benefit transfer (DBT). Adding to the woes, the Sahariya tribe people, who have been issued new ration cards in a number of villages in Rajasthan’s Baran, were denied the subsidised foodgrains. This marginalised Scheduled Tribe was annoyed with the Vasundhara Raje Government. This apart, infighting and incumbency are other lethal issues that the State has been grappling with.

The party was in power for three times in a row in Madhya Pradesh and the Shivraj Singh Chouhan Government had worked reasonably well for BPL households. However, high leakages still continue in the APL quota, which tends to be used by the Central Government. Last year, former Madhya Pradesh Agriculture Minister Gauri Shankar Bisen had reportedly revealed in a government meeting that 90 per cent of the wheat procured for distribution in his State through the PDS system was illegally diverted. With a view to plug leakages in food supplies, the government revamped the system by linking the PDS to the Unique Identification Authority of India (UID), but in vain.

The scheme of the PDS is traced back to the year 1944. Launched during the Second World War, staple foodgrains, such as wheat, rice, sugar and kerosene were distributed. Set up in 1965, the Food Corporation of India (FCI), a government-owned corporation, procures and maintains the scheme. There is a shared responsibility of the Central and State governments to make the scheme a success. The Centre is involved in procurement, storage, transportation, and allocation of foodgrains, while State governments take the accountability for distributing the same to the consumers via a network of Fair Price Shops.

The National Food Security Act came into force in 2013. Computerisation of the Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS), intra-State portability of ration cards, launch of ePoS transactions portal and improving foodgrain management have been a staggering success. The PDS, however, has been marred by several factors.

Dr Amartya Sen in his seminal research has revealed that India had transformed from a food-deficit nation to a food-surplus one. Hunger and food security are tied to the issue of access. People are dying of starvation despite ample quantities of grain and plenty of government efforts like the PDS. People are unable physically or financially or both to reach the food packages under the PDS.

It is quite relevant to mention the World Food Summit held in Rome in 1996 wherein it was stated: ”Food security, at the individual, household, national, regional and global levels [is achieved] when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” However, this is yet to be fully realised in India.

In a study conducted in 2011-12, the New Delhi-based Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER) claims that the offtake of more than 50 per cent grain did not reflect in the consumption figures in 15 States including Punjab (60.7 per cent), Haryana (70 per cent) and Delhi (82 per cent). The surfacing of ‘ghost beneficiaries’ and misuse or duplication of ration cards with high subsidies turned the PDS into a money-spinning business for many.

Another study claims that the PDS suffers from nearly 61 per cent error of exclusion and 25 per cent inclusion of beneficiaries. Seasonal migrant workers face double woes as they are not able to acquire ration cards. Jharkhand is among the worst cases of destabilisation of the scheme. Certain States like Punjab are also not free from corruption. Despite all sorts of measures to curb the fake beneficiaries in the States, diversion of foodgrains from the scheme in the State is on the rise. In its sting operation, ‘Operation Black’ in 2013, the AajTak news channel looked into how the distribution reaches the mills instead of the fair price shops.

This should be cause for a clarion call that the PDS undergoes a complete overhaul, in which the government machinery must provide the policy and institutional framework for procurement. There should be strong political determination and citizens’ cooperation to make this scheme a success. We do not want any more Savitri Devis to lose their lives!

Santosh Kumar Biswal is an Assistant Professor with Symbiosis Institute of Media and Communication, Symbiosis International (Deemed University), Pune.

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