The usual image of a ration store under the public distribution system is that of a rundown store with a long queue outside and where pilferage is considered routine and normal. That image might change soon.
In Karnataka, the state government has begun an experiment in which ration stores in supermarkets run by major chains will also cater to PDS card holders. Apart from the image makeover, officials said the exercise is an effort to control pilferage.
In the pilot phase, the Karnataka Food and Civil Supplies Corporation (KFCSC) has started selling rations in a Food World supermarket in east Bangalore and is hoping to spread the model across the state after a two-month trial run. Under the trial, the beneficiaries can walk into the regular supermarket and using a biometric ID can ask for rations under the PDS.
At the Cox Town branch of the Food World supermarket, where one of the trials is being conducted, some 600 of the 700 ration card holders in the area have availed the new services for their ration supplies over the past one month. On the basis of the below poverty line and above poverty line ration card allocations, Food World has been authorised to distribute sugar, rice and wheat at subsidised rates.
“Unlike in regular PDS stores, Food World employees are professional, prompt and there was no long line to receive the goods”, said Perumal S, a resident of Cox Town area and PDS card holder, about his experience with the new initiative. Commissioner of Food and Civil Supplies Harsh Gupta said, “For about seven months now we have stopped issuing new licences for PDS partners. We eventually plan to tie up with private institutions, registered societies, cooperatives and associations for the PDS.”
In Karnataka, there are around 1.30 crore PDS card holders and 20,000 PDS outlets. The KFCSC is, however, flooded with complaints of unethical practices by PDS store owners, including harassment, price manipulation, negligence, and misleading information on stock positions. “The whole point of the PDS is the welfare of the poor — even the smallest of malpractice by the PDS store owners results in a dinner-less night in some houses. Such things cannot be tolerated”, Gupta said.
Apart from supermarket chains, the KFCSC is also trying to rope in reputed horticulture distribution stores HOPCOMs, milk dairies and agriculture department stores into the PDS network in the state. “Most of these facilities are strategically positioned close to residential areas therefore causing little inconvenience to the beneficiaries”, Gupta said.
But it is an uphill task convincing the supermarket chains in particular to be a part of the PDS chain since many value their space and branding. “There are major concerns over sparing shop space and staff for the PDS for little returns”, said a food supplies official. The KFCSC is asking the supermarkets and others to join the PDS network as part of their corporate social responsibilities.