Curb your scepticism

From providing minute digital records to seeding out fake claims, the targeted public distribution system is visibly reforming

Written by Bibek Debroy | Updated: June 1, 2017 12:24 am
NFSA, food subsidy For subsidised grain, there are 186.6 million ration cards, 23 million AAY and 163.5 million PHH. If these are digitised and seeded with Aadhaar numbers, duplication is reduced; ghost ration cards are eliminated. (Representational)

There is a tendency to be skeptical about everything government does. Hence, even when something deserves to be applauded, it is discounted and not disseminated. I will focus on the National Food Security Act (NFSA), 2013, and subsequent reforms in the targeted public distribution system (TPDS). Everything stated in this column is public domain information from the website of the Department of Food and Public Distribution. More specifically, there is the National Informatics Centre (NIC)’s PDS portal (the Anna Vitaran Portal).

There is no need to revisit the NFSA’s provisions. That’s a separate debate, let’s take the NFSA as a given. Broadly, with 2011-12 National Sample Survey (NSS) data, two-thirds of the population (75 per cent rural, 50 per cent urban) is entitled to subsidised foodgrain through the Antodaya Anna Yojana (AAY) and Priority Households (PHH) schemes. (There are other provisions on the Integrated Child Development Services, ICDS, Mid Day Meal Scheme, MDMS, and maternity benefits). Though the NFSA came into force on July 5, 2013, because states needed to evolve criteria and identify beneficiaries, its adoption by states was staggered, with Nagaland, Kerala and Tamil Nadu the last to join, in 2016. All states and/or Union Territories (UTs) are now part of the NFSA.

Let me quote Section 12 of the NFSA to highlight the TPDS reforms I have in mind. “(1) The Central and State Governments shall endeavour to progressively undertake necessary reforms in the Targeted Public Distribution System in consonance with the role envisaged for them in this Act. (2) The reforms shall, inter alia, include — (a) doorstep delivery of foodgrains to the Targeted Public Distribution System outlets; (b) application of information and communication technology tools including end-to-end computerisation in order to ensure transparent recording of transactions at all levels, and to prevent diversion; (c) leveraging “Aadhaar” for unique identification, with biometric information of entitled beneficiaries for proper targeting of benefits under this Act; (d) full transparency of records; (e) preference to public institutions or public bodies such as panchayats, self-help groups, co-operatives, in licensing of fair price shops and management of fair price shops by women or their collectives; (f) diversification of commodities distributed under the Public Distribution System over a period of time; (g) support to local public distribution models and grains banks; (h) introducing schemes, such as cash transfer, food coupons, or other schemes, to the targeted beneficiaries in order to ensure their foodgrain entitlements specified in Chapter II, in such area and manner as may be prescribed by the Central Government.”

For subsidised grain, there are 186.6 million ration cards, 23 million AAY and 163.5 million PHH. If these are digitised and seeded with Aadhaar numbers, duplication is reduced; ghost ration cards are eliminated. All 36 states and UTs have digitised ration cards now. (Since some ration card-holders are not entitled to AAY or PHH, the total number of ration cards is 232 million). For some states, there are live links or reports on digitisation. As of March 31, 2017, 77.04 per cent of ration cards (178.2 million) have been seeded with Aadhaar numbers. Between 2013 and 2016, 23.3 million bogus ration cards were identified and removed.

Once records and databases have been fixed, one moves to the online allocation of foodgrains, down to the FPS (fair price shop) level — 30 states/UTs have done this. Some have live links and reports on online allocation. Since Chandigarh and Puducherry (and partly Dadra and Nagar Haveli, in urban areas) opted for direct benefit transfers (DBTs), with an equivalent cash transfer into seeded bank accounts, online allocation is irrelevant for these. Now, 2,33,520 households are covered by such cash transfers, the bulk in Puducherry. The “equivalence” is worked out by multiplying the minimum support price (MSP) by a factor of 1.25 and subtracting the central issue price (CIP).

The next step is the automation of the supply chain management (delivery orders, release orders, truck chalans, gate passes, receipts and issuance of foodgrains, monitoring of stock positions, payments and SMS alerts when opted for). As of now, 20 states and/or UTs have done this, some featuring live links. All have transparency portals and toll-free helplines. Except for Arunachal Pradesh and J&K, all have online grievance registration facilities.

The last step in this end-to-end computerisation of the TPDS is the most difficult — this is the automation of fair price shops, through handheld devices or computers. Let’s call these EPOS (electronic point of sale) devices. One shouldn’t be too sceptical; this process has already started in 22 states/UTs. These 22 have 5,26,000 FPSs and 1,86,726 of these already have such EPOS devices. When the EPOS device is owned by the FPS dealer, there is a provision for purchase and operation costs to be included in dealer margins. Several states/UTs have live links and/or reports on FPS automation. Figures on the PDS portal are a revelation. I am not suggesting everything is perfect; for instance, portability and migrant populations remain an issue. However, since 1991, every once in a while, people spoke about reforming the TPDS — nothing significant happened. Compared to that, what’s occurred since 2013 is remarkable. Visit the portal and see for yourself.

I clicked on Rajasthan — details on the category and number of each type of ration card were available for each of 33 districts. Pick a district and click on “urban”. That will take you to the Nagar Palika, then the ward, the name of the FPS shop, and finally, to details of a household’s ration card (names, ages, address and photograph of the head of the household). If you click on “rural”, you reach the same destination, via block, panchayat and village. All public domain information. I did click on Delhi too, but that site was perpetually down.

The writer is member, Niti Aayog. Views are personal

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