Migrants’ woes are often invoked in making a case for portability of benefits in the public distribution system (PDS). Most recently, an article (‘A hundred small steps’, IE, September 26) did just that. However, in many cases of short-term seasonal migration (a dominant form in India), only one or two of the household members migrate, leaving the ration card behind for the rest of the family to use. What proportion of migrants would prefer to draw their ration at the place of work rather than in their village is a key piece of the puzzle in understanding the extent to which portability of PDS benefits is valued by migrants.
If the food security of migrants is the motivating concern, this need is probably better met by other initiatives such as Tamil Nadu’s Amma canteens or Karnataka’s Indira canteens, which provide heavily subsidised meals. Such community kitchens have quietly become popular across the country — Jharkhand’s dal-bhaat kendras, Delhi’s Jan Aahaar kiosks, and others in Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Chhattisgarh are such initiatives. Of course, protecting migrants from exploitation through stricter enforcement of their rights as labourers will go much further.
Currently, PDS entitlements are tied to the recipient’s place of residence. You can only draw PDS rations from the PDS outlet to which you are allocated. Thus, while a single-member household may be forced to forego her rations if she migrates, others would be able to claim benefits through those family members who stay back. A portable PDS would be a great facility for those who would like to draw their rations at the place of migration.
The promoters of portability make it seem as if it cannot be achieved without integrating Aadhaar with PDS. In 2012, the food department in Chhattisgarh took up the challenge of designing a portable PDS and launched “CORE PDS”. Step one was to rejig the supply logistics. The norm today is for each PDS outlet to receive food supplies once a month according to the (fixed) number of ration cards attached to it. In a portable system, where the number of people who draw their grain at a PDS outlet fluctuates from month to month, the government needs to put in place a flexible supply system. The fix was simple: Chhattisgarh allowed more than one delivery of grain in a month. Since end-to-end computerisation had been achieved, stocks could be monitored. An automated system sent a message to the ration dealer as soon as the digitised records showed that his stocks had fallen below a certain level, asking the dealer if he would like another delivery.
Step two was to give the ration card holders a smart card (like ATM cards) that could be used to draw rations at any CORE PDS outlet using a “point of sale” (POS) machine. Once the POS machine authenticates the smart card, sale can proceed. Offline sales were possible if server or connectivity issues arose. One-fifth of the transactions used the portability option, mostly within the ward. Convenience was the prime reason for switching shops — distance to the PDS, tenants who had moved residence, supplies running out. To cut a long story short, portability was achieved without Aadhaar.
CORE PDS was being gradually scaled up until Aadhaar came along and disrupted the process, even though smart cards are more reliable than fingerprint authentication. Chhattisgarh’s CORE-PDS was more promising than the Aadhaar-Based Biometric Authentication (ABBA) that has left behind a trail of hardship, exclusion, even deaths since its integration with the PDS.
In ‘A hundred small steps’, the authors carefully sidestep the fact that Santoshi’s death in Jharkhand was primarily the result of disruption that resulted from Aadhaar’s integration with the PDS, as well as the fact that smart cards (tested in Tamil Nadu and Puducherry among other places) provide a better technology solution for the last mile authentication than Aadhaar. Readers must ask why that is the case.
One of the authors of the article worked with a minister in the UPA-2 government in the rural development ministry that pushed against repeated warnings — warnings that were later vindicated — the use of Aadhaar in NREGA and social security pensions. Before that, he had worked with the World Bank and Monitor Deloitte. After that, he joined Dalberg and is now with Omidyar Network. Omidyar Network’s interest in the PDS and Aadhaar — it has funded research worth lakhs of rupees — should also arouse people’s curiosity.
Independent research has raised troubling questions. The sugar and tobacco industry have gained notoriety for having done this in the past: Funding friendly research that cultivated doubts in people’s minds about independent research that highlighted the harmful health effects of sugar and tobacco.
This article first appeared in the print edition on November 28, 2019 under the title ‘Smarter than Aadhaar’. The writer is associate professor (economics and public systems group), Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad.
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