Updated: September 16, 2016 11:39:04 am
Recent media reports suggest that the public distribution system (PDS) in West Bengal is now “doing enormously well” — as one headline put it. Some also claim that this has contributed to the victory of the Trinamool Congress in the latest assembly elections. Since we were involved in the survey cited in these reports, we must clarify.
The survey took place in June 2016 in six of India’s poorest states: Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha and West Bengal. The findings for West Bengal are tentative for two reasons. First, the survey took place just after the assembly elections, and it is possible that the PDS was at its best around that time. Second, this was a relatively small survey, involving house-to-house enquiries in six villages of two districts (Birbhum and Bankura). That applies to other states too, but for West Bengal alone, we lack other studies to corroborate the findings.
Having said this, the survey findings do suggest that the PDS in West Bengal has greatly improved in the recent past. West Bengal used to have an atrocious PDS. The list of cardholders, or people in the “BPL” (below poverty line) list, was arbitrary and unreliable. Entitlements were extremely convoluted and confusing. Transparency was lacking at all levels. PDS dealers were wholly unaccountable — some of them did not even maintain registers. In collusion with their political patrons, they took advantage of the confusion to loot the PDS: Estimated “leakages”, calculated by comparing National Sample Survey data on PDS purchases with official data on PDS offtake, were as high as 81 per cent in 2004-2005. The corresponding figure in 2011-2012 was 65 per cent, indicating some improvement — but not much.
Against this background, the survey findings are encouraging. In the sample villages, 85 per cent of households had a new ration card under the National Food Security Act (NFSA). There were some exclusion errors, but not many compared with the pre-NFSA situation: Two years ago, barely half of the sample households had a ration card, and poor households were often left out. The new list of PDS cardholders is derived in a methodical manner from the socio-economic and caste census of 2011, using transparent criteria. It is available on the internet. All this is a major improvement over the infamous BPL list.
Another improvement is a drastic simplification in the entitlement system. When people are not clear about their entitlements, it is easy to cheat them. We had a taste of that situation when we spent a day in the Jangalmahal area, where the NFSA is yet to be implemented. People there had no idea about their entitlements, and accepted whatever the dealer gave them. In the NFSA areas, by contrast, most people knew their monthly entitlements: 35 kg per household for antyodaya households and five kg per person for priority households (at Rs two per kg in both cases), the principal categories.
Greater transparency, simpler entitlements and other PDS reforms seem to have led to a sharp decline in leakages. The sample households (there were 500 or so) had received 95 per cent of their PDS entitlements during the month preceding the survey. When we asked them how much they receive in an ordinary month, the average was also around 95 per cent. If this is representative, it suggests real progress in removing corruption from the PDS in West Bengal. Of course, even five per cent leakages is unacceptable, but it is much better than the 65 per cent estimate for 2011-2.
None of this means that all is well with the PDS in West Bengal. The list of eligible households is not free of exclusion errors. Also, there is a big problem of “missing names” in the NFSA list: Among households with ration cards, we found that 13 per cent of all family members were left out of the list. This matters, since PDS entitlements are proportional to family size.
Another issue is the poor quality of PDS rations in West Bengal: Only 57 per cent of the respondents felt that the quality was “good” or “fair”, the lowest proportion among six sample states. The main reason is the poor quality of flour packets. Some respondents said that they fed the flour to cattle. Perhaps flour should be replaced with wheat or rice. If flour distribution continues, quality must improve.
The biggest challenge, however, is to ensure that recent PDS improvements in West Bengal are sustained and consolidated. The main obstacle is the lack of accountability of private dealers, who have been plundering the PDS for decades without fear. Apparently, PDS licences in West Bengal are even considered hereditary. As one dealer casually told us: “Of course, I cheat — so did my father, and hopefully my son will do the same”.
PDS dealers get away with this not only due to their class and caste privileges, but also because of their cosy relation with political parties: They share the loot with local party leaders in exchange for protection. Somehow, PDS dealers in West Bengal were disciplined in the run-up to the recent assembly elections, but there is no guarantee that the situation will last. Indeed, we found little sign of improvement in the accountability of PDS dealers — none of them had as much as an information board.
The best solution is to get rid of private dealers. This was the first step taken in Chhattisgarh when PDS reforms were initiated. Private dealers were replaced with collective institutions such as cooperatives, gram panchayats and self-help groups. These institutions are not corruption-free, but they are relatively hard to manipulate. Private dealers are a law unto themselves.
Interestingly, one of our sample villages was free of the tyranny of private dealers: Kiasol in Bankura district, where the PDS was managed by a cooperative. The PDS worked better there than in other sample villages. Most people were getting their full entitlements every week, and expressed satisfaction with the PDS. The PDS shop even had an information board. This may be a coincidence, but there is plenty of evidence from other states that the old system of private dealers is crying to be phased out.
Perhaps the most significant development in West Bengal is that food security has become a lively political issue. As elections approached, the state government threw its weight behind the NFSA and initiated bold PDS reforms. Judging from the survey, the results are similar to those achieved in other states (such as Chhattisgarh and Odisha) where political leaders have taken serious interest in food security. However, it remains to be seen whether West Bengal’s renewed interest in food security proves durable or short-lived.
(This article first appeared in the print edition under the headline ‘Food matters in West Bengal’)
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