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Tuesday, March 09, 2021

Making ration shop work for people

Citizen education and confidence building can lead to greater transparency and accountability at fair-price shops.


Updated: January 15, 2021 7:57:21 pm
Digitisation of all transactions at the ration shop has facilitated tracking of individual entitlements accessed by each cardholder. (Representational)

Written By Jyothi Krishnan and Mouleshri Vyas

The pandemic has highlighted the significance of social welfare services and schemes for economically and socially marginalised populations. Across urban and rural areas, those in the informal economy facing loss of livelihoods and incomes, turned to state-run programmes like the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), and the public distribution system (PDS), to tide over the acute crisis they were suddenly confronted with. However, addressing gaps in service delivery and implementation of welfare programmes is crucial to enhance their effectiveness, and ensure that the rights guaranteed to citizens through these measures are secured. In this context, insights from a pilot social audit conducted prior to the pandemic by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in collaboration with the Kerala Social Audit Society for the Department of Civil Supplies shows the way forward.

The National Food Security Act (NFSA) enacted in 2013 establishes the right to food as a legal entitlement. Given the problems with the PDS such as poor quality of foodgrains, pilferage by shop owners, non-disbursal of entitlements to cardholders, and other issues, realising this right demands a sharp shift in our understanding of the functioning of the age-old ration shops, the point of interface between the state and the citizen with regard to foodgrain distribution. This was established through the pilot social audit of the NFSA in Kerala that revealed the glaring lack of understanding of the right to food and the exact volume of monthly entitlement due to each right holder.

The audit focused on enhancing the cardholders’ awareness of individual entitlements under the NFSA through house-to-house visits, public meetings, a two-day public weighing exercise, a grievance redressal drive and a public hearing organised as a part of the audit. Conducted in four fair price shops that service a large number of AAY (Antyodaya Anna Yojana) and priority households residing in the Chengal Choola and Poundkulam low-income residential colonies in Thiruvananthapuram city, the findings of the pilot social audit are expected to provide a framework for upscaling social audit of the NFSA in the state.

The social audit closely followed the introduction of the electronic point of sale (EPOS) system in ration shops across the state. Digitisation of all transactions at the ration shop has facilitated tracking of individual entitlements accessed by each cardholder. The web portal (epos.kerala.gov.in) enables cardholders to verify the monthly quantity of foodgrain written off against their names (citizen awareness of this facility even amongst the urban, e-literate consumers, is very low). It tracks daily shop-wise stock and transaction details thereby showing diversions of grains from ration shops. Further, digitisation provides cardholders the portability option, enabling their access to rations from any ration shop. This was found to be exercised by consumers when they were unhappy with the quality of rations or rude treatment at certain shops.

However, digitised transactions cannot replace painstaking citizen education and citizen monitoring. As the social audit team worked with department officials, they demonstrated this through house-to-house visits, ensuring strict adherence to shop timings, and a two-day public weighing exercise in which cardholders got their full entitlement. “Never before have my bags been so full,” says a surprised and shocked Valsala, an AAY cardholder entitled to 30 kg of rice and 5 kg of wheat a month through the PDS. The two bags that she normally brings to collect her monthly ration were insufficient for the first time, and she had to go back home to bring more. Her joy was mixed with regret, “To think of all the rice that I should have got all these years, such a loss… I never knew I could get so much”. Each cardholder was asked to pay close attention to the weighing process, ensuring that the machine was calibrated, and that the amount displayed on the electronic weighing scale corresponded with the amount printed on the bill. They expressed surprise that the shops were open from 8 am to 8 pm (with the designated four-hour interval from 1 pm to 4 pm).

The billing process plays an important role in ensuring transparency in transactions. When the audit was being conducted, bills (and therefore the web portal) reflected the disbursal of the full entitlement, irrespective of the actual quantity purchased by the cardholder. A much lesser quantity is actually disbursed, reductions being most significant in the case of AAY and PHH cardholders who are entitled to larger entitlements. The “sold” stock remaining with the shopkeeper, can later be sold to others at higher rates. While the bill format has been subsequently modified to facilitate greater transparency, it is only a vigilant cardholder who can see through manipulations. Digital illiteracy presents a formidable challenge, as it is mostly elderly women or men who go to collect rations.

Asking for a bill and verifying the same is an aspect that requires citizen education. While the entire transaction was digitised, the simple practice of giving a bill irrespective of whether the cardholders asked for it or not, was dismissed by shopkeepers. Familiarity or the intimidating behaviour of shop owners, who are local power centres, led to hesitation on behalf of cardholders to ask for the bill. “I know that he does not give me the full amount, but my father knew him and used to buy rations from his shop. How can I now ask him for a bill?” asks 45-year-old Radha. Questioning the shop owner, asking for a bill and pointing out discrepancies in the bill implies reconfiguration of the relationship between the cardholder and the ration shop owner. Also significant is the fact that those who enjoy cordial relations with the shopkeeper are informed about the arrival of good quality grain, while others report getting poorer quality grains.

It is critical that the ration shop be viewed as a site of public service delivery. The understanding of the “public” and the aim of subsidised foodgrain distribution in the PDS needs to be enhanced for all concerned — citizens, department officials, elected representatives, ration shop dealers and middlemen involved in the process. The monthly commission earned by ration shop dealers of not less than Rs 16,000 in Kerala, explained by cardholders saying that “they too need to make profits and take care of their families”, indicates how deeply entrenched the corruption is.

As this pilot indicates, citizen education and confidence building as outcomes of social audit, can lead to effective implementation of programmes and schemes. They must be supported by placing reports of periodic inspections of ration shops and action taken by the department in the public domain, ensuring timely action through grievance redressal mechanisms, putting in place impartial and independent committees for effective monitoring, and facilitating periodic social audits of the scheme as critical systemic practices. In the case of NFSA, this is an opportune moment for the state to set the right precedent.

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