- Despite having one of the largest food security programs in the World, the Global Hunger Index 2020, ranks India 94th out of 107 countries behind several neighbors including Nepal, Bangladesh, and Pakistan.
- Food Security plays a crucial role for India to achieve the Sustainable Development Goal 2 of Zero Hunger which aims for a future where every individual has adequate nutrition.
- While India produces enough food to feed its population, the country is home to 25 percent of the world’s hungry population. A holistic approach to food security requires ensuring available, accessible, and nutritious food to eradicate hunger and malnutrition in India.
- In this context, we will try to delve into India’s Public Distribution System, a promising way to provide Food Security to the Nation.
Current Nutritional Status of India
- According to the National Family Health Survey, Fourth Edition:
- Infant mortality rate (IMR) - 41
- Stunting (height-for-age) - 38.4%
- Wasting (weight-for-height) - 21%
- Women Anemic - 53%
- The most important takeaway from the National Family Health Survey - 5 is that between 2015 and 2019, several Indian states have suffered a reversal on several child malnutrition parameters.
- The impact of COVID-19 on Nutritional well-being has not been studied yet, but it is predicted that the situation would have turned from bad to worse.
What is PDS and how it works?
- The Public Distribution System (PDS) in India is an important food security system that supplies basic food and non-food commodities to the needy section of the society at affordable prices.
- The PDS system works under the Department of Food and Public Distribution, Ministry of Consumer Affairs.
- The Public Distribution System is currently regulated under the provisions of the National Food Security Act (NFSA), 2013.
- The journey of foodgrain through PDS:
- Procurement of Foodgrain: The Central Government through the Food Corporation of India, procures food grains at Minimum Support Price.
- Storage of Foodgrains: Apart from TPDS, the Central Government also makes a buffer stock. This stock is maintained by the Food Corporation of India (FCI).
- Allocation of Foodgrains to States: These food grains are then distributed to States. The allocation to States is done based on the population of people identified as eligible to receive subsidized food by the State.
- Distribution of Foodgrains by States: States take responsibility for distributing the Foodgrains to the needy through Fair Price Shops.
- According to the provisions of the NFSA Act, 2013
- The Central Government will provide Wheat, Rice, and Coarse Grains (eg. millets) to the State and Center Issue Price.
- For all eligible people, 5kg of grains per person per month are provided at prices prescribed in the Act
- For people eligible under Antodaya Anna Yojana, 35 kg grains per household per month will be provided.
- Each State will identify the beneficiaries based on State-wise poverty lines.
- States can also further subsidize the food grains and also provide additional food grains like pulses, edible oil, etc. through PDS.
Evolution of Public Distribution System
- The evolution of PDS can be traced back to the ‘rationing’ system, introduced by the British Government during World War II.
- The ‘Rationing’ System was retained as a social policy in independent India, and with the advent of PL 480 Wheat, the quantity of food getting distributed through PDS increased. Thus, PDS changed from the typical rationing system to a social safety system, making available foodgrains at a 'fair price'.
- The creation of the Food Corporation of India (FCI) and the Agriculture Commission of India to boost domestic procurement and storage in 1965, further strengthened the position of PDS and extended its reach.
- As National agriculture production grew due to the Green Revolution, PDS became a universal scheme for the distribution of subsidized food.
- In 1992, The Revamped Public Distribution System (RPDS) was launched to strengthen and streamline the PDS as well as to improve its reach in the far-flung, hilly, remote, and inaccessible areas where a substantial section of the poor life.
- In 1997, the Government introduced Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS) with a focus on the poor.
- Under TPDS, the identification of the poor was done by the State, according to the State-wise poverty line, calculated as per Lakdawala Committee Report.
- Antodaya Anna Yojana (AAY) was a step in the direction of making TPDS aim at reducing hunger among the poorest segments of the BPL population.
- In September 2013, the Parliament enacted a National Food Security Act, 2013. The Act gives legal entitlement to 67% of the population (75% in rural areas and 50% in urban areas) to receive highly subsidized foodgrains, mainly using TPDS. This marks a shift by making the right to food a justiciable right.
Impact of PDS on Food Security of India
- The greatest achievement of PDS lies in preventing any major famines situation in India, which was prevalent till the 1970s.
- It helps in providing poor food at reasonable prices, thus improving their food intake.
- Poor people can save money that would have been spent in buying grains at market prices, thus diversifying their expenses to education, nutritional food, health, etc.
- The buffer stock maintained by FCI helps in ensuring food safety in times of low agricultural production. Its importance has also been realized in the COVID-19 pandemic, where the Government was able to provide free food grains to the needy for nearly six months.
- It has helped in the redistribution of grains by supplying food from surplus regions of the country to deficient regions.
- Thus, it helps in ensuring the food and nutritional security of the nation.
Issues with the Public Distribution System
Though TPDS is crucial for ensuring the health and well-being of all in the Nation, it is surrounded by various issues at the implementation level.
- Identification of Beneficiaries
- Studies have shown that targeting mechanisms such as TPDS are prone to large inclusion and exclusion errors
- This implies that entitled beneficiaries are not getting food grains while those that are ineligible are getting undue benefits.
- An expert group was set up in 2009 to advise the Ministry of Rural Development on the methodology for conducting the BPL census. It was estimated that about 61% of the eligible population was excluded from the BPL list while 25% of non-poor households were included in the BPL list.
- Issue of Storage of foodgrains with FCI
- While there has been a sharp hike in procurement, FCI’s storage capacity has not increased commensurately to the growth in procurement.
- In its report, the CAG found that from 2008-09 onwards, due to the increase in procurement of food grains, there was a severe strain on storage capacity available in the country for the central pool stock.
- With this, the incidents of rotting food grains in FCI godowns becomes a cause of concern.
- Leakage of Food Grains
- Leakage of food grains is found at two stages of the system -
- at transportation stage and
- at the distribution stage where Fair Price shop owners contribute to leakages.
- The Commission for Agriculture Cost and Prices, in its study of data of 2004-05 and 2009-10, found that almost 40% of foodgrains had leaked from the TPDS network.
- Diversity of food production and consumption:
- The provision of minimum support price (MSP) has encouraged farmers to divert land from the production of coarse grains (like ragi, bajra) that are consumed by the poor, to rice and wheat and thus, discourages crop diversification.
- PDS is biased in favor of staples (rice and wheat) against arguably more nutritious foods such as coarse grains, pulses, and fruits and vegetables.
- Calories adequacy cannot address a household’s nutritional security without including protein-rich food in the food consumption basket.
- Issues with digitization
- Though Aadhar enabled Ration cards have eliminated ghost ration cardholders.
- It has become detrimental for old aged-people, laborers, etc whose biometrics do not remain the same due to age or their profession, making them ineligible for subsidized food grain.
- Due to the irregular supply of electricity and internet connection in remote and rural areas of the country, getting foodgrain has become difficult, as the PDS system is getting automated.
- Issue of Procurement
- Open-ended procurement - i.e. acceptance of all incoming grains even if the buffer stock is full, leads to disruption in the open market.
- This has made the government a de-facto monopolist in foodgrain procurement, discouraging private sector participation in investing in areas like storage and logistics.
The above issues in PDS, eventually affect the health and well-being of the most vulnerable section of Indian society.
Steps taken by Central Government to improve PDS
Any issue in the implementation of Public Distribution affects the poorest and most vulnerable section of Indian society. Thus, the Government has proactively taken steps to counter any bottlenecks that do not allow a smooth implementation of PDS.
- One Nation One Ration Card (ONORC)
- In the present system, a ration cardholder can buy food grains only from an FPS that has been assigned to her in the locality in which she lives.
- Under the ONORC system, the beneficiary will be able to buy subsidized foodgrains from any FPS across the country.
- This ensures that a person can get their share of food grains under NFSA from anywhere in the country, thus benefiting especially the migrant workers.
- To tackle the problem of micronutrient deficiencies, the central government has proposed the promotion of millets under PDS. Niti Aayog has formed a committee to recommend strategies in this regard.
- The NFSA pushes for various reforms in PDS. Based on these guidelines many States have implemented one or the other reforms for better functioning of the PDS system. These include:
- Doorstep delivery of food grains - It decreases middle agencies between Government agencies and beneficiaries. This thus increases accountability and reduces chances of leakage.
- Application of ICT tools including end-to-end computerization to ensure transparency in records. Some initiatives under this include:
- Digitization of Ration Cards
- Computerized allocation to FPS - It allows quick and efficient tracking of transactions.
- Use of Global Positioning System (GPS) technology - It allows to track the movement of the trucks that carry food grains from storage depots to FPS.
- Use of web-based citizen’s portal for grievance redressal.
- Leveraging aadhar for unique identification
- According to a study by the Unique Identification Authority of India, using Aadhaar with TPDS would help eliminate duplicate and ghost (fake) beneficiaries, and make identification of beneficiaries more accurate.
PDS - Success stories of different Models
Various State Governments have taken many steps to strengthen the PDS system and have emerged as a role model in ensuring ‘food for all’.
In this section, we will understand the good practices adopted by these states, which can help revamp PDS throughout the nation.
- Case of Chhattisgarh - Pioneer of Reforms in PDS
- The State took initiatives of both technical and non-technical nature, to increase transparency in the PDS system.
- Initiatives based on ICT
- Automated allotment to FPS based on an online database of beneficiaries, which have been mapped to a particular FPS. This prevents excess allotment to an FPS.
- A web-based software takes care of all operations done at the Distribution Centre to receive PDS commodities from different sources and issues to FPS.
- Truck Dispatch Information through SMS to registered users, allows citizens to participate in the monitoring of grains.
- Transparency by hosting the majority of the reports generated by the system on the web in the public domain
- Call Centre and Complaint Monitoring System
- Non-ICT based initiatives
- De-privatization of FPS and encouraging cooperative societies, elected bodies, and Self Help Groups, etc. which proved to be more accountable than private parties
- Rice Festival Day - People are encouraged to take their food supplies on this day in a group in front of a nodal officer. This ensures that strong enough to fight for their rights in case of any discrepancy
- Strengthening of PDS infrastructure.
- Colouring of the trucks carrying PDS commodities in yellow so transparency is increased.
- Doorstep Delivery
- Case of Tamil Nadu - Universal Public Distribution System
- When PDS was first introduced, it was a universal entitlement scheme.
- In 1997, it was changed into the Targeted PDS.
- Unlike most states in the country, Tamil Nadu retained the Universal PDS, providing subsidized food grains to the entire population.
- Non-classification of beneficiaries - This helps the state avoid errors of exclusion of eligible and vulnerable families. However, TN identifies AAY beneficiaries.
- No private trader is engaged in the PDS activity. FPS are mainly run by the cooperative societies and the Tamil Nadu Civil Supplies Corporation, the FCI counterpart in the state.
- The success of Tamil Nadu relies heavily on groundwork and implementation of various
- technological interventions like GPS tracking of trucks etc,
- drawing up innovative fool-proof delivery mechanisms,
- old-fashioned policing,
- surprise checks and constant reviews, and
- fixing responsibility at each level.
Alternatives to PDS - Direct Cash Transfer
- Owing to various shortcomings in PDS, Direct Cash Transfers have been mooted as an alternative.
- Direct Cash Transfers:
- The National Food Security Act, 2013 includes cash transfers as possible alternative mechanisms to the PDS.
- In this regard let us examine the positives and negatives of Direct cash transfer vis-a-vis PDS:
Public Distribution System
- Insulates beneficiaries from inflation and price volatility
- Ensures entitlement is used for food grains only
- A well-developed network of FPS ensures access to food grains even in remote areas
- Cash in the hands of the poor increases their choices
- Cash may relieve financial constraints faced by the poor, make it possible to form thrift societies and access credit
- Administrative costs of cash transfer programs may be significantly lesser than that of other schemes
- Potential for making an electronic transfer.
- Low offtake of food grains from each household
- High leakage and diversion of subsidized food grain
- Adulteration of food grain
- Lack of viability of FPS due to low margins
- Cash can be used to buy non-food items
- May expose recipients to price volatility and inflation
- There is poor access to banks and post offices in some areas.
- PDS has a huge potential to ensure good health for the citizens of India. Various measures can be taken to ensure that it becomes a base for Nutritional security in India. Some of these measures include:
- Incorporation of more items in the ambit of Public Distribution System, like pulses, edible oil to provide nutritious food.
- Providing fortified foodgrains to ensure nutritional security to masses.
- Investing in storage infrastructure to reduce food wastage.
- Ensuring any policy of digitalization is citizen-centric.
- According to the study — “Achieving Nutritional Security in India: Vision 2030” by NABARD:
- agricultural programs and policies should focus on improving diet diversity and access to micro-nutrient rich diets to improve nutritional outcomes
The PDS is a cornerstone of government policy responding to nutrition and food security. However, it is riddled with inefficiencies that decrease its capacity to effectively distribute food to those in need. But the implementation of the NFSA in 2013, has strengthened the PDS by providing statutory backing. The PDS may not be able to eliminate the issue of malnutrition and childhood morbidity or mortality in India, but it can reduce the levels of hunger in India if implemented effectively. Integrating the PDS with other interventions including those that will increase transparency and accountability may increase its potential to realize every citizen’s right to nutritious food while propagating good health.