Food Security and COVID-19: Why India’s Public Distribution System Requires an Overhaul

In light of the ongoing pandemic and India's crumbling economy, what are the factors that we should pay heed to if we're to mitigate the food insecurity that India's migrant population faces?

As the COVID-19 pandemic rages through the globe, the migrant crisis that has unfolded in the country remains unprecedented. Notwithstanding what this has meant for India’s policy with regards to disaster and health management, the migrant crisis has shed light on India's glaringly deficient welfare delivery system. 

As the lockdown in India set in, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced free foodgrains and cash payments to women, poor senior citizens, and farmers as part of the 1.70 lakh crore Pradhan Mantri Gareeb Kalyan Yojana on 26 March 2020. Moreover, it was reported that as of 5 May 2020, 2.42 lakh metric tonnes of pulses had been dispatched to various states/union territories and that there had been further distributed to 5.21 crore household beneficiaries. As part of the relief package, the government had also announced two months’ worth of free foodgrain supply for migrants who were not covered under the National Food Security Act or who did not hold a ration card. 

Despite the long slew of headline-grabbing relief packages, however, the increased ration provisioning and other entitlements, as promised by the government, are yet to reach the beneficiaries. Additionally, at a time like this when states are under curfew and food insecurity is the order of the day, returning migrants are struggling just to get ration cards. 

This is largely owed to the fact that, among other problems, the public distribution system (PDS) has been unable to account for a mobile migrant population, it continues to base its grain allocation on an outdated population estimate, and it has remained ignorant of ground realities when it comes to the issuance of ration cards and Aadhaar cards. These loopholes have rendered an already vulnerable section of the society even more susceptible to the dangers that accompany a pandemic and a severely affected economy. 

We explore the EPW archives to get a better understanding of that which plagues India’s current welfare delivery system. 

Insensitivity to the Local Contexts of Different States

Investigating into the efficacy of the PDS in Bihar and Jharkhand, Jos Moij observes that the PDS functions differently in different states, depending upon the specific political-economic contexts that exist in each region. For instance, in the case of Bihar, PDS shop owners find it lucrative to have bogus ration cards, which can then be used to divert commodities that are eventually sold in the open market for a higher price. The functioning of the PDS in states also largely depends upon the political mileage that efficient rationing can provide. In Kerala, for example, since glitch-free provisioning of food and other ration is a key political agenda, ration cardholders are able to get their ration relatively without hassles. The case, however, is not the same in Bihar. Thus, Moij asserts that the current PDS policies are insensitive to the varying conditions that exist across the different states of India, and it is this unyielding view of the ration system that inhibits it from being properly executed on the ground. 

The government of India has developed an all-India public distribution system, with all-India guidelines, and it wants these to be implemented in all the states. Individual state governments have made their own adjustments to some extent, and some states have complemented the GoI policies and subsidies with statewise programmes. On the whole, however, policy thinking about the PDS happens in terms of grand schemes and big overall solutions. The specificities of particular localities are not sufficiently taken into account.

Differential Access and Heterogeneous Social Positioning

In their surveys across Odisha, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh (UP), Mamata Pradhan and Devesh Roy find that social markers such as gender, caste and class affect how beneficiaries interact with the PDS in India, as well as how services are rendered to different sections of the society. Despite its on-paper magnanimity, Pradhan and Roy observe that the PDS faces problems of weak institutions, elite capture, rent seeking, and inefficient technologies that hinder access to food. They further observe that the inability to strike at the heart of the limitations of the PDS lies in the traditional viewing of access from a monochromatic rights perspective. This reductionist view strips down the issue of access to its basic tangible requirements—for example, the mere presence of fair price shops (FPS) at the local level—thereby constricting one’s understanding of reality, which is in fact made up of heterogeneous social and cultural contexts that are intangible. The authors thus argue that access to PDS should be defined as a “bundle of powers,” instead of a “bundle of rights.” This would allow access, rights and entitlements to factor in the role the positions of people in the structure and social hierarchy plays in disenfranchising them from gaining complete and full access to the PDS. In particular, the authors find that the murky intersections of class, caste and gender disproportionately affect women, thereby magnifying the unequal power relations in the bargaining processes, particularly of beneficiaries and service providers.

Several examples follow from our field interactions: An SC woman in Bihar claimed that she was denied the ration card due to her allegiance to the Bhumihar household who had contested and had lost the panchayat election in the village. While in another case, a 75-year-old SC woman alleged the local power relations, particularly the political confrontation of her deceased husband with the ruling upper caste mukhiya, as the reason behind her struggle in getting a BPL ration card. Even the ward members and the mukhiya conceded that they had purposefully cut her name from the beneficiary list.

Aadhaar and the Romanticisation of a Leakage-free Computerised PDS

Amit Prakash and Silvia Masiero argue that though end-to-end computerisation of the PDS has been premised on the assumption of the effectiveness, transparency, and accountability that technology can provide to governance, however, its effect in practice has received little academic attention. Based on an ethnographic-led study of the computerised PDS in Karnataka, Prakash and Masiero observe that though the information technology (IT) system design of the PDS was put in place on the assumption that technology would combat leakages on all levels, this has not translated into practice. One of the main drawbacks observed by the authors in a substantial number of ration shops was that machines are prone to tampering. That is, there is a significant amount of discretion that rests on ration dealers who can choose to manipulate the weighing mechanisms, refuse to provide bills to the beneficiaries or mute speakers as they announce the type and weight of the commodities. Another key concern is that of incorrectly performing the biometric recognition as well as the lack of use of software to monitor godown transactions.

... biometric technology could not solve all problems in the PDS, and policy reform could not be conducted by technology alone. This is exactly the scenario that we found in Karnataka. Technology has been constructed to enact existing policy, but the problem may well be with the policy design itself—which IT cannot modify.

This is concurred by Hartej Singh Hundal, Janani A P, and Bidisha Chaudhuri whose investigation into the use of Aadhaar at FPS in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu revealed that instead of “technological fixes,” the welfare delivery system requires a more nuanced approach towards administrative reform. Moreover, their study showed that instead of curbing leakages, end-to-end computerisation and Aadhaar-enabled services in fact open windows for newer leakages by allowing FPS owners to flout rules under the guise of transparency, particularly during disbursement.

... the claims of end-to-end computerisation stand on rather shaky grounds, when it comes to actual practices at the FPS. In fact, they could actually legitimise a false reality as FPS owners can use the electronic records to argue against the allegations of corruption. Furthermore, in the last step before completing the transaction, the FPS owner can type in the quantity of rations being disbursed. The manual nature of transactions leading to diversion of rations justified the need for end-to-end computerisation. Why, then, is this option available at all, and why is it available to FPS owners? Why is there no mechanism to verify what the FPS owner types in?

Elaborating further on the failures of India’s welfare delivery mechanism, Reetika Khera and Anmol Somanchi observe that when it comes to the PDS, Aadhaar remains an important source of exclusion. That is, there could be a cancellation of cards (or names on ration cards) if beneficiaries do not have an Aadhaar number, there could be a failure to link the Aadhaar card and the ration card, or there could be a failure of the Aadhaar-based biometric authentication (ABBA) at the time of purchasing grain. Keeping this in mind, Khera and Somanchi instead suggest doing away with the ABBA system altogether. 

For long we have suggested that instead of using a technologically-demanding and unreliable option such as ABBA for last-mile authentication, the central government should explore more reliable options such as non-biometric smart cards.

Read More:

Questioning the “Phenomenal Success” of Aadhaar-linked Direct Benefit Transfers for LPG | Rahul Lahoti, 2016

What Is the Effective Delivery Mechanism of Food Support in India? A Demand-side Assessment of Alternative Apparatus | Mamata Pradhan, Devesh Roy and Vinay Sonkar, 2019

Coverage and Leakages in PDS in Andhra Pradesh | S Indrakanth, 1997

Assessing Bihar's Coupon-Based PDS: Importance of Local Context | Bill Pritchard and Chetan Choithani, 2015