In the last two years of the NDA government, the focus has been on reforming the public distribution system (PDS) through measures such as digitalisation and Aadhaar-seeding of ration cards and linking of the Food Corporation of India (FCI) godowns through an online platform. These measures have led to weeding out of more than a crore fake ration cards. Union minister of food and public distribution Ram Vilas Paswan spoke to Sandip Das on the wide range of issues concerning his ministry. Edited excerpts:
Q: In the last two years, how much has been the progress in terms of PDS reforms?
When we took over, only 11 states had rolled out the National Food Security Act (NFSA). At that time, the work related to digitisation of ration cards or their seeding with Aadhaar or online allocation of foodgrain to states, computerisation of supply chain management etc, were not initiated. The 11 states, just out of political compulsion, had launched the NFSA to garner votes in the 2014 elections. The Act was rolled out in these 11 states just to show that grains are being distributed at Rs 3 per kg for rice, Rs 2 per kg for wheat and Rs 1 for coarse cereals, and nothing was there in the name of reforming the PDS.
When we took over in 2014, only 2% of the ration cards were seeded with Aadhaar. Today, it has risen to 53.04% as on April 19, 2016. Now, if you go by state-wise progress, states and UTs like Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Telangana and Chandigarh have seeded all their ration cards with Aadhaar. I want to stress that no state has achieved less than 50% Aadhaar seeding of ration cards with the exception of UP and Bihar. In Bihar, Aadhaar seeding is just 0.06% and in Uttar Pradesh, it’s only 37.82%. The worst performer is Bihar, which is also among the poorest state in the country.
Similarly, online foodgrain allocation was on in nine states, today it has risen to 26 states, supply chain was computerised just in four states, but today, almost 15 states have computerised supply chains. Besides, Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT) in PDS was not there, but now it has been started in UTs — Puducherry, Chandigarh and the urban areas of Dadra and Nagar Haveli. The FCI’s depot online was not initiated then, but by July 2016, all the 550 FCI depots would be come under an online platform.
Q: What is the progress in terms of modernising PDS outlets and what is the vision for the next three years?
The electronic point of sale (e-Pos) devices was there in just 5,835 ration shops as on May 2014, but as of April 24, 2016, it has increased to 1,01,435 shops. Bend of March 2017, e-Pos will be set up in 3,00,000 shops and by 2019, all the 50,00,000 ration shops in the country would be connected through point of sale devices except may be in some hilly areas.
Could the better implementation of NFSA in states such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar have prevented some of the reported hunger-related deaths in these states?
It’s the state’s responsibility to identify vulnerable and poor families to be covered under the NFSA and the Centre’s task is to fix criteria about percentage of population to be covered in the urban and rural areas. Had the states done the identification properly even under NFSA, no poor would have been left out of the mega food security scheme. There will be no starvation death due to Centre’s laxity. Still, if there are starvation deaths despite the NFSA being implemented, it means the concerned state government is incompetent and the entire onus lies with them.
Doubts are being raised that the government is unlikely to meet the wheat procurement target of 28 million tonne for the 2016-17 rabi procurement season?
We are keeping a close watch on the situation, but whether we can meet the target will be known in few weeks’ time, but any drop in procurement would not impact our PDS distribution and the retail prices would not go up as we have more than adequate wheat stocks with FCI.
The spike in price of pulses remains a worry for inflation managers. What are the measures the government is taking to deal with the situation?
On pulses, I have very clearly said if pulses’ prices rise, it would be responsibility of the state government. I can accept the pulses prices (specially urad and arhar) till Rs 120 per kg, but if there is a price increase beyond Rs 120 a kg, it will be the responsibility of the state government, as we have already directed states to give their requirement of pulses which we will provide from our buffer stock. States also have a role to play in growing pulses. We have also tightened the noose around importers and directed the revenue department to take strict action against hoarders.
What about the recent issues concerning Punjab’s PDS system which led to delays in banks providing cash credit limit to the state? What are the steps being taken to resolve the issue?
I won’t go into the quantity (of amount payable to Punjab from FCI), but would only deal with the policy part of this. The Centre pays Punjab in two ways— one is through the Minimum Support Price (MSP), which is paid immediately and there is no dues from any state on that front. The second expenditure relates to transportation and other incidentals. In it, we pay 90% of the expenditure immediately which includes that for gunny bags etc, the entire problem is of the remaining 10%. We are trying to sort this out and have held discussion with the states and also in the PMO. As far as dealing with the banks is concern, the Centre can’t intervene in that.