How India got PDS delivery right during the pandemic

During Covid crisis, the country’s technology-driven PDS swiftly came to the fore by successfully scaling up to distribute almost double the quantity of foodgrains to more than 80 crore beneficiaries in the country during April to November 2020

By Sudhanshu Pandey, 

The Public Distribution System (PDS), which was started in the 1960s to manage the scarcity of foodgrain supplies, has come a long way from a “welfare-based” means to a “rights-based” food-security platform under the National Food Security Act, 2013 (NFSA). This is first of its kind attempt in the world to legislate ‘right to food’ for nearly 67% citizens and to deliver foodgrains to the targeted population at affordable prices of Rs 3, 2, 1 per kg of rice, wheat and coarse-grains, respectively, every month and has become an essential part of the government’s policy for the management of food economy in the country.

The Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS), under NFSA, is operated by both the central and state/UT governments. While the central government carries out the procurement of foodgrains, store, allocate and transport up to the designated depots of FCI across the country, the states/UTs identify eligible households/beneficiaries under Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY) and Priority Households (PHH) categories of the Act covering up to 75% of the rural population and up to 50% of the urban population, issue and manage ration cards, allocate foodgrains to Fair Price Shops (FPSs), ensure door-step-delivery to all FPSs for distribution to beneficiaries, etc.

Over the years, especially during the last six years, many pathbreaking initiatives and technological interventions have fostered multiple reforms in the TPDS. The ‘end-to-end computerisation of TPDS operations’ has brought in a silent revolution in TPDS operations, remarkably transforming the world’s largest foodgrain distribution network from a manually operated system to a transparent, automated system, ensuring Citizen-Centric Service Delivery. The digitised list of 23.5 crore ration cards covering >80 crore beneficiaries under NFSA across the country are available on respective public portals of states/UTs for enhanced transparency and participation. As many 31 States/UTs have also automated their supply chain operations for online management of stocks in godowns and the in-and-out movement. SMSs are also delivered to beneficiaries in some States, informing about quantity and expected time of arrival of foodgrains at their FPSs to plan their visit. Further, toll-free helplines 1967/1800-series and online mechanism for registering grievances related to PDS have empowered people.

The cornerstone of technology-reforms is the identification of genuine beneficiaries, for effective targeting of subsidised foodgrains. Now, over 90% ration cards in the country are seeded with Aadhaar, which has enabled transparent biometric distribution of up to 70% monthly allocation, through about 4.9 lakh (91% of total 5.4 lakh) electronic Point of Sale devices across the country. These measures have also put a check on ghost lifting of subsidised foodgrains, by detecting and weeding out nearly 4.39 crore ineligible/duplicate ration cards during the past seven years since 2013, and thus, continuously improving the rightful targeting of beneficiaries under NFSA.

Further, technology has ensured that such a large and complicated system can be resilient with the help of continuous oversight & feedback. Regular third-party assessments besides concurrent evaluations through leading institutions/universities like IIMs/IITs are also helping the central and state/UT governments to keep PDS sensitive & responsive.

Leveraging the strong foundations of computerisation, national portability of ration cards is introduced in the country through the technology-driven process under “One Nation One Ration Card (ONORC) plan”. This integrated approach is empowering beneficiaries to access PDS from any FPS in any nook-and-corner of the country to lift their foodgrains while using their same ration card with biometric/Aadhaar authentication. Since this initiative is helping migrants to be self-reliant for their food-security, this has also become an integral part of prime minister’s technology-driven system reforms under the Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan. Presently, the system is active in 30 states/UTs covering approx. 68.7 crore beneficiaries (85% NFSA population in the country), while we are targeting to cover remaining population by March 2021, including A&N Islands by December 2020. The National Helpline number 14445 is further making use of portability easy and user-friendly.

To further ensure that no deserving beneficiary is left out, a pilot project on convergence is initiated across six districts in six states–Jharkhand (Palamu), Uttar Pradesh (Barabanki), Gujarat (Chhotaudepur), Andhra Pradesh (Guntur), Himachal Pradesh (Mandi) and Mizoram (Hnahthial). The beneficiary data from ease of living (EoL) survey conducted by the ministry of rural development is mapped with PDS data to verify the level of convergence; however, since the EoL data is not Aadhaar-based, the exercise had some challenges. The objective of this exercise was to check the common beneficiary base to identify whether the benefits of different programmes of the government are reaching the rightful beneficiaries and also that no genuine and deserving beneficiary who is identified as a beneficiary in one programme is left out in another programme of a different ministry.

The pilot is throwing interesting results with 61% matching data. Efforts have also been made to drill down to block, panchayat and village level to improve convergence. As a step forward, a similar exercise would be carried out to map Aadhaar seeded NFSA beneficiaries’ database with National Population Register (NPR) data of Registrar General of India. The success of this pilot can pave the way for harmonisation of databases and creation of a master database which may be used as a single largest platform for convergence for rightful targeting under various schemes and programmes of the government. A recent example is the proposal of the ministry of health to utilise NFSA data for identification of beneficiaries under Ayushman Bharat (PM- Jan Aarogya Yojana), as it covers bottom 67% of the population and may ensure that no one in marginalised and vulnerable population is left out from the benefits of health cover.

During Covid crisis, the country’s technology-driven PDS swiftly came to the fore by successfully scaling up to distribute almost double the quantity of foodgrains to more than 80 crore beneficiaries in the country during the last eight months of April to November 2020. During this period the department had allocated nearly 680 LMT foodgrains (about 350 LMT under normal NFSA, 321 LMT under PM Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana) and it has been witnessed that an average of 93% foodgrains per month were successfully distributed with all the Covid-19 protocols despite a multitude of challenges. Further, against an estimated number of 2.8 crore migrants/stranded migrants, about 2.74 crore persons (98%) received the free ration under the Atma Nirbhar Bharat scheme. Some independent surveys by agencies like Dalberg and others have also shown a very high level of satisfaction among the beneficiaries with respect to the availability and distribution of foodgrains through PDS during the pandemic.

Nowhere in the world, a PDS as big as in India is being run. The system has not only delivered during the pandemic but has improved during the crisis in many ways. While shortcomings may still be there but on the whole India has emerged as a shining example in the way it tackled food security during the pandemic. This was possible because of the vision and strong commitment of the leadership, particularly the prime minister. By introducing Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana, for free distribution of foodgrains for eight months to feed about 81 crore people per month, India demonstrated that in a crisis it is capable of rising to the challenge and deal with all odds effectively-ranging from storage, transportation to distribution. Indian farmer also deserves to be complimented along with people involved in the entire distribution net-work which handled unprecedented quantities of foodgrain during the lockdown and did not let supply chain disruptions affect delivery to end consumer to remotest parts. Thousands of railway rakes, trucks carried food grains, and air sorties & vessels were mobilised for last-mile distribution which is unprecedented.

The author is is Secretary, department of food & public distribution, Government of India

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