A digital platform on which government on-boards all existing PDS outlets is needed.
A utility that can can disburse social security benefits on the fly is being missed as the corona pandemic sweeps India. JAM trinity notwithstanding, the country doesn’t have a quick-fix solution to expand the coverage of food, health cover or emergency financial assistance to the vulnerable and in need, like migrant labourers and the unemployed.
Another layer over Aadhaar will be topical, which is more flexible than Jan-Dhan accounts and PDS. The first building block of the new utility can be portable PDS—an Amazon-like digital platform in the nature of a marketplace on which the government on-boards all existing PDS outlets. An accompanying utility will be an in-app closed-loop wallet on which all Aadhaar holders are pre-populated.
In the first instance, accounts of existing PDS beneficiaries seeded with Aadhaar may be activated. The government then transfers a value equivalent to the monthly monetary value of rations that each individual beneficiary is entitled to draw. Unlike pure cash transfer, this will make the entitlement inflation-neutral. Access to the platform, like Amazon, will be application based for all stakeholders—beneficiary account holders, PDS dealers/sellers and governments.
Having created an online national marketplace, it should be possible for a PDS beneficiary to draw rations from any PDS outlet on the platform in multiple ways:
1. Visit the outlet of choice, buy rations and pay online using credit in the wallet. This can be done in a self-service mode using one’s own mobile phone. On assisted mode, the transaction can be completed on the device of the dealer by OTP, password or Aadhaar authentication.
2. Order online from any dealer covering the location and either collect rations from a pick-up centre or get home delivery with added delivery cost. This can be particularly useful for the old and infirm. The government can credit an extra value to cover the cost of delivery in deserving cases. Others pay for convenience, including scheduling a delivery after work hours to save the day’s wages.
3. Besides where, when and whom to buy, there will be a choice of what to buy. Depending on choice, the value on the wallet may be used with flexibility to buy rice or wheat. A diabetic may prefer to substitute sugar with grain or oil.
An Amazon-like platform implies open source, open system API-based built which will also be data-rich, capturing in meta detail all the transactions. This data can be used to monitor, build and improve the services. Access rights can be defined as per need of each participant, central and state governments included. The quality will be critical. It best be outsourced to a competent incentive compatible private entity. With a stake in the turnover, the platform operator will have an incentive to invest and continuously upgrade the platform, as also on-board both sellers and buyers.
Beginning with PDS, the platform may expand to cover fertilisers, seeds, Jan Aushadhi outlets and other social security benefits amenable to DBT. Through inclusion of billing for utilities like electricity, water, telephone, school fees and insurance, the associated price subsidies can be substituted with monetary ones to end market distortions.
The platform can, in measured time, be opened to all sellers willing to provide goods and services at competitive prices, be it rations, medicines, seeds or fertilisers.
While expanding the suite of services on the platform, the wallet should remain closed loop. The credit loaded against an individual account may be allowed interoperability for buying goods and services available on the platform, subject to any policy decisions deemed appropriate.
In an emergency, it should be possible to on-board additional beneficiaries using Aadhaar authentication to activate new accounts for essential services for a fixed duration.
As a contingency, a portion of the in-app wallet may be switched to an open one for cash withdrawal at designated points like ATMs, banks, post offices or other service points.
The proposed social security platform lends itself to roll out Universal Basic Income. An in-app wallet that can only be used on it will be amenable to self-selection as the better-to-do will not find it attractive to be on the platform. The big data the platform will generate will make for better targeting of social security benefits and basic income criteria.
Former member, Postal Services Board of India. Views are personal