Leakages in the public distribution system (PDS) are well known. By one estimate, 40% of foodgrains distributed in the system never reach those whom they are meant for. It is not surprising that there is little confidence in PDS as a vehicle for the ambitious National Food Security law. On Wednesday, two senior Union ministers, Pranab Mukherjee and Sharad Pawar, voiced concern on the matter. What is of concern, however, is that a visible solution to the problem is encountering resistance within the government.
In his speech at the conference on PDS on Wednesday, Mukherjee highlighted the importance of leveraging Aadhaar “for unique identification, with authentication of entitled beneficiaries for proper targeting of benefits”. He said modernization of the targeted PDS is the foremost priority of the government of India.
His colleague Sharad Pawar was blunt and said: “I will be failing in my duty if I do not emphasize the fact that the Food Security Act will never succeed in achieving its goal in letter and spirit, if we try to push the same through the existing PDS apparatus.”
Their voices should be heeded. What is disconcerting is the resistance against modernizing what is a complex and unwieldy system. Under PDS, 49.9 million fair price shops cater to millions of Indians across 35 states and Union territories. Operating under a system that is politically and administratively diverse, it is not surprising that the scale of leakages is so large. In some states such as Chhattisgarh and Tamil Nadu the system works relatively better. In many others, it is close to non-existent. One solution, as suggested by Mukherjee, would be to use Aadhaar to identify citizens eligible for these services. A road map of sorts already exists in the form of various reports on the subject. The Interim Report of the Task Force on Direct Transfer of Subsidies on Kerosene, LPG and Fertilizers was submitted last year. A report with a wider remit, Report of the Technology Advisory Group for Unique Projects, too is in the hands of the government. Both present leads on tackling this problem.
If reports are to be believed, however, the response of the Union food and consumer affairs ministry is lukewarm and borders on rejecting the idea of using UID/Aadhaar as a basis for better targeting. The task force report had recommended creating a national information utility for the computerization of PDS—the public distribution system network. Instead, the ministry wants to create its own network. Yet, until recently it paid scant attention to the issue. It was only after the Supreme Court intervened in the matter, tasking the Union food secretary with reporting on computerization on a monthly basis with progress reports, that matters finally moved at a more acceptable pace.
The bigger problem, ever present in the government, is that of turf fights leading to a loss of vision on bigger goals, one of which is surely the efficient delivery of food to the poor.
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