New Delhi: The debate on whether the public distribution system (PDS), a government-run network to distribute essential commodities to the poor at fair prices, is reaching those who need it the most, may be over—for now at least.
More than 50% of the rural poor, who also have the smallest size of land holdings in the country, do not have access to the PDS. Nor do they seem to have access to most other government schemes that provide nutrition or ration benefits, such as the mid-day meal scheme.
Meanwhile, some 80% of households that have over four hectares (ha) of land, a relatively large holding, either own a ration card or possess access to other government-distributed rations.
This can been seen in the latest National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) figures for 2004-05, in which 51% of rural households who own less than 0.01ha of land do not own a ration card.
“Except in the case of Annapoorna, the higher size classes (of land holdings) appear to have fared better, not worse, than the two low classes in receipt of benefits from the four schemes,” the survey points out.
The government launched the Annapoorna scheme in 2000-01 as a food security measure for roughly 14 lakh senior citizens who are not being covered by the National Old Age Pension Scheme despite being eligible.
Despite the dire data, not everyone believes that the NSSO surveys, conducted once in four or five years, are accurately able to evaluate the PDS.
A senior ministry of food official said on condition of anonymity that a 28-state survey on PDS beneficiaries, recently commissioned by the government, will give a clearer picture of food distribution and access to PDS by the poor, by the year’s end.
“NSSO data on the public distribution network may be partly contradictory,” the official said. “It is based on a sample size and is to some extent contradictory. For a more correct picture, the (food) ministry is getting studies conducted in 28 states. We hope to get this report by the end of 2007.” The ministry’s surveys are being conducted by the National Council of Applied Economic Research and the Indian Institute of Public Administration.
NSSO numbers also reveal the skewed distribution of ration cards to different classes of people. While more than 50% of those with less than 0.01ha land have no card, between 77-86% of households in all other categories have some kind of card that guarantees access to the PDS.
While the government has given out 6.52 crore below poverty line (BPL) cards, rural households with no cards are still largely in the relatively backward states of Orissa, Chattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, according to the survey.
According to a previous NSSO survey of land holdings, in 2002-03, 70% of land holdings were marginal, or of one hectare or less size; small holdings (1-2ha) account for 16%; semi-medium holdings (2-4ha) constituted 9%; medium-sized holdings (4-10ha) constituted 4%; and large holdings of 10ha or more of land accounted for 1%.
With the lowest land holding usually unable to sustain livelihood by itself, the functioning of the PDS is critical. Laveesh Bhandari, an economist with the research firm Indicus Analytics, said the system needs to be monitored to keep track of whether intended beneficiaries are finding it useful. “The best way to evaluate the success of the PDS is to ask targeted beneficiaries whether, and how, they have benefited,” he said.
According to Communist Party of India leader and Lok Sabha member Gurudas Das Gupta, the new NSSO data only shows that the PDS “has almost collapsed”, not just in a few states but all over the country. “Whatever is available in the system is inedible,” Das Gupta said, suggesting a complete overhaul of the system and a “watchdog” to monitor the system immediately.
The NSSO survey covered around 80,000 rural households, (there are 200 million households in the country).