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Business News/ Opinion / Online-views/  Automating the ration shops
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Automating the ration shops

Only Chhattisgarh and Odisha have shown extraordinary success in making public distribution system work efficiently and equitably

PDS has been charged with corruption, inefficiency and leakage ever since the beginning. Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/MintPremium
PDS has been charged with corruption, inefficiency and leakage ever since the beginning. Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint

Across thousands of schools in India, expensive computers, printers and scanners are gathering dust. In many panchayats and other local bodies, such hardwares remain unused.

Meanwhile, tonnes of government orders and circulars continue to be scanned and uploaded on official websites, which serve absolutely no purpose to anyone.

Computerization, digitization and automation are often seen as silver bullets to fix the gaps in the system. But clearly, there is a problem with the way we are carrying on our digital journey.

Which is why I have no idea what finance minister Arun Jaitley meant when he promised in his latest budget speech that “300,000 out of 5.35 lakh fair price shops (FPSs) would be provided automation facilities by March 2017." I also don’t know how much budget has been allocated to this project.

There are 5,35,000 FPSs in the country. A FPS is nothing but a ration shop, more popularly known as a PDS (public distribution system) outlet. This means our country has more than twice as many ration shops as the number of panchayats or village councils.

Ideally, all villages should have a ration shop where people can go and buy sharply subsidized monthly rations.

As we know, these shops are supposed to provide rice, wheat, sugar, salt and kerosene, among other necessary items. They are supposed to serve about 400 million people below poverty line (BPL) in India. With the debut of the food security law, FPS has become even more important.

PDS has been charged with corruption, inefficiency and leakage ever since the beginning. Every BPL family is entitled to 35kg rice or wheat every month. Those above poverty line (APL) should get 15kg of foodgrain every month. However, foodgrain supplied by ration shops are either not enough to meet demand or are of inferior quality.

So far, there are only two states—Chhattisgarh and Odisha—that have shown extraordinary success in making PDS work efficiently and equitably. It is hard to get into the details of why both have performed best on this count, but it’s clear that digitization and automation with appropriate intervention of information and communications technology and software applications have played a critical role in making FPS deliver to maximum number of eligible people.

In India, digitization, computerization and automation have done everything except providing efficiency and transparency. What the government often means by automation is to merely provide a few computers, software and networking—without ensuring their functioning or use—to make our lives easier. For example, out of the 2,50,000 panchayats, more than 50,000 have been provided computers and connectivity but these facilities are almost never used.

The question to which I seek an answer is: How are we going to make our FPS automated? Does automation mean that each and every sack of grains and sugar or canter of kerosene oil would be digitally marked at the source and tagged with RFID (radio frequency identification) so that its movement can be tracked till it reaches its destination? Will FPS automation mean that only eligible people would get rations and nobody would be cheated? Can automation mean that there would be no pilferage? Can we ensure that each and every ration shop would be geographically marked on the map and the distribution process would be recorded on camera and made available to authorities to view in real time?

There are several other significant challenges that the government would face in the process of implementation of automation at every FPS. If we go by Jaitley’s target, then 820 FPSs (3,00,000 FPSs divided by 365 days) will need to be automated every day. Will there be a provision to make FPSs’ staff digitally literate before they are provided with digital devices and automation? If we are automating every FPS in the next couple of years, will it automatically recognize ration cardholders and their eligibility?

I have seen the register that is maintained at the ration shops. They are not only exhaustive in terms all the information related to citizen consumers, but also require very efficient hands to capture required information, quickly and correctly.

It is, therefore, advised that the implementing agencies seek lessons from the PDS system in Chhattisgarh and Odisha. They must then work on automation of FPSs in such a manner that the grains and supplies find their way to the right FPS and the eligible citizens get their quota adequately, efficiently, and timely; and the FPS keeper enjoys efficiency, transparency and accountability.

Osama Manzar is founder-director of Digital Empowerment

Foundation and chair of Manthan and mBillionth awards. He is member, advisory board, at Alliance for Affordable Internet and has co-authored NetCh@kra–15 Years of Internet in India and Internet Economy of India. He tweets @osamamanzar.

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Published: 23 Mar 2016, 12:23 AM IST
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