The Haryana government has started to digitise the Targeted Public Distribution System by installing biometric-based Point of Sale machines in ration shops to ensure transparency and accountability in the implementation of the programme.

In Nuh district of Haryana, the process began in November, but due to several technological glitches, the District Food & Supplies Controller, in middle of December, sent a circular to depot holders saying that rations for November and December would be distributed using the earlier system of stock and sale register maintenance.

The District Food & Supplies Controller circular that suspended the use of POS machines in Nuh marked a setback in achieving a leak-proof Targeted Public Distribution System in Haryana. POS machines were not only introduced for automating Fair Price Shops, but also to stop the pilferage of subsidised commodities distributed under the programme, prevent illegal transactions of subsidised commodities, and ensure that the stock reached its lawful beneficiaries without any hassle.

In other words, these machines were introduced to seal the leaky pipes of corruption and usher in transparency and accountability with immediate effect. The District Food & Supplies Controller in Nuh tried to acquaint all depot holders with the system through a three-hour training program on oerating the device in October. It also ensured the timely linking of Aadhaar unique identity numbers in ration cards. However, the actual operations of the machines failed.

Anemic infrastructure

“One of the major problems in the functioning of the POS machine is that the server and network used remains down most of the time,” Talim Khan, a depot holder of Rithat village of Nagina administrative block in Nuh, told “I am unable to distribute rations to the beneficiaries (through the new process) despite my willingness to do so.”

Besides connectivity issues, biometric verification of beneficiaries also did not match from time to time. In many cases, the Aadhaar numbers were not seeded correctly, leading to non-identification of fingerprints of many beneficiaries. At times, despite getting trained on the operational procedures, depot holders were unable to use the machines correctly.

Critical situation

The situation became critical when depot holders, being unable to distribute ration due to POS machine failure, started having piled up ration commodities in their houses. This generated suspicion among the beneficiaries that depot holders are intentionally hoarding the stock. The villagers, on the other hand, believed that depot holders intentionally claimed technology failures in order to usurp the community’s lawfully entitled commodities.

Nuh is one of the most backward districts of Haryana, with poor literacy rates and low levels of awareness with regard to technical issues. As a result, large numbers of beneficiaries could not understand the problem of server and network failure. Some villagers said that people are more likely to assume dishonesty on the part of Targeted Public Distribution System distributors in general because of the corrupt behavior of a few depot holders.

Flooded with complaints

District Food & Supplies Controller’s office in Nuh was inundated with complaints of the rural communities with regard to irregular ration distribution in November and December, following which the circular to stall the use of POS machines and resume the use of earlier system of stock-sale registers was disseminated.

However, this generated a feeling among the beneficiaries of Targeted Public Distribution System, who were mostly oblivious to the technological issues, that their complaints forced District Food & Supplies Controller to take action against corrupt depot holders. The entire fiasco created a relationship of mistrust between depot holders and rural communities in Nuh.

One of the major reasons for the amplified feelings of mistrust between rural communities and depot holders is the lack of understanding about the technical glitches in the POS machines.

“More detailed information about the technological problems in the functioning of POS machines through radio, television, and newspapers will sensitise and enlighten common people like us,” Hussain, a Targeted Public Distribution System beneficiary from Bhuriyaki village in Punhana administrative block, told “This will help us to be patient and adjust with the temporary hiccups during the process of transition of Targeted Public Distribution System to a digitised version.”

Testing the waters

Also, a pilot in selected villages of Nuh on Fair Price shop automation could have given a good idea to the implementers about the nature of the technical glitches or even the reaction and difficulties experienced by the rural communities during the process of digitization of Targeted Public Distribution System.

The District Food & Supplies Controller is undeterred. “We have instructed the depot holders to start reusing the POS machines from the middle of January 2017,” Chand Singh, Food & Supply Inspector, District Food & Supplies Controller Nuh, told “However, in order to ensure that ration distribution does not become irregular due to malfunctioning server, we have also made maintenance of the registers compulsory so that in case the machines fail, at least ration will be distributed following the traditional system.”

Despite such problems, rural communities are gradually realising the relevance of introduction of digitisation in Targeted Public Distribution System. Women in Baisi village of Nuh block mention that the proper use of POS machines will help reduce corruption, as electronic records of allocation to the beneficiaries will be maintained. “We as customers of Targeted Public Distribution System will benefit from digitisation,” said Afsana, a PDS in Baisi.

It is important to remember in this context that the new system of Targeted Public Distribution System aims to digitise beneficiary database in order to enable correct identification of beneficiaries, detection and cancellation of false cards and improved targeting of food subsidies. In addition, the computerisation of supply chain management in Targeted Public Distribution System aims to ensure timely availability of food grains to intended beneficiaries at the Fair Price shops as well as constant monitoring of leakages and diversion of the commodities.

Digitisation of Targeted Public Distribution System is a welcome move in creating smart practices in public service delivery. The District Food & Supplies Controller office of Nuh plans to refurbish the process of digitization by mending the technical troubles. “With the use of an exclusive server for Targeted Public Distribution System implementation, which is scheduled for April 1, 2017, the District Food & Supplies Controller expects to overcome the technical glitches, thereby making the process transparent and accountable,” Chand Singh said.

Debika Goswami is a Programme Leader in Governance and Policy Advocacy in SM Sehgal Foundation.

This article first appeared on Village Square.