On July 4, hours after the Supreme Court verdict ruled that Delhi’s Lieutenant Governor is bound by the “aid and advice” of the state government’s council of ministers in all matters under its jurisdiction, Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal held a cabinet meeting. During that meeting, according to a social media post Kejriwal wrote, he “directed [officials] to expedite proposals of doorstep delivery of rations”. The Aam Aadmi Party government had accused Lieutenant Governor Anil Baijal of blocking this plan.
But the Capital’s right to food experts do not think the proposal, first announced in March, will address the problems in making essential food grains available at subsidised rates to Delhi’s poorest families – a legal entitlement under the National Food Security Act 2013.
They are not even sure what the exact contours of the plan are.
The public distribution system
Under the existing Targetted Public Distribution System or Targetted PDS, the state procures wheat, rice and sugar from a central stock and then sells fixed quotas of grain – 5 kg per family member – at a highly subsidised price through a network of fair price shops. The eldest woman in the family is the ration-card holder. There are over 19 lakh ration card holders in Delhi, where about 72 lakh individuals depend on subsidised food.
However, the government’s insistence on linking Aadhaar – the 12-digit biometrics-based personal identification number – with the PDS scheme has led to widespread exclusion from it. Aadhaar is mandatory both at the point of obtaining ration cards and during transactions at ration shops, where authentication via Aadhaar biometrics was made compulsory in January.
By the Delhi government’s estimates, about 2.5 lakh families were not getting rations because of Aadhaar-related glitches. This is the reason why, on February 20, the state government put Aadhaar-based sales of rations on hold.
On March 6, the Delhi Cabinet decided that it would introduce “doorstep delivery of food grains”, or home delivery, by engaging a private party. The announcement carried scant details beyond saying it is “aimed at removing the problems faced by ration beneficiaries” and that packaging grains in sealed packets will help control pilferage and adulteration. The government has not placed in the public any policy document giving details of this plan.
According to those who work with the government, Kejriwal advisor Gopal Mohan is working closely with the project. Scroll.in reached out to him, seeking clarity on the proposal. But Mohan did not respond to calls or text messages. An email with questions to Delhi’s Department of Food, Supplies and Consumer Affairs went unanswered as well. This report will be updated if either of them responds.
‘Potential for corruption’
Several experts have grave misgivings about the proposal to distribute rations door-to-door.
Amrita Johri of Delhi Rozi Roti Adhikar Abhiyan and economist Reetika Khera point out that it does not solve the problem of exclusion due to Aadhaar, that the government has not shared any estimate of the costs involved and personnel required, and there is practically no mention of any oversight mechanism. They fear the change will yield a less transparent system.
“Who are these people who will go door to door to deliver?” asked Khera. “Will they actually deliver? This may lead to more corruption rather than less.” She explained that at a fair price shop, the presence of other buyers is itself a deterrent against pilferage. That will go if supplies are delivered at home, she said.
“They have just not thought this through,” added Johri. “It will result in a huge drain of public resources but not solve anything.”
Aadhaar and PDS
The Delhi government’s “doorstep delivery” plan was born out of the trouble caused by Aadhaar linking. In early 2017, the Delhi government had piloted biometric authentication through Aadhaar at the point of sale at 42 fair price shops. Point of sale machines replaced manually-filled registers at these outlets. These machines scanned fingerprints of beneficiaries and matched them with the Aadhaar database before food could be handed over.
But there were several problems. The first was network connectivity. At a fair price shop near the Delhi Airport, for instance, Johri found a point of sale machine hanging from a jamun tree. “That was the only place they had network,” said Johri. “In the lanes of Chandni Chowk, even voice calls do not work.” Then, many among migrant families, transgender people and the homeless had been unable to obtain ration cards because they did not have Aadhaar. There were also problems with fingerprint authentication.
In February 2017, the Rozi Roti Adhikar Abhiyan filed a case in the Delhi High Court challenging the state government’s decision to make Aadhaar-based authentication mandatory for the disbursal of foodgrains under the public distribution scheme. They also provided testimonies of families who were otherwise eligible but failed to get rations because of various glitches. These were later verified by a court-appointed local commissioner. Submitted in August 2017, the commissioner’s report is the first official document to confirm that Aadhaar leads to exclusion, said Johri.
Johri said that 20 out of the 42 dealers who were part of the pilot project to make biometric authentication through Aadhaar mandatory at the point of sale resigned and shut their shops.
Despite the problems faced by the pilot, in January, the Delhi government rolled out Aadhaar-linked sales through point of sale machines in all of its over 2,000 fair price shops. This wreaked havoc immediately.
Besides patchy internet connectivity, very often fingerprints scanned at the shop did not match those in the Aadhaar database. The enrolment function for Aadhaar had been outsourced to private agencies and in that loosely-monitored process, there were numerous mistakes. Johri recalled one instance of an Aadhaar enrolment agency in South Delhi’s Khirki Extension, which, after failing to capture a small child’s fingerprints, scanned the child’s mother’s little finger instead. Besides this, the system has had trouble reading the fingerprints of the elderly and those engaged in manual labour, which has been seen in other states too. Another problem was that elderly ration card-holders were now compelled to visit the shops themselves – they could not longer request neighbours, relatives or friends to buy their rations for them.
In late January, an NDTV investigation found that 26,000 of Delhi’s ration card holders could not collect food because their fingerprints could not be authenticated at the ration shop.
By February, said Johri, those who were unable to collect their food entitlements because of glitches in the system were starting to march to their representatives in the Legislative Assembly to complain.
On February 20, the AAP government put the Aadhaar-linked system on hold and a few days later, announced the doorstep delivery plan. But in a statement, the Delhi government mentioned Aadhaar linkage as one of the reforms it had made to the Public Distribution System. Right to food activists also point out that the Kejriwal government has not officially delinked Aadhaar from the PDS either.
Old and new problems
The home-delivery system, therefore, will not resolve the problem of those who were unable to obtain ration cards because of problems with Aadhaar. The government has not fully clarified whether the home delivery system will be Aadhaar-linked, but Johri said that officials have indicated it will be. If it is, the problem of Aadhaar-related exclusion will stay for everyone except for the “very small constituency of bedridden people [who have Aadhaar]”, said Reetika Khera.
There is no draft proposal regarding the home delivery plan that activists can study so Johri has had to go by comments made, and information shared, by government officials and ministers in several meetings after the proposal was announced.
But Johri said that engaging with the government has been a frustrating experience. Activists were told those were not official meetings and there are no records of those conversations either, said Johri. No government official appeared to know how many delivery personnel will be needed. When they asked an official about oversight mechanisms, he supposedly told them the delivery personnel could wear body-cameras and record transactions. “He had clearly done no calculation and could not give us even a ballpark figure of what this will cost,” she said. “They have already wasted public funds on point of sale machines and iris scanners and now this. With that money they could have added eggs to the mid-day meals and included pulses in the grains sold through PDS.”
Arvind Singh of a Delhi-based charitable trust, Matri Sudha, agreed. “Where has this been done before and where is the evidence this works?” he asked. “They should make the policy public or run a pilot programme first. Not doing so shows they do not trust the community’s judgement and do not welcome its participation.”
Instead, activists fear the government is about to adopt an expensive system that will be even less transparent and efficient than the one it will replace. “With shops being in public places, the community could collectively negotiate and demand fair dealing,” said Johri. “With transactions moving inside the home, the scope for bribery and extortion goes up exponentially. If the government cannot monitor its 2,000 ration shops, how will they monitor the 20,000 people our very rough calculations showed they will need.”
There are also questions about delivery personnel being able to locate homes in slum areas and whether they will leave the bags of grain outside if the family is not home.
Delhi government and the law
Monitoring will be a “huge challenge”, agreed Singh. He said the absence of a State Food Commission will make matters worse.
Even five years after the National Food Security Act, 2013, was passed, Delhi has failed to set up a State Food Commission, a statutory body mandated to oversee the Act’s implementation and with “all the powers of a civil court”. Instead, its functions were given to the Public Grievance Commission of Delhi soon after the Act was passed. “This was meant to be a temporary measure as they are two very different bodies with different composition and mandates,” said Singh.
Through queries filed under the Right to Information Act, activists found that till 2017, not a single specific case had come to the Public Grievance Commission on food. Both Rozi Roti Adhikar Abhiyan and Matri Sudha have separately tried to make enquiries and file complaints and discovered the system was not functioning. “If there was a commission, beneficiaries could lodge complaints but without it, who will monitor the distribution in the home-delivery system?” asked Singh.
On September 1, 2017, in the Rozi Roti Adhikar Abhiyan’s case, the Delhi High Court had ordered the Delhi government to take steps toward creating a commission. But it still does not exist. Singh said that budgetary provisions for a State Food Commission has been made every year since 2014 but this decision too was caught in the struggle between the Lieutenant Governor and the elected government in Delhi. The case is in court.
Several activists, economists and Twitter users have pointed out that the National Food Security Act, 2013, mentions “doorstep delivery” too but that meant delivery to the fair-price shop, not homes. Earlier, the dealer of the fair price shop was responsible for fetching grains from the state or district warehouses, and the bulk of pilferage occurred in that transaction. “The officials at the godown would complete the paperwork but tell villagers that the grains did not arrive at all,” said Dipa Sinha, another right to food campaigner. The law nudged states to reverse that process and deliver grain to the shop instead.