In 2016, the Delhi government ran a pilot in 42 out of its roughly 2,500 Public Distribution System outlets. At these outlets, Aadhaar-based biometric authentication was introduced at the time of sale of grain to ration card holders.
A survey was done by students of Lady Shri Ram College at one of the pilot PDS outlets, incidentally in the shadow of the Supreme Court that was at that time hearing the Aadhaar case, including whether Aadhaar could be made compulsory for welfare.
The survey found that nearly one-third of ration card holders were unable to buy their grain in the survey month because of biometric and other failures. Those who were able to buy their grain received 86% of their entitlement. Respondents also complained about overcharging by the dealer. From a survey of 320 households conducted in May-July 2016, Nandini Nayak and Shikha Nehra reported on the other ways that Aadhaar excludes people from the PDS.
Disregarding early signs of exclusion from the 2016 pilot, the Delhi government (quite possibly under pressure from the Central government) extended Aadhaar-based biometric authentication to all 2,500-odd PDS outlets in the state in January 2018 . At the end of the month, NDTV reported on the exclusion of thousands of families due to biometric failures. Taking note of these failures, the Delhi government did the right thing: it suspended Aadhaar-based biometric authentication in the PDS.
Unfortunately, since that time the Delhi government has been insisting on introduction of “doorstep delivery” of PDS grain in Delhi. It is not very clear where and how this idea originated. The proposal is that ration card holders will no longer come to their PDS outlet. Instead, their grain entitlement will be taken to their homes – possibly by delivery boys.
This proposal sounds cool, but if you dwell on it for a few minutes, it turns out that several hard questions remain unanswered.
If the grain is to be delivered to people’s doorstep, how will the transaction be authenticated? Currently, ration card holders go to the PDS outlet and either sign a register or the sale is digitally recorded on the Point of Sale machine. When grain is delivered at home, is the idea to use non-biometric, microchip smart cards (such as those currently in use at PDS outlets in Tamil Nadu) or does the Delhi government plan to revert to Aadhaar-based biometric authentication?
If it reverts to the latter, then the problems that arose in 2018, when biometric authentication was discontinued for good reason, will return. There is no clarity on this crucial question.
When grain is disbursed at PDS outlets by the dealer, there are many eyes watching and monitoring his behaviour. If he is caught under-weighing or overcharging, a number of people can raise their voice. If grain gets delivered at home, such community monitoring against corrupt practices is likely to be weakened. Incidentally, neither the Point of Sale machine (with or without Aadhaar-based biometric authentication) nor doorstep delivery can remedy the overcharging problem.
The Delhi government’s proposal also entails moving from wheat at Rs 2 per kg to provision of wheat flour or atta. In one interview, the Delhi chief minister has indicated that atta will be sold at Rs 4 per kg. It seems that the Delhi government intends to pass on the entire cost of milling wheat to PDS card holders.
Flour raises concerns regarding quality, especially if it is supplied in pre-packed packets. With loose grain weighed at the shop, people can inspect the grain and reject it if the quality is bad. With flour, quality control is known to be an issue – in a survey of the PDS in six states in 2016, we found that West Bengal was supplying flour, and there were serious complaints about it. Moreover, we do not know whether PDS card holders in Delhi prefer atta or wheat.
For PDS dealers, one important sources of earnings in this business is the resale value of jute sacks in which the grain is supplied to them. If Delhi moves to pre-packed atta packets, the sustainability of PDS outlets will be jeopardised.
PDS dealers are notorious for their corrupt practices. While their bad reputation is well deserved, it is also true that corruption in the PDS (even in Delhi) has gone down in the past few years. More importantly, what guarantee do we have that the delivery boys who will replace PDS dealers will not be equally corrupt? That they will not overcharge? How is their accountability going to be fixed? How will the cost of their salaries be recouped?
One nation, one ration
There are equally hard questions for the central government. There is now ample evidence on the disastrous effects of linking Aadhaar with the PDS. Recently, a report based on Lokniti data found that 28% of PDS beneficiaries reported denial or exclusion due to Aadhaar. Yet, the central government keeps insisting on Aadhaar.
In fact, in Delhi and nationally, it is pushing for “One Nation, One Ration”. Riding on the Aadhaar platform, this threatens to disrupt this important lifeline for crores of people across the country. The Centre does this even though better technology options are available (for example, non-biometric smart cards that are in use in Tamil Nadu and other states).
It is disappointing that for once when people’s issues such as food security are being discussed, the debate has been reduced to a race for grabbing headlines by two major political parties. The real issues – corruption, over-charging, quality of grain, ease of getting grain, inclusion of dal in the PDS – remain absent.
Reetika Khera is an Associate Professor of economics at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi.