A question of political will

Two innovative states prove PDS can be made efficient

 
Last Updated: Sunday 28 June 2015

A question of political will

farmers

CHHATTISGARH


“It was a crazy time and we took great risks,” said Alok Shukla. “Sometimes I shudder to think what would have happened if we had not succeeded. We would have been facing audit questions the rest of our lives.” Shukla was referring to his challenging time as food secretary of Chhattisgarh during 2007-08 when he transformed the crumbling and corrupt PDS into an efficient, streamlined organisation. Thankfully, Shukla succeeded and was given the Prime Minister’s Award for Excellence in Public Administration for 2008-09 along with two other officials.

Today, Chhattisgarh buys most of its food requirement from local farmers. Using the minimum support price scheme of the Centre, it procures three million tonnes of paddy in the kharif season, benefitting about one million farmer families of the impoverished state. Part of this procurement is given to the Central pool.

The story began with a political decision. In the 2003 state elections, Raman Singh, leader of the BJP, made PDS corruption a major issue and when he became chief minister he set about making good his promise of reaching food to the people. The first step was the landmark Chhattisgarh Public Distribution System (Control) order 2004 which took all fair price shops out of private hands and gave these to cooperative societies, gram panchayats, women’s self-help groups, primary credit cooperative societies and forest protection committees.

It proved to be a tough legal battle since 400 petitions challenging this order were filed in the high court. The case went to the Supreme Court but finally in September 2005 the state won the case and moved ahead with reforms, recounted Vivek Dhand, principal secretary, food and civil supplies department, who was secretary to the chief minister in 2004 when the PDS overhaul was conceptualised. The focus patently was on inclusion even if the costs are high (See:The cost of reform).

imageWith 45 per cent of its people falling below the poverty line, the state had to take bold measures to get food to these overwhelming numbers. Since the Centre had classified just 1.4 million families of the total 22 million population as BPL, the state decided to foot the bill for bringing all those eligible into the PDS. In 2007 it gave Shukla, who had just taken over as food secretary, a budget of Rs 700 crore and a mandate: increase the food subsidy (grain quota upped from 25 kg/month/family to 35 kg), make it more inclusive and clean up the system.

Rajeev Jaiswal, joint director, food and civil supplies, said around 3,000 new fair-price shops (FPS) were opened to increase accessibility and, more important, to make them viable—a key factor in making PDS sustainable. Interest-free loans of Rs 75,000 were given to each shop along with a month’s supply of ration on credit. This has pushed up monthly profits of fair price shops substantially.

The Centrepiece of the reform was end-to-end computerisation, said Jaiswal. Chhattisgarh computerised the entire supply chain from procurement of paddy at 1,532 purchase centres to the trucks carrying supply to 10,416 FPS for further distribution to 3.7 million ration card-holders. Close to one million farmers who sell their grain to the state receive computer-generated cheques without any delay.

Among the bold measures Chhattisgarh took was cancelling of all ration cards (2.1 million) to set up a computerised unified ration card database. It scrapped 300,000 fake cards but issued 3.3 million new cards with a hologram to the expanded list of the poor (the number has since gone up to 3.7 million) from a centralised database.

However, it is primarily efficiency that made the big difference. “The trick,” explained Shukla, “is to keep supplies moving without any carrying costs. So we buy, stack, transport, mill and then store the paddy simultaneously.” All this involves strict inventory control and careful logistics for which an MIS was created. Before the MIS it took 18 months to get the paddy to the mills but now the time lag is down to just four months. It also helps with financial management. States borrow from the market to finance their PDS operation and Shukla said it calls for some acumen to negotiate good rates with commercial banks and then to ensure that the capital is kept rolling for the shortest period.

But officials say all this will not work unless there is constant monitoring by the officials—and by the people. One of the most effective tools that Chhattisgarh deploys is a grievance redressal system: anyone with a problem can call a toll-free number and be certain that the complaint will be attended to. In the ultimate analysis, it’s customer care that makes the PDS work.

Panchayats and women’s groups make a success of food distribution in Bastar

bastarIn village Sonarpal, in Chhattisgarh’s Bastar district, a large yellow signage on a house with terracotta tile roof announces that this is the village ration shop. In the dimly lit interior, brisk business is on as several women queue up to receive BPL rations—25 kg of rice and 10 kg of wheat. Salesperson Kushal Singh Thakur fills out the day’s figure of stock of various commodities on a chart hanging on the wall. “I do this first thing in the morning,” he smiled, “If I don’t, the women start asking questions.”

The women are happy that for the last three years or so, the ration shop has been opening regularly six days a week (barring festivals) and everyone is getting their full quota of rations. “If we do not have enough money to buy the entire amount at one go, we can come back and take it in three installments,” said Parbati Lohar, a resident. Supri Padhe in neighbouring Devda Panarpara said, “Even when there are no supplies the shop is open, so we can come and find out when supplies are expected.”

Budhram Bagher, former gram panchayat member, said, “It is only in the last two and a half years, since the gram panchayat took over the running of the shop, that the shop has been running regularly. Earlier, the cooperative marketing society was running it, and it did not open for more than a day or two in a month.”

In Chapka, the running of the PDS store has been taken over by a village self-help group (SHG). The shop opens six days a week, you can take home your rations in three or four installments, and when kerosene stocks come, the women in charge of the shop spread the word, said Mahadeo Panara, as he hoisted a bag of rice on his shoulders. Lakshmi Dehari, one of the women running the shop, said, “Three women from our 15-member SHG take turn to work in the shop every day.”

The women complained that the government supplies that reach the shop are often subjected to pilferage en route. “So often a 50-kg bag contains only 48 or 47 kg of grain; there is no point complaining to authorities.”

In Chapka the PDS shop is run by an SHG, in Devda Panarpara, by the gram panchayat, and at Sonarpal, the gram panchayat has leased the shop to a cooperative marketing society. All three systems appear to be running effectively. Loveleena Jangde, an outreach worker with the Chhattisgarh government’s M Plus programme said, “This is the work of Mitanins.”

Link person

The Centre calls her Asha, in Jharkhand she is Sahiyya and in Chhattisgarh she is Mitanin. This key village worker was a role that was conceived of under the National Rural Health Mission in 2005. Every village it was envisaged would have its own Asha (accredited social health acitivist), someone who would link the village to government primary health care. Chhattisgarh was among the states that made quick progress by having a high number of of Mitanins in place; they were trained and given government support to extend their service beyond public health and include PDS in a programme called M Plus. That was four years ago.

“In the first year, Mitanins had to work first of all to make village women aware that they had rights with regard to PDS, midday meals and Anganwadi health care. People actually believed that the Anganwadi workers were doling out nutritious food out of pure personal generosity,” said Jangde, a nutrition worker coordinating with Mitanins and Mitanin trainers in the M Plus programme.

This was followed by collective action from women. “Women’s groups met the Sarpanch and the person running the ration shop in our village and talked to them about PDS rules, demanding that the shop, which opened just two-three days a month and doled out very scanty rations, should open daily and supply the full quantity of rations,” said Sonarpal Mitanin Shyamali Baghel. Following these initiatives, women’s groups and panchayats took joint decisions on who should run the ration shops, and how.

“We regard shops that are opening three times a week regularly as among the positive cases,” said Jangde. “It is a big improvement from the one-day-a-month frequency earlier, and most such arrangements are made by the village panchayats themselves.” There is also a simple, women-led grievance redressal system in place in case of problems. Mitanins review the rations situation with women regularly at monthly meetings, and in case of any problem, action is taken promptly.
 

TAMIL NADU


The Assembly elections of 1967 revolutionised public distribution of food in Tamil Nadu and established an efficient PDS. “That was the first time Congress was voted out and regional parties took over,” said N L Raja, consumer rights activist in Chennai. He was also part of the Wadhwa Committee team in Tamil Nadu that looked into the problems plaguing PDS in several states on Supreme Court orders.

On coming to power the DMK offered rice at a highly subsidised price; about three kgs for Rs 1. “DMK was not able to cover the entire state as promised, but for both DMK and its rival AIADMK, food security became an issue that could change the tide during elections,” Raja said.

The second factor which led to an efficient PDS, he said, is universalisation— everyone was entitled to subsidised food. “In a targeted system, those in need are often left out and the undeserving reap the benefits,” Raja said. Tamil Nadu does not have categories like APL and BPL, but does recognise the poorest of the poor under the Antyodaya Anna Yojana. As of now, there are about 19.6 million families with the PDS, of which 1.86 million are covered under the Antyodaya scheme; they get 35 kg of rice per month. The remaining get an amount ranging between 12 kg and 20 kg depending on the number of adults in the family.

Rice has been sold at Rs 1 per kg in ration shops since 2008. It was Rs 3 when the DMK came to power in 2006; it slashed it to Rs 2. People have a choice of green or white ration cards and the police officials get a khaki card. Green card holders can buy all commodities from a ration shop while white cardholders can buy everything except rice. There is also a no-commodity card for people who want to use it as a document of identity proof.

Since 2007, the fair-price shops have also been stocking fortified wheat flour, pulses, spices, iodised salt and palm oil, which they procure from open market, besides rice, sugar and kerosene. “The idea is to focus on nutrition security rather than just food security. As a result, our food subsidy burden is high but since political parties and the government support the scheme, funding hasn’t been a problem,” said a former commissioner of the Tamil Nadu Civil supplies and Consumer Protection department. The food subsidy budget for 2009-10 was slated to be Rs 4,000 crore (see table).

image“The subsidy burden is high but the state also earns about Rs 12,000 crore from liquor sale,” said Raja. With increasing subsidy there have been allegations that the state government has been diverting money from other schemes like Annapurna and the mid-day meal. “Nothing has been proven though. The noon-meal scheme in schools started in Tamil Nadu in 1977, long before the Supreme Court ordered that it should be implemented all over the country in 2002,” Raja added. The Kamaraj government pioneered the noon-meal scheme in the 1960s, but then it did not continue. It was relaunched in 1977 by then chief minister M G Ramachandran.

Another reason for the success of PDS is that cooperatives run 93 per cent of the ration shops; as of February this year, women self-help groups ran 617 fair-price shops. The rest are run directly by the state civil supplies corporation. “This has provided employment to rural women and there is one shop every two km,” said an official of the state civil supplies corporation.

Tamil Nadu has established a sound supply chain and strict monitoring, including flying squads, eliminating bogus cards. Officials provide information about food-stock on the website and provide mobile phone numbers of officers concerned for effective grievance redressal.
 

MAHARASHTRA

Distribution in Gadchiroli (Maharashtra) is erratic

“For the last three months I have not received any grain,” complained Prembai Lengure, 85. The frail woman is hardly able to rise from her bed and her eyes are almost opaque with cataract. “The control (local term for PDS) man tells me my quota of grain has not arrived.” She is nearly bed-ridden and living alone in village Tembli (tehsil Korchi) in Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra.

Lengure does not know that her Annapurna ration card, which allows her to claim 10 kg of grain—wheat or rice—at no cost was cancelled three months ago. “The Annapurna card holders were overlapping with beneficiaries under the state government’s Shravanbal scheme, under which elderly persons are given Rs 500 per month,” said Prakash Sharma, district supply officer of Gadchiroli. “So a decision has been taken to phase out Annapurna cards and include beneficiaries under the Shravanbal scheme,” he added.

He said some 1,200 out of a total of 2,200 Annapurna cards have been cancelled after making sure that beneficiaries have been included under the state government scheme. Asked why have Prembai and others like her have not started received any money, he said, “The payment process will be finalised in another two to three months.”

This is small consolation for Prembai, who has been surviving on the kindness of neighbours.

PDS in Gadchiroli district is beset with one problem after another. Shops open only a few days and for a short duration, rations do not arrive on time and quotas lapse, the quality of grain is terrible, edible oil and sugar is available only occasionally and kerosene supplies are irregular.

In Saleh, the ration shop opened for just two days after three months. Villages Dodke and Aswalhudki, located further deep in the district’s rich forests, are denied even that; this is the third month that rations have not arrived at all in these two villages, which share a single PDS store.

Tembli is better off because residents here filed Right to Information (RTI) applications to get officials to release a year’s BPL and Annapurna grains that were supposed to have lapsed. “In December 2008, we filed an RTI petition, following supplies became somewhat regular for a few months,” said former deputy sarpanch Desirbai Ghatghoomar, “But things gradually slid back to usual, and we simply do not have the time and the resources to keep filing rti applications or holding demonstrations.”

There have been extraordinary delays in PDS supply. In the past three months, the deputy sarpanch said. “Usually grain stocks arrive between the 15th and the 20th of the month and the shop is open five or six days. But in the past three months, stocks arrived after the 20th, and consequently the shop is not open for more than three days,” she added. “About 50 per cent of the villagers have not been able to procure their full quota of grain for the past three months,” she said.

In village Marda in Gadchiroli tehsil, the PDS store opens only two Saturdays in a month, because the person running the shop lives in Gadchiroli town. “It starts at 10 am and closes at 2 pm,” said Shobha Podawi, village resident and Anganwadi worker, “If you can’t buy your entire quota within these two Saturdays, it lapses.”

Village Kasari has the rare distinction of having a PDS store that opens almost daily. “It is run by my brother,” laughs Sarpanch Prakash Uike, “And so it remains open every day unless he is out.” This is a blessing, say residents, who can procure their grain in instalments as and when they have money.

But not every village is as lucky. Residents of village Dongarmendha have been making rounds of offices for the past two years for the allotment of a ration shop. “We have to fetch rations from a village six km away,” said Madhukar Karpate, former gram panchayat member, “And with the shop opening just four to five days a month, that is very difficult.” Rations lapsing appears to be the rule in several villages. Residents estimate anything between 10 and 50 per cent card holders fail to procure their full grain quota due to lack of cash or because of the limited number of days on which shops remain open. And rations not claimed during a month are declared lapsed.

District supplies officer Sharma agreed that the incidence of unclaimed rations is high in the district: “It is not practically possible for shopkeepers to handle the additional burden of disbursing back-dated as well as current rations, so if there are stocks remaining after a month’s disbursal, most of them simply lift less in the following month.” He did not rule out some amount of corruption, but said that since most shops follow the above-mentioned practice, cases of corruption are not likely to be very high.

Sharma, known in the district to be an upright officer, has, in his eight-month tenure, taken stern action against shops which regularly lift their stocks late and have high quantities of left over stocks. The licences of 12 shops have already been cancelled and the shops marked for reallotment. About 50 more licences are likely to be cancelled in the coming months as shop owners have not responded to show-cause notices, he revealed, and all new shops will be allotted to women’s self-help groups in the village. He hoped that allotting shops to such groups would ensure they remain open more regularly. “At present, very few shops in the district are run by self-help groups,” he said.

Most residents of Gadchiroli believe PDS is for supply of grains and kerosene. And that sugar and edible oils are supplied only during festivals. “Sugar is supplied hardly four to five times a year, and oil even less,” said Mohan Fule of village Kasari, “And oil only during Holi, Pola (an agricultural festival) and Diwali.” This is pretty much true for the entire district. Sharma said most shopkeepers hesitate to lift stocks of oil and sugar because most people do not have enough purchasing power and stocks tend to pile up.

Three months’ rations at one go

The Maharashtra government’s new proposal to supply rations on a quarterly rather than on a monthly basis has met with universal opposition in the cash strapped tribal dominated Gadchiroli district. “It is simply not possible for even better off families to pay for three months’ rations at one go,” said Kumari Jamkatan, “As it is people are finding it difficult to pay for one month’s rations at one go, and stocks are lapsing in large quantities. It is absurd for the government to try to impose such a scheme on people so poor.” Jamkatan headed a delegation of women—people’s representatives, grassroots workers and self-help group members—from the entire tehsil which met the tehsildar and submitted a memorandum opposing the move.

Keshav Gurnule, who runs the non-profit Srushti in Wadsa tehsil, said, “In the villages, hardly anyone buys a whole month’s supply of anything at one go except for PDS grain, and that too because it is cheap. Most other essentials are purchased loose in small quantities depending on the availability of cash.”

ORISSA 

Ghost ration cards and private dealers

PDS in Orissa’s Balangir district is in name practically

According to independent estimates, 50 persons in the age group of 30-45 have died of starvation and undernourishment in Orissa’s Balangir district during the last two years. The latest victims are from a tribal family in Chabripali village in Khaprakhol block. It lost five members within four months last year.

The gross inadequacies of PDS have only served to further strengthen Balangir’s claim of being Orissa’s chronic hunger zone. The distribution of wheat, sugar and the region’s staple rice is irregular in the rural belt where mainly panchayats have been entrusted with the responsibility. Even government officials admit that panchayats have failed to stick to the distribution schedule which is the 5th, 6th, 7th, 20th, 21st and 22nd of every month. Complaints of distribution even getting delayed by a month or two are frequent.

People of Kandakhal village under Ganrei panchayat of Muribahal block are still waiting for their July and August supply. “This is not the first time. Supply has been delayed by two or three months many times before this,” said Baishnab Mahanand, a BPL card holder of the village. The supply of wheat and sugar has been even more irregular. The APL card of Shyamsunder Bharsagar of the same village records 10 kg in June 2009 and 8 kgs in August the same year. After that wheat columns are blank in his card till December though he has been regularly asking for his monthly quota of 10 kg. “Each time I ask the people in the panchayat they tell me there is no supply. This year they gave me 12 kg only once in March saying this was my share for two months which means they gave me only 6 kg for one month against my quota of 10,” said Bharsagar.

Not only is the supply irregular, fair price shops across the district have also been flouting with impunity the regulations about displaying the availability and quantity of foodgrain in their stocks. With shops not sticking to the official distribution schedules, people rely on word of mouth to find out when a particular panchayat would be distributing. “Sometimes the executive officer would ring the local ward member and tell him the date but most often we come to know about it from others who happen to visit the panchayat godowns by chance,” said Bharsagar.

The PDS monitoring mechanism appears to have collapsed in the district with retail level advisory committees yet to be formed. “This is on account of lack of interest on the part of the block development officers and the fact that there politics over nominations,” said Trinath Sahu, senior clerk in the Balangir Civil Supplies Corporation office. The four-tier monitoring system includes block level, town level and district level advisory committees besides the retail committees. But so far only the formation of district committee and the block level committees besides a few town committees has been completed. Of these the most important are the retail level advisory committees which have been entrusted with the responsibility of ensuring that the retailer lifts his quota and the stocks allotted are actually brought to the retail centre besides supervising its fair distribution among the consumers. In the absence of these committees, there appears to be no real check on the retailers in the district.

Like all other parts of the state, ghost ration cards plague Balangir’s food distribution system. While around 100,000 such cards were detected and scrapped all over the state during a three-month drive between November 2009 and January this year, 3,391 bogus cards were cancelled in Balangir. The district administration, which continues with its card verification drive, has also decided to try and reach the families of the large number of migrant labourers who go out of the state leaving their cards behind. “There have been reports these cards are pawned with money lenders, who misuse them,” said Bolangir cso, Ramesh Chandra Panda.

However, barring occasional seizures Corporation officials have been unable to check the rampant blackmarketing of pds rice in the district. In the latest seizure on July 30 six bags of PDS wheat were recovered from a private godown in Balangir town. Eight ration cards were also seized.

Grain Banks

In this scenario the formation of people’s seed and grain banks in around 60 villages of the district with the active support of an NGO called Regional Centre for Development Cooperation (RCDC) comes as good news. One of these running at Fapsi village in Brahmanijor panchayat has provided timely succour to a number of its members. This grain bank was actually an offshoot of the seed bank formed by the villagers in 2008 with a contribution of Rs 4,000 by RCDC. Part of the produce from the seeds bought with this money went to the seed bank which slowly grew in strength as people also contributed on their own to the institution from which they borrowed in times of need. “Normally we have a stock of 60 kg moong and 85 kg of paddy in the bank. In case we run out of stock and someone requires seeds urgently we buy it from the market and give it to them,” said Jibardhan Chandan, one of the members.

In the nearby Sialjor village bank foodgrain remain in the custody of women in three different houses. According to Khir Ghibela, one of the custodians, at present the bank has around 120 kg of rice which would stand them in good stead in the time of need. “Given the vagaries of the PDS in our area the need may arise any moment,” she quipped. RCDC field organizer, Akhandeswar Amat said the movement was catching up as people were becoming increasing conscious of the need to save and store grains for their own collective good.

Fair-price shops

In Balangir district there are 1,687 fair-price shops of which 1,246 are only kerosene dealerships which are in private hands. These have been licensed by the food supplies department only to deal in keorosene. The distribution of food grains remains in the hands of gram panchayats, women self-help groups, cooperatives; model fair-price shops are run by the civil supplies corporation. In the urban areas, there are 184 private kerosene dealers while the distribution of grains is being done by four model fair-price shops which have their extension counters as well.

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