The PDS learning curve

Tike tike in Orissa

By Jijo Jose
Published: Thursday 18 August 2011

Kemathi accho” translates to “ how are you” in Odiya, said one of the local volunteers to me as our train made its way from Raipur in Chhattisgarh to Odisha through dried up riverbeds and parched lands. A summer survey to study the ground realities of the Public Distribution System (PDS), initiated by IIT Delhi and coordinated by development economists Jean Dreze and Reetika Khera, was being conducted in nine states of the country. I was part of the survey (see: Selected Findings) and was deputed to Odisha, a place not to my liking, worsened further by my alienation from the language. Along with me were people working on food security issues in India, who firmly believed that India’s PDS was essential for the survival of many of its citizens.

Of late there has been intense debates among policymakers about the futility of the PDS and how people would be better off if it were replaced with cash transfers. Before the main survey I had been part of a pilot survey in Himachal Pradesh, where the PDS runs as smoothly as an Aamir Khan movie in a multiplex. Yet I wanted cash transfers to be implemented on a pilot basis to see how they actually work rather than them just being an idea mooted by academics sitting in their plush chairs.

In Odisha, we surveyed two districts: Nuapada, infamous for its starvation deaths and high rates of distress migration, and Sundergarh, hotbed of the controversial POSCO project. In each district we surveyed six villages, spread over two blocks. Interviewing 10-12 randomly selected Below Poverty Line (BPL) or Antyodaya households in each village was much easier than first locating them. This was because some households on the BPL list did not actually possess a BPL or Antyodaya card. For instance, in Biswananthpur, out of the 70 households in the village, only about 14-15 had ration cards. The BPL and Antyodaya ration card holders in Odisha are entitled to rice, sugar and kerosene. Even though the shops initially give the impression that the PDS does not work, closer inspection reveals that it actually does reasonably well, even in interior areas. While at most places rice was provided regularly, supply of sugar and kerosene was fairly irregular.

As the days passed by, I realized that understanding Odiya was not such a painful task. With help from the three Odiya speaking members of our five-member team, our household interviews provided us an opportunity to have detailed and insightful conversations with the respondents. We returned with a wealth of information about our respondents’ harsh lives. I recall a man whose family did not have enough resources to live adequately through farming and casual labour, because of which he had taken up the additional task of grazing the village head’s cow.

Apart from enquiring about the functioning of the PDS, we also sought to find out people’s preferences between the PDS and cash transfers. Asking people about their preference between PDS and cash required us to first make them imagine their ration being replaced with monthly cash transfers in their bank accounts. I was very sceptical about the ability of people living in villages to imagine such a complex hypothetical situation. During the training, we were told that if respondents express a preference for one option (say, food), we should gently play the devil's advocate and present them with the advantages of the other option. This was to help them understand the pros and cons of both options. But we rarely had to resort to this as the moment we would ask people about their preference, most were immediately in favour of food rations.

Further, this choice was substantiated with very sound reasons. These reasons ranged from remoteness of banks and markets to the fear of misuse of money on goods such as clothes, medicines or children's material wants. An old woman told us how difficult it would be for her to first travel miles to withdraw money from the bank and then take the money to a market which would be equally far away. A young woman doubted the government's intention and ability to deposit money in her family account every month and index the amount transferred to inflation as and when the prices increase.

To get the views of a larger number of people, we held group discussions in the evenings. Despite being tired after toiling hard in the fields all day, men postponed their night meal and came for these discussions. When we asked them whether they would like to get money in place of the ration they were getting, we got a unanimous refusal. The men confessed that alcohol will be bought with a large portion of the money given to them for buying food. Some said that the safeguard of opening banks in women's names may not help as men will forcefully take money away from their wives or mothers. Such compelling arguments from them dispelled the remaining traces of support for cash transfers which I had.

On repeatedly seeing people in the villages treat their sacks of grains as bags full of gold, I was reminded of my grandfather who would want his grandchildren to eat without letting a single grain of rice fall out of their plates. Tike-tike (translates to little-little in Odiya) this survey was an enormous learning curve for me. Tike-tike the urge to see cash transfers implemented subsided.

As the bus halted for people to stretch themselves, a five year old girl sat next to me. “Kemathi accho” I asked her. A beautiful smile was her only response.

Jijo Jose is currently pursuing an MA in Economics at the University of Mumbai. He spent three weeks this June in Odisha for the survey

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