That the Public Distribution System (PDS) was always leaky and inefficient is a matter of no dispute. Over the past few years, there was an effort to make it smarter and technology-driven. The PDS has come a long way from the one envisaged in the early 1960s. The courts have ensured it has turned from a charity-based welfare dole-out to a rights-based programme. The National Food Security Act of 2013 was a good step in this direction.
On paper, the targeted PDA under the National Food Security Act covers about 75 percent of the rural population and 50 percent of urban population. The system has turned out more transparent and automated compared to what it was a decade ago. As the system evolves, and once the ‘One Nation One Ration Plan’ gains momentum, we might be able to plug in leaks more efficiently and at the same time ensure even the migrant populations are not left out. All these are noble aims for the future.
However, there is a fundamental flaw in the way the system is being implemented and that may derail the entire purpose of the scheme. The ration cards are based on the 2011 Census. In a country with an exploding population as India, relying on a 10-year-old data has serious repercussions. India’s population was around 121 crore in 2011. Now, it is estimated to be near 140 crore. Even during the pre-Covid period, it was estimated that nearly 10 crore eligible people were excluded from the PDS system, according to economists Jean Dreaze and Reetika Khera. The pandemic has shattered the economy and has pushed around 23 crore Indians into the clutches of dire poverty.
As per an Azim Premji University report, there has been an increase of 15 per cent poverty in rural areas and 20 per cent surge in urban areas. The unemployment statistics would give any ruler with a conscience sleepless nights. As the agrarian crisis is devastating rural economies, the urban economy is not doing any better. Before the Covid-19 crisis, the manufacturing sector used to employ around four crore people. In August, this sector employed around 2.8 crore, indicating a huge loss of jobs. The surge in GDP is based on the low base of the previous year’s perilous fall and not on any real growth.
The industries that used to absorb the unemployed masses from the rural hinterlands, like construction, entertainment and retail are in limbo. Even the employment data doesn’t capture the real picture of distress, for it doesn’t show the fall in salaries and wages. Many positions have gone from permanent positions to temporary ones. All these indicate the humongous crisis that a huge section of our population is facing.
In May 2020, India’s Supreme Court had taken suo moto action to instruct the government to provide food for people suffering from hunger, irrespective of whether their data is captured in smart ration cards or not. Accordingly, the government had announced that it would provide ration to eight crore people who do not have ration cards for two months. But many states botched up even this.
To get a ration card was always a complex procedure, but is now mind-bogglingly difficult for the people who actually need them. Obtaining proof of residence, electricity bills and various other documents may be cumbersome but doable for the educated middle class, but these become stumbling obstacles for the destitute. There have been migrations and reverse migrations in the last two years due to the ever-changing rules on lockdowns and restrictions, resulting in no permanent address for many. If we rely on the 2011 data for feeding the destitute, how many deserving people are getting excluded?
If we depend on the National Sample Survey (NSS) household consumption survey date of 2011-2012, how can we account for the people who had slipped to poverty in the last two years? Maybe the government is aware of this huge gap but its hands are tied due to the fiscal deficit. In that case, isn’t it time to have our priorities right? We have surplus grains available in India. The FCI storages are overflowing with a record 10 crore metric tonnes of grains. It is at such times that the citizens should feel the government is with them. Technology obsession should not lead to policy blindness. The question to be asked is, is this the time to be smart or is this the time to have a heart? When sufficient grains are available with us, and if we allow one third of our citizens to go hungry, how can we call the system ‘smart’?
Author of Asura, Ajaya series, Vanara and Bahubali trilogy