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Tuesday 10 January 2012

Strong revival ANINDITA ADHIKARI In Jharkhand, an assertive populace is making sure that the dealers do not hijack the PDS.


Strong revival
In Jharkhand, an assertive populace is making sure that the dealers do not hijack the PDS.

In Angara block in Ranchi on June 20, villagers complaining to the district authorities at a meeting about their quota of PDS grain not being distributed for the past two months.
UNTIL a few years ago, the public distribution system (PDS) in Jharkhand appeared broken and beyond repair. The National Sample Survey data for 2004-05 suggest that more than 80 per cent of the PDS grain was sold in the open market at that time. A field survey in Ranchi and Dumka districts from June 4 to 18, part of a larger study of the PDS in nine States conducted by student volunteers, has found signs of a significant revival of the PDS in the State. This account is based on the first phase of the survey among BPL and Antyodaya households in Angara and Khunti blocks of (undivided) Ranchi district.
In Jharkhand, both BPL and Antyodaya families are entitled to 35 kg of rice a month at Re.1 a kg. This is better than in any other State except Tamil Nadu. Though only about one-fourth of the sample households got their full entitlements regularly, the shortfall that most of them reported was only two or three kilos. The extent of shortfall too had reduced considerably in the past two years.
After the issue price was reduced to Re.1 a kg (rice was even distributed free of cost for some time after drought was declared in August 2009), the people's stake in getting their full entitlements increased dramatically. PDS dealers themselves said the “ration card dhaariyo mein jagrukta” (new awareness of cardholders) and “system mein sudhar” (improvement of the PDS) had made the distribution of free or nearly free grain effective.
There were interesting examples of this increased assertiveness of people in demanding their due from the PDS dealer. In Sursu village (Singari gram panchayat), for instance, when residents found out that their quota of grain for November had been sold in the open market, they raised the issue in the gram sabha and the dealer was taken to task. Finally, the dealer agreed to compensate all the families the lost amount of rice over the next three months. A few families we interviewed had in fact received 40 kg of rice in the previous month.
The de-privatisation of ration shops, successfully accomplished in neighbouring Chhattisgarh, is yet to happen in Jharkhand. Most of the ration shops are still run by private dealers. However, the system of paying commissions to the dealer for transporting grain from the godown to the ration shop has been replaced with ‘doorstep delivery' to the ration shop. This acts as a safeguard against the diversion of grain by dealers when they lift their quota from the godown. However, because of low rates that transport contractors are paid and non-reimbursement of unloading costs, dealers are still charged some delivery costs. They compensate for this by ‘under-weighing' grain at the time of distribution.
Exclusion errors
The survey found major exclusion errors in the BPL list. In one village in Angara, the BPL list had only 82 families from one of the nine tolas (hamlets). When residents of the villages themselves conducted a survey last year, they came up with more than 350 families to be added to the list. However, the distribution of ration cards in the village is still based on the old list, which dates back to 1997. In many cases, the ration cards had practically disintegrated, and with no blank pages left the records were kept in makeshift notebooks. Those who had applied for new ration cards over a year ago had still not received them.
In trying to determine the regularity of supply, households were asked to recall the quantity of grain purchased over the past three months and whether their quota for any of these months was still pending. In Angara, household after household responded in the negative.
However, the records of PDS dealers had a different story to tell. What dealers followed was an ad hoc system of lifting and distribution of grain (described locally as the ‘chain system') whereby each month's rice quota was lifted from the Food Corporation of India (FCI) the following month. Sometimes the chain stretched to two months instead of one, as had happened in Angara just before the survey. Apparently, there were no fixed dates for distribution. As a result, households were unable to keep track of which month's ration they had purchased. The administration finally decided to put an end to this ‘chain system' from June 2011 and insisted on timely distribution of grain each month. Most villages in Angara lost their quotas for April and May because the administration insisted on distributing the June quota in June itself and starting afresh. The lapse in supply went undetected.
When these facts were highlighted in public meetings held in various villages across Angara, agitated residents began to mobilise themselves to demand the quota that the district administration claimed had “lapsed”. A complaint was sent to the Deputy Commissioner of Ranchi, followed by a one-day dharna at the Angara block office. The dharna's main slogan was “ Anaaj do, jawaab do” (Give grain, give answers).
The same day, district officials promised to distribute grain for April and May. They explained that from June onwards there would be increased vigilance and timely lifting of grain from the FCI, every month. Tightening the process and terminating the chain system, they said, had already ensured that 75 per cent of the quota for June had been lifted by the 9th of the month, well before the deadline of the 20th. Later the bulk of grain distribution for July and August in Angara block was also completed within the first week of the month. However, three months after the dharna, the missing quotas were yet to be distributed. This shows that public pressure alone cannot ensure the success of the PDS unless the system responds and delivers on its promises.
No to cash transfers
The survey also included detailed discussions with sample households about cash transfers as a possible alternative to the PDS. Contrary to expectations, most people preferred food over cash. The reasons cited for their preference were food security, the convenience of the local ration shop, fear of money being frittered away, transaction costs, and the disheartening experience (including long delays) of bank payments under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA). “Food lasts, money gets spent in a day or two” was a common refrain.
The PDS is the lifeline for families living on the edge of subsistence, just eating noon-bhaat (rice and salt) once or twice a day. On an average, the families we spoke to consumed about 70 kg of rice a month. Many households felt that, by covering about half of their grain requirements, the PDS was a critical source of food security.
The irregularities in foodgrain supply in Angara are not difficult to fix if there is political will. Streamlining the ‘doorstep delivery system', placing ration shops in the hands of community institutions (such as gram panchayats and self-help groups), redesigning ration cards, and introducing other transparency and accountability measures such as social audits and computerisation of records are some of the obvious steps waiting to be taken. A harder task is to improve the selection of BPL households and expand the coverage of the PDS to avoid exclusion errors. As for cash transfers, the “cash vs food” debate seems premature as far as Jharkhand is concerned. The need of the hour is to make the PDS work. Only then will it make sense to discuss whether cash transfers can do even better

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