The Public Distribution System: Problems and Prospects

    • By,
      Yashi Mishra – Academic Associate, Kautilya

The Public Distribution System (PDS), which is to be revised every three years and appropriately linked with minimum support price (MSP), is a system for managing scarcity by providing food grains to the targeted population at affordable prices of Rs 3, 2, and 1 per Kg of rice, wheat, and coarse grains, respectively, every month. It’s one of the measures for ending poverty. The market price of goods offered at subsidy is significantly greater, hence there is a considerable income gain. The Public Distribution System ensures that no one dies of hunger. It legislates the right to food for two-thirds of the people living in our country. India is ranked 107th overall out of 121 countries in the 2021 Global Hunger Index. India had a score of 29.1, indicating a severe level of hunger in the country. The Public Distribution System is crucial for feeding our country’s enormous population, yet for every kilogram of food grain that gets to the beneficiary, the Food Corporation of India (FCI) releases 2.5 kilograms. Several issues in the functioning of PDS make it important for us to discuss its problems and prospects.

The Public Distribution System has evolved in six stages and the National Food Security Act (NFSA) was introduced during the last stage in September 2013. NFSA 2013 delinked Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS) with poverty estimates and linked with population coverage; 75% of rural and 50% of the urban population is entitled to receive subsidized food grains. Total coverage is 67.5% of the population. Several food security arrangements were made under NFSA like doorstep delivery of food grains at TPDS outlets, application of ICT tools and computerization for transparency in the delivery system, leveraging Aadhar cards of beneficiaries for identification and targeting of beneficiaries under TPDS, Direct Benefit Transfer scheme, and food entitlement to pregnant women and children up to 14 years of age respectively through Anganwadis and mid-day meal scheme (MDM) at schools. The government also runs various programs to ensure food security in the country like the wheat-based nutrition programme which aims to provide nutrition to children below 6 years of age, the Rajiv Gandhi scheme for empowerment of adolescent girls under which 100 grams of food grains are given per 11-18 years old girls per day for 300 days in a year, fortification of rice and Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojna(PMGKAY).

Despite such appreciable attempts, there are several loopholes in the system. Beneficiaries often suffer due to a time lag in the distribution of grains and are dissatisfied with the quality of food grains. Non-viability of fair-price shops was another problem revealed by Mahima Gopal in her research on Public Distribution System. Diversion of subsidized food grain to the open market which is supposed to be distributed through fair price shops and inability to reach the target groups in most parts of the country due to lack of good quality regular data and no regular estimate of the annual income of such households are the typical issues faced by government authorities. The system leaves more than 100 million people because the central government uses 2011 population figures from the last census to calculate state-wise Public Distribution System coverage. Dreze reported in his study that at all-India levels, applying the 67% ratio to a projected population of 1,372 million for 2020, The Public Distribution System coverage today would be 922 million, instead of around 800 million. Multiple deprivation factors like migration at the district level and the existence of ghost ration cards are ignored which leads to financial burden and inclusion errors in PDS.

Dependence on Public Distribution System is deeply rooted in our country as Public Distribution System supplements essential household supplies. A large section of the population would become food sufficient if policymakers help to resolve these issues by developing policies that focus on better management of Public Distribution System. End of universal Public Distribution System in Tamil Nadu, increasing Fair Price Shops (FPS) margin and using biometric information of all family members of cardholders can reduce leakage in the system. Efficient and closely monitored administration will reduce corruption in the system. A well-structured transport system can also be the driver of success for Public Distribution System as it will ensure greater inclusivity. Diversification of commodities distributed under Public Distribution System can help to ensure the nutritional security of the targeted population. Indian states can learn from the Chhattisgarh PDS model where pulses, gram, jaggery, sugar, and iodized salt are provided other than conventional commodities under Public Distribution System which aided to improve the nutritional status of beneficiaries in the state. De-privatization of ration shops and doorstep delivery up to FPS in yellow vans increased the reach of Public Distribution System to distant locations in Chhattisgarh. Implementation of NFSA in 2013, has strengthened the Public Distribution System by providing statutory backing. Policy reforms aimed at improving the operational efficiencies and sustainability aspects of the Public Distribution System and NFSA are vital for its success. The Public Distribution System may not be able to eliminate the issue of malnutrition and childhood morbidity or mortality in India, but it can reduce the levels of hunger in India if implemented effectively.