How Aadhaar and Digitisation Compounded Problems of Corruption, Leakages and Exclusion Plaguing the PDS in Jharkhand

The distribution of food grains in Jharkhand continued to be plagued by issues such as the power equation between village residents and the FPS dealers; the caste and gender prejudices in the villages; and the lack of awareness among villagers about the NFSA and their rights under the law. Manish Swarup/AP Photo
01 August, 2017

On 21 July, during the parliament’s monsoon session, CR Chaudhary, the minister of state for consumer affairs, food and public distribution, stated in the Rajya Sabha that the government has issued around 231 million rations cards covering almost 80 crore beneficiaries to food subsidies under the National Food Security Act of 2013. The NFSA aims to make food a legal entitlement in India by providing monthly subsidised food grains to at least 75 percent of the country’s rural population and 50 percent of its urban population.

Under the NFSA, food grains are distributed through the targeted public distribution system (TDPS). The TPDS is an order issued in 2015 by the central government for the implementation of the NFSA. It directs state governments to ensure the distribution of subsidised food grains through fair-price shops, or FPS—the lowest unit in the supply chain under the distribution system—for which the state government grants licenses to local corporations such as self help group  that set up the shops.

As a part of the twelfth five-year plan, the central government’s department of food and public distribution initiated a project termed the End-to-end Computerization of TPDS Operations. During this year’s budget session, Ram Vilas Paswan, the minister for food and public distribution, told the Lok Sabha that the central government had taken several steps for the implementation of this project. These included, Paswan said, the digitisation of ration cards, computerisation of supply chain management, setting up of a grievance redressal system, and Aadhaar seeding—the linking of Aadhaar numbers with the digitised ration cards in the central government’s database.

Earlier in the year, on 8 February, the food ministry issued a notification requiring beneficiaries of the NFSA to undergo Aadhaar authentication before 30 June. In response to another question in the Rajya Sabha, Chaudhary also stated that the Aadhaar seeding of 78.67 percent of the total number of beneficiaries in India has been completed, and among 527,008 fair price shops in the country, 245,706—less than half—were digitised. According to a note on the “end-to-end computerization” project available on the food department’s website, the expected outcomes of the project included the “removal of bogus cards,” “timely availability of foodgrains to beneficiaries” and that it would “check leakages/diversion.”

On 3 July, I travelled from Ranchi, the capital of Jharkhand, to two remote villages—Simra and Sangrampur—in Sahibganj district of the state’s Santhal Division. Adivasis comprise a majority of the population in both villages. The two-day visit revealed to me that the Aadhaar linkage and the digitisation of the PDS supply chain have not prevented corruption and leakages in the distribution system. Though the digitisation may have addressed the issues of ghost ration cards, the distribution of food grains is still dependant on the supply chain with the local FPS dealers. As a result, the distribution of food grains in these villages continued to be plagued by issues such as the power equation between village residents and the FPS dealers; the caste and gender prejudices in the villages; and the lack of awareness among villagers about the NFSA as well as their rights under the law. These issues were further compounded by the non-implementation of the act—there was no visible presence of a vigilance mechanism to monitor the supply chain, and no platform for grievance redressal, which led to an absence of accountability on the part of government officials.

According to the 2011 census of India, Simra has a population of 1441. Located on the border of Bihar and Jharkhand, the village is a six-kilometre walk on a kaccha road from Mandro block in Sahibganj. I reached Simra at around 9 am on 4 July and found myself flanked by thatched huts, which were wedged between rows of trees, and surrounded by fields and mountains. As far as I could see, however, there was no sign of public governance. I could not spot a single police station, government school or hospital. The villagers later told me that they had to go to Mandro for any such public services.

I went to the courtyard of one of the houses, where three boys were sitting and conversing in Santhal. I asked them whether they got their full monthly ration. Benjamin Tuddu, a 16-year-old boy who was a resident of the house, told me that the local FPS dealer wrote in the ration card that he had given Benjamin 35 kilograms of rice, but gave him only 28 kilograms. Benjamin added that he always got two litres of kerosene although the ration card noted that he received two-and-a-half or three litres.

Under the NFSA, a beneficiary is entitled to five kilograms of food grain every month from local FPS dealer, unless a household has been identified for the Antoyadya Anna Yojana (AAY)—a central government-sponsored scheme, according to which eligible beneficiaries are entitled to 35 kilograms of subsidised food grains irrespective of number of family members in the house. As I sat in the courtyard of Benjamin’s house, several other families came to show me their ration cards. Around 50 people showed me their family cards and they all told me that they too received lesser quantity of food grains and kerosene every month than what the FPS dealers had noted on their ration cards. Merry Soren, a resident of the village whose family comprises four members, said she only received 16 kilograms of rice instead of 20 kilograms as per her entitlement, but was still asked to pay for the entire 20 kilograms.

The cards also reflected that the distribution was completed only till the month of May. Under the TPDS, state governments were directed to ensure the distribution of food grains to FPS before the first week of a month. However, the village residents told me that they always received the food grains at an interval of around 45 days and that the distribution was never on a fixed date. They added that the dealers never gave them the receipt for the food grains and kept it with themselves.

When I asked the residents whether they had ever questioned the FPS dealers about the shortage in quantity of food grains, they told me that the dealers did not hear their complaints and scolded them for it. Benjamin translated what Mari Marandi, another resident of the village, told me,“Kehte hain, ‘Jao, jahan jana hai jao. Jisko bolna hai bolo’”—They [the FPS dealers] say, “Go, wherever you want to go, tell whoever you want to tell.” Shally Tuddu, another resident, said she feared that the dealers would stop giving them the grains. Shally told me that if they complained, the dealers tell them, “If you want it, take it, if you don’t, then don’t.”

The NFSA requires state governments to appoint or designate a district grievance redressal officer (DGRO) for “expeditious and effective redressal of grievances of the aggrieved persons in matters relating to distribution of entitled foodgrains.” In May 2015, the Jharkhand government issued a notification giving all additional collectors in every district the additional charge of serving as the DGRO in their respective districts. However, all the residents I spoke to were unaware about the existence of the DGRO and that they could approach them with complaints.

I spoke to Ashrafi Prasad, a state coordinator of Right to Food campaign, which is a network of organisations and individuals working towards the implementation of the NFSA, about the DGROs in the state. He told me that he found the DGROs clueless about their job responsibilities. “Some DGROs are my friends. They say, ‘you only tell me, what should we do?’” Prasad added, “They didn’t have a separate office to exercise their power as DGRO,” Prasad added.

The inefficiency of grievance redressal options for consumers in Jharkhand is also a concern in the consumer grievance redressal forums in the state. A public interest litigation pending before the Jharkhand High Court since 2014 argues that the state lacks “necessary infrastructure and necessary human resources at Consumer Commission and at Consumer Forums in the districts.” According to the last order in the case on the court’s website, in March 2017, the court adjourned the case till 2 May, “on the promise that something better will be done by the state of Jharkhand for effective functioning of the Consumer Commission as well as Consumer Forums in all the districts of the state of Jharkhand.”

After meeting the villagers, I went to meet one of the two FPS dealers in Simra village. The FPS distributed food grains to 195 houses in the village and was run by a group called Jyothi Self Help Group. I met Anna Marik, one of the SHG members, at the shop.

Marik openly admitted that she gave five kilograms less to the each villager. She told me it was because the sacks of grains that she received from the Food Corporation of India (FCI) weighed less than the quantity that she is supposed to get. “What can we do, sir, we get less quantity from there itself,” she said. She said the sacks are sealed but don’t carry the requisite amount of grain—each sack is supposed to have 50 kilos of rice, Marik said, but weighed only 43 or 45 kilos. When I asked her about the reduction in the kerosene oil that was distributed, she told me she spends around Rs 1,500 on labour costs and bribes to receive her monthly allocation from the FCI godowns.

The FPS dealers do not receive salary from the state government and earn their income through commissions from the distribution. According to the present commission rates provided by the state government, an FPS dealer earns a commissionof one rupee on each kilogram of food grain and ten paisa on each litre of kerosene. Nazar Khalid, a research student at Jawaharlal Nehru University who has been conducting field surveys on the PDS in Jharkhand for a year, said that “the commission is so less that it is incentivising corruption.” Khalid had accompanied me in my visit to both villages. He was a part of a team working with the economist Jean Drèze, which conducted a survey of 1,000 households in 32 villages in Jharkhand on the effects of Aadhaar linkage in the PDS.

Jharkhand has a total of 5,634,536 ration card holders,which includes 917,751 AAY households, who are given food grains by 23,354 FPS dealers in the state. As part of the end-to-end computerisation programme for TPDS, the state and central government created a central server with digitised ration cards of PDS beneficiaries, which is linked with their Aadhaar numbers.FPS dealers were equipped with electronic point-of-sale machines (epos) with biometric authentication functions. Once the identity of a beneficiary is authenticated, the machine states the quantity that they are eligible to receive and the data is updated online in real time after an FPS dealer distributes the subsidised food grain.

This digitisation and Aadhaar seeding have not only failed in its endeavour to prevent leakages in the supply chain, but introduced new problems for the residents of the village. Tala Murmu, a 55-year-old resident, told me that she had not been getting her entitlements since the introduction of biometric authentication in October 2016. Prior to that, she said, she used to receive five kilograms of rice and one litre of kerosene every month.

“The dealer says my name doesn’t show in the record after I punch in the biometric machine,” Murmu said, before adding, “I have been forced to buy my food grain from the market since last Durga Puja.” She told me that she still received subsidised kerosene oil, but her ration card showed allocation of both food grains and kerosene till the month of May.

Another resident of the village, Sarojini Kisku, who appeared to be in her 60s, had the same complaint. She said she was unable to receive food grains after the introduction of biometric authentication in October. Both the women could not read, were not aware of their legal rights, and did not have any families who could support them in asserting their rights before the FPS dealer.

Drèze told me that it is women such as Kisku and Murmu who are the most vulnerable to the process of digitisation and for whom the new system is not working. “For the system to work, first you need to have Aadhaar, then you have to feed Aadhaar number in the system, then the machine has to be connected over the internet, and then you have to have biometric authentication,” he said.

Although FPS dealers can provide an option for offline transactions, Drèze said, “the offline system is no better than old registry system and it would do nothing to bring change in the existing corruption.” In the offline system, an FPS dealer can distribute individuals’ entitlements and later update it on their own after getting internet connectivity.

According to Drèze, another serious issue that has remained unaffected by the Aadhaar linkage to ration cards is that the excess food grains that are left with FPS dealers after distribution of a month’s quota of food grains are not accounted in the next month’s allocation. The 2015 TPDS order requires an FPS dealer to produce a monthly utilisation certificate of the food allocation in the previous month before claiming the allocation for the subsequent month. The certificate has to be submitted to the state government, which in turn, produces an annual utilisation certificate to the central government.

The Jharkhand government’s web portal, which records allocations and distributions of PDS for all the districts, reflects the closing balance of food grain quantity of all districts as zero for every month. Drèze told me, “We [his team] know the actual figure [left with the dealer],” and added, “but still the website shows zero closing balance.”He continued, “The question is, where is that leftover food grain going?”

Apart from the position of a DGRO, the NFSA also directs state governments to set up vigilance committees, which were also recognised under the TPDS programme and tasked with overseeing and ensuring the distribution of food grains under it. In pursuance of the act, the Jharkhand government created vigilance committees in September 2015.

The state vigilance committee had 20 members including ministers and secretaries of all the government departments and nominated members of parliament and legislative assembly, and the state minister for food, consumer affairs and public distribution as its chairman. The district and block committees had ten and nine members each respectively.

I made several attempts to speak to the members of the committees.Vinay Choubey, the secretary in the state’s food and public distribution department, after multiple calls, only responded to a text message. He said, “entire pds system has been computerized and beneficiary level authentication based on aadhaar with the use of epos machines are being followed in the state. This has led to sharp decline in leakage and empowerment of the card holders.”

NN Sinha, the secretary in the state’s agriculture department, who is also a member of the state vigilance committee, told me that monitoring TPDS wasn’t his job and that I should speak to Choubey. When I told Sinha that he too was a member of the committee, he said that it was “just a departmental portfolio.” When I asked him about quarterly meetings that the TDPS order mandates the vigilance committees have, he told me there was a meeting this year but that he didn’t attend it because of his other engagements. I also reached out to Vijay Kumar Hansdak, an MP from Sahibganj district who is member of the district’s vigilance committee. Hansdak, too, refused to speak on the issue and told me that he could only comment if I met him in person.

The act also mandates that state governments constitute a state food commission. On 13 April 2017, the food secretary Chaubey issued a notification stating that the Jharkhand government had set up the state food commission in December 2015. Prasad, the state coordinator in the Right to Food campaign, told me that the commission still had no physical office and that he did not know where it functioned from.

On 4 July, I visited Sangrampur village, in Sahibganj’s Rajmahal block, which is around 90 minutes away by train from the district’s railway station. In comparison to Simra, Sangrampur appeared economically strong and connected to the rest of the district. A cemented road spiraled through the village. A majority of the village’s population are Adivasis, though the village also had residents belonging to other communities, as evidenced by signage such as “Yadav Tola” (Yadav Enclave). Similarly, there was a Dalit Tola as well, though there was no signboard indicating the same. Each community was ghettoised in their own enclave. Except the Dalits houses, all others had cemented walls and tiled roofs.

Unlike Simra, the distribution of food grain through biometric authentication began in Sangrampur only in June 2017. I met three families who were unable to get their Aadhaar linked with their ration cards, and as a result, did not receive any subsidised food grains. Sulekha Devi, a middle-aged resident of the village, told me that she had given all the necessary documents to a local FPS dealer to link her Aadhaar card with the ration card, but the dealer told her the Aadhaar was not linked and didn’t give her any food grains in June.

Later that day, I met Maheswar Tuddu, an FPS dealer in Sangrampur. Maheswar told me that there were 20 such families who were unable to seed their Aadhaar card, and that it was not his job to complete the Aadhaar seeding because it required travelling to Sahibganj. “Why would I do it for free?” he asked. He added that he, personally, was not the license holder for that FPS. It was in the name of Jyothi Self Help Group, the same as that in Simra, whose member Merry Tuddu was among the actual license holders. Maheswar said he is Merry’s brother-in-law and was running the FPS in her stead.

The day of my visit, Prabhat Khabar, a local newspaper, carried a news report about the seizure of 100 kilograms of rice,on 3 July, from a ghat on the banks of the Ganga. The report noted that the rice sacks were being taken to be sold at a market in West Bengal. Several villagers said that the FPS dealers, in collusion with the mukhiya and district officials, often smuggled rice sacks. According to the villagers, though the police officials knew who was responsible, they had not yet registered a first information report. “A man was caught too from the spot [the ghat] with the food grains and everyone in the village knows whom he works for, yet the police didn’t arrest him,” a local grocer, who requested not to be identified, told me.

I spoke to Brahmdev Choudhury, an inspector at the Rajmahal police station, about the seizure. He told me that the sacks were not those distributed as a part of the TPDS. Choudhury added, “Lagta hai ye sab bahar ka bori hai,general marketwala. Yeh FCI ka bora nahi lagta hai”—It looked like these were all sacks from the general market; they don’t look like the FCI sacks. He told me the investigation was ongoing and that no arrests had been made.

As was the case in Simra, members of almost all 40 houses I visited told me that they got less quantity than what they were entitled to. Maheswar, too, admitted to giving the villagers lesser than their due, and echoed the same defence as Marik in Simra—that each of the sacks he received from FCI’s depot had lesser than 50 kilograms of food grains.

The Dalit families told me that the dealer gave them food grains at the end, after he had distributed it to everyone else in the village. Vishu Rikhayasan, one of the Dalit men in the village, told me that they were not treated well by the mukhiya whenever they went to her house to register a complaint.“When we go, he [the FPS dealer] tells us to sit outside on the ground,” Rikhayasan said. When I visited the mukhiya at her house, she told me that one of her relatives took care of the public distribution work and that she had no knowledge of the same.

The sarpanch at Simra had given me a similar response when I met her. She told me that her husband took care of all the work related to the panchayat and asked me to wait to speak to him. When Babulal Hansda, her husband, returned home, he told me that he was aware of the ongoing corruption and leakages in the PDS but had little power to stop it. “Mukhiya ka yahi kaam hai ki jo galat ho raha hai usko district officer ke nazar mein laayeinThe job of the village chief is to bring the wrongdoings in the village to the attention of the district officer, Hansda said. He continued,“Magar ye log sab mila hua hai toh kya karen. Pehle ek mahina theek rahega, phir wahi haal,” he said—but if they all collude, then what can be done? It will be fine for the first month, and then return to the same scenario.