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.