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Target Public Service Delivery: Why Do We Need It?

The FCI and the Commission of Agricultural Costs and Prices (CACP) were set up by the government of India, mainly to improve domestic procurement and storage of food grains.

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Recently, Tamil Nadu became the 11th Indian state to adopt 'One Nation One Ration Card' system. This scheme’s agenda is to include everyone in the Public Distribution System (PDS), irrespective of their location. The concept of inclusivity in availability of resources has been an important one since independence. To achieve this goal, the government is looking to expand the Target Public Distribution System (TPDS), which was launched in 1997 (known as PDS earlier). The new system focuses more on the below poverty line consumers.

Simply put, TPDS is another way to increase nutrition accessibility in the most isolated and deprived corners of India. This system functions in a much more organised manner than the previously existing schemes. Under the operation of TPDS, the beneficiaries come under one of the two categories, namely, “Households Below the Poverty Line” (BPL), and “Households Above the Poverty Line” (APL). Further, the functions of this scheme are divided between centre and state. Central Government is responsible for procurement of food grains, as well as transportation to designated depots of Food Corporation of India (FCI). The state government is responsible for allocation and distribution of food grains within the state, identification of beneficiaries and issuance of ration cards. The FCI and the Commission of Agricultural Costs and Prices (CACP) were set up by the government of India, mainly to improve domestic procurement and storage of food grains.

The need to regulate food access stems from the inadequate access to nutrition in the niche corners of India, which is key to reducing poverty and hunger. Presently, India is one of the world’s largest producers of milk and pulses, while it holds second rank in the production of rice, wheat, sugarcane, groundnut, vegetables, fruits, and cotton, as per the data released by Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Despite these encouraging statistics,14% of India’s population is undernourished, according to The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World, 2020 Report. The report also states that 189.2 million people are undernourished in India and the growth of 34.7 per cent of the children aged under five years in India is stunted. Further, the report also notes that 20% of India’s children suffer from wasting (under the age of 5), meaning their weight is too low for their height. A lot of these issues can and must be addressed by TPDS, expanding which, along with crop diversification will take care of India’s dismal position.

We also have the prevalent practice of mono-cropping, that is, growing the same crop repeatedly and successively on the same piece of land. This leads to soil deterioration and ground water scarcity. In 2018, a working group of NITI Ayog, chaired by Dr Pramod Kumar, published a study ‘Demand supply projections towards 2033’, which projected that India will still have surplus wheat and rice. It is usually due to single crop production at the cost of others, especially in areas of Green Revolution like Punjab and Haryana. This is happening at a time where one out of every two women is anaemic, and a large chunk of the Indian population is protein deficient. If better outreach is provided to the farmer, along with customer feedback and economic incentive, it will lead to better supply and delivery of food grains and pulses. In this light, schemes such as ‘One Nation One Ration Card’ and TPDS, which expand customer base, will serve as a great incentive to the farmer to diversify production. This not only increases the cultivator’s income, but also promotes environment sustainability.

In more recent times, with ongoing farmers’ protest in Delhi, there was a growing concern that this will affect the procurement system. This could well impact the availability of food grains in the public distribution system. It is in stressful times like these, that the beneficiary requires flexibility of purchase, along with dietary options. We already have schemes like Digital India, which is powering point of sale machines under One Nation One Ration Card scheme, to organise grain distribution. However, the expanse of this scheme’s coverage is possible only when coupled with opening TPDS at far flung locations. The two ventures must go hand in hand.

In addition, there are various other reasons why we need a solid TPDS system in place. It helps in maintaining the food security of the nation, not just by increasing accessibility, but also because food is available for the beneficiaries at affordable prices. Also, since the price is pre-decided and fixed by the government, the consumers are immune to inflation or any kind of price fluctuations. The TPDS also maintains buffer stock of food grains, which will help during the lean season of crop production, and in providing food security to areas which are otherwise difficult to commute, like North East region.

Despite the advantages, there is a lot that is left to be desired to ensure the inclusivity objectives of TPDS. Recently, there were reports that PDS has not yet reached remote bordering areas of Dhalai district in Trpura, causing problems for at least 3000 beneficiaries. Further, the Covid-19 pandemic seems to have exposed gross irregularities in the PDS system at Cuttack district, as 6,726 suspected ‘ghost beneficiaries’ had not availed their ration. Many migrants who were able to access food under National Food Security Act or State Food Security Act, are now excluded. Identification of beneficiaries is a major issue, which is susceptible to large inclusion and exclusion errors. This means inequitable distribution of food and inclusivity issues. Further, inappropriate procurement is leading to hoarding and insufficient grain supply to the market. India wastes one-third of its grain produce every year. It is also noteworthy that in September 2020, the food stock of Food Corporation of India went up to 70 million tonnes, which is enough to ensure that no one went hungry. What we need is to bridge the gap between production and consumption, for which better organisation of TPDS is needed.

The PDS, and its modern avatar of TPDS have also been criticised for their urban bias, that is, they serve only city people and not their rural counterparts. Also, the TPDS is proving to be costly, and it also gives rise to corruption in the process of categorisation of the poor from those who are less needy.

Given the exigency of food security situation, the government is also taking concrete steps to expand the PDS system. For example, The

‘One Nation One Ration Card’ scheme is speculated to be operational well within one year. Once the point-of-sale machines are made available at all the Targeted Public Distribution ration shops across, the scheme will be launched, which will help people, especially migrant workers, avail the benefits. Such a scheme is beneficial in the times of Covid, when a lot of migrants had to leave urban areas and walk home. Under TPDS, government in December 2000 also launched ‘Antyodaya Anna Yojana’, which involved identification of one crore poorest of the poor families from amongst the number of BPL families covered. The government is also using technology to upgrade the existing system, by re-launching ‘End-to-end Computerisation of Public Distribution System Operations’ and ‘Integrated Management of Public Distribution System’. With a growing focus on Digital India and ensuring transparency, the issue of corruption will also be addressed to a large extent.

India is thus on the right track with respect to advancing the public distribution system which has so far helped in stabilising food prices and making food available to consumers at affordable prices. It has also aided in avoiding hunger and famine by supplying food from surplus regions of the country to deficient regions. Knowing the entire spectrum of advantages TPDS has to offer, a lot can be done to increase its efficiency.