A massive, long-running scam in ration card distribution in Assam has come to light. From 1991 to 2015, bogus ration cards were issued in the me of 3 lakh non-existent households under public distribution system (PDS). If five members per household can be taken as an average, there were 15 lakh ‘ghost’ beneficiaries consuming rice, sugar and flour, along with using kerosene for 24 long years. The previous Congress government in Assam smelt a rat in ration card distribution rather late in the day. A one-man inquiry committee with Justice (retd.) PC Agarwala was constituted, but soon it ran against a stony wall of official indifference. So much so, that in the key department of Food, Civil Supplies and Consumer Affairs, important files went missing as the inquiry panel began probing. The panel lodged police cases but could never access those files. It has now submitted its report, which could be taken up in the next Assembly session. It all boils down to yet another mega scam, the size of which could well be over Rs 1,000 crore. From fair price shops defrauding the poor to corrupt Food & Civil Supplies officials, it was a confederacy of thieves right up to the top. It remains to be seen if the report helps to shed light on those who lifted the subsidized foodstuffs and fuel going on paper to ghost beneficiaries, and then sold these off at the open market to line their pockets. But the report also promises to blow the lid off on how a large number of ration cards, even if issued to real households, were distributed along political lines. Justice Agarwala has spoken about ‘political interference’ operating at various levels to ensure that cooperative societies and village panchayats selected the desired beneficiaries. It all points to the politics of patroge the previous Congress regime had fine-tuned to reward committed voters with welfare freebies.
The public distribution system has been undergoing an overhaul in many states, especially after the tiol Food Security Act (NFSA) of 2013. In Assam, rice has been shifted under NFSA while distribution of PDS flour and sugar has been stopped. The ration card of yore remains primarily in use for kerosene, that too in small, irregular allocations. More important for poor households are the cards distributed to access NFSA grains. But here too, well-to-do households have maged to get hold of cards to receive subsidized rice under NFSA. State Food and Civil Supplies minister Rihon Daimary has been appealing to such undeserving ‘beneficiaries’ to surrender their cards, but he will now have to wield the stick. Plugging the gaps to implement NFSA is not something the Assam government can put off any longer. If it fails, it is likely to have a hard time getting the Centre to release necessary funds to keep the NFSA going. The difficulties in getting the Central government release funds to cover transportation costs and commission monies for fair price shops in Assam are already being felt. Fed up with arrears outstanding for months, fair price shops in the State are now refusing to distribute NFSA rice. In a backward state like Assam, messing up with food security is not something its new BJP-led government can afford. Around 2.25 crore beneficiaries in the State are availing of rice at Rs 3 per kg under this scheme, with those having APL cards getting 5 kg rice per head a month while households with BPL cards are getting 35 kg rice monthly.
There have been misgivings that the rendra Modi government is not committed to the rights-based welfare schemes the UPA government had instituted earlier, particularly guaranteed rural employment under MGNREGA and subsidized foodgrains under NFSA. But mindful of the damage widespread farm distress and hunger can do to the NDA’s re-election prospects in 2019, the Modi government has, in fact, put its weight behind both these UPA flagship schemes. That does not mean it has not tinkered or repackaged the two schemes. MGNREGA has been restricted to very poor districts and greater rigidity stipulated in the type of works undertaken, besides cutting down on its wage component. There have been similar efforts to cut down on the food subsidy bill, after tightening the screws on fertilizers and fuel. Even then, the food subsidy budget for the current fiscal has been pegged at Rs 1.34 lakh crore. So even as the Modi government has ramped up the NFSA to cover more than 70 crore beneficiaries countrywide, it is pushing state governments to make PDS delivery foolproof. The entire foodgrain allocation process will be computerized end-to-end and go online. By March 2017, the number of fair price shops will increase to 5.52 lakh; these will have electronic point of sale devices to authenticate beneficiaries at the time of receiving foodgrains, as well as record the amount of grains distributed to each household. As for beneficiaries, their cards to access NFSA grains will be linked to Aadhaar cards. In the backdrop of such looming changes, the Assam government will have to learn its lessons from the ration card scam and ensure proper NFSA implementation.