Food for thought

Traders operating fair price shops in Assam are a disgruntled lot. There are 38,248 fair price shops in the State distributing subsidized rice and kerosene among beneficiaries. There are 2.48 crore ration card holders in Assam; of them, 2 lakh beneficiaries are marked as the most needy holding ‘Antodyaya Anna Suraksha Yojana’ cards entitling them to 35 kg of rice (at Rs 3/kg) per household, while around 55 lakh are ‘priority household’s. For people with meagre income, particularly the elderly and women raising small children, these cards can spell the difference between survival or death by starvation. The public distribution system (PDS) exists to serve such beneficiaries, more so in rural areas, under the National Food Security Act (NFSA) and Antodyaya schemes. The Union government has been aiming to upgrade this scheme to ‘nutritional security’ through fortified rice and wheat flour, direct cash transfers, storage management, quality assurance, and more digital initiatives to eliminate bogus beneficiaries. Nearly 67 percent of the country’s population or 81 crore people are covered by food subsidies which cost the exchequer Rs 1.7 lakh crore annually. In the Assam budget for 2019-20, it has been proposed to make subsidized rice available to beneficiaries at Rs 1 per kg, while tea workers will be provided free rice. Presently, nearly 1.35 lakh tones of rice are needed in Assam under NFSA, but management remains a problem. Transportation costs and commissions for fair price shop traders are kept pending for months. This gives some of them the excuse to divert part of the subsidized rice and kerosene to open market, which is damaging for this already leakage-prone system. The government has been trying to avoid the inclusion and exclusion errors in revamped PDS that earlier made a mockery of targeting beneficiaries below poverty line (BPL). Leakages can be better plugged not just by ensuring stricter compliance, but also by taking care of each link in the PDS chain through efficient management.