The tiol Food Security Act (NFSA) was belatedly implemented in Assam last December, but the State public distribution system (PDS) continues to leak heavily. A major reform long overdue is to weed out illegal and bogus ration cards numbering in lakhs. The State Food and Civil Supplies department has now set a deadline of July 15 next for surrendering illegally obtained ration cards under the NFSA, failing which ‘legal action will be taken’. This is because the NFSA mandates that ration cards are meant only for ‘small and margilized’ category people with yearly income below Rs 1 lakh. But many government employees, businessmen and other well-to-do people in the State maged to get hold of ration cards. So implementation of this law has already got off to a faulty start in Assam, and the onus is now upon the Food and Civil Supplies department to plug loopholes. After all, the NFSA was ected in 2013 by the then UPA government at the Centre to expand coverage under the PDS to 67 percent of the population, so that large segments of the poor are not left out of subsidized rations. The problem with the earlier ‘Targeted PDS’ was that many genuinely poor households were excluded from ‘Below Poverty Line’ (BPL) ration cards. It took the earlier Congress government in Assam more than two years to implement the NFSA here; the excuse trotted was that the incoming NDA government at the Centre had meanwhile made it mandatory to computerize records of beneficiaries — so the process ostensibly took time.
Launching the scheme in the State on December 24 last year, the then Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi had even alleged that the Modi government purposefully got the scheme delayed here ‘fearing the popularity of the Congress government’. Nevertheless, it is significant that the NFSA was launched in Assam with less than four months to go for assembly elections. However, it is the problem of bogus and ‘ghost’ ration cards that shows up the complicity of State Food and Civil Supplies department officials. The earlier government of Assam set up the Justice (retd) PG Agarwal one-man inquiry commission to go into this issue, and it is expected to submit its report next month. But already several disturbing facts have emerged. The problem of bogus ration cards has been around in the State since 1991, but it seems to have been aggravated in the last 15 years when zrul Islam headed the Food and Civil Supplies department. Around three lakh bogus ration cards are said to be floating around in the State — which in turn points to thousands of crores worth PDS goods being diverted and sold in the open market for handsome profit. The Agarwal commission report is expected to blow the lid off a continuing scam involving corrupt Food and Civil Supplies officials hand-in-glove with a section of fair price shops, fraudulently lifting PDS goods in the me of non-existent households in ‘ghost’ ration cards. Reportedly, two key files have now gone missing in Dispur, triggering off yet more speculations about official skullduggery.
The NFSA entitles every beneficiary to receive 5 kgs of grain at Rs 2-3 per kg. But there have been persistent allegations in Assam that beneficiaries are receiving less while distributors are charging more than what the law specifies. Many fair price shops don’t display information about supplies on notice boards; some lie outright that they have not received supplies for months. All these allegations need to be probed by the new departmental minister if he is serious about cleaning up the State PDS. The sooner the list of PDS supplies and entitled beneficiary households under every fair price shop is put on the public domain, the better. How serious the problem of bogus ration cards is can be gauged from the fact that when Prime Minister Modi reviewed the progress of Aadhaar and Direct Benefits Transfer (DBT) programmes in May this year, he was informed that 1.6 crore bogus ration cards have been weeded out, resulting in savings of around Rs 10,000 crore. Jean Dreze, eminent development economist and one of the guiding spirits of NFSA, has pointed out that Chattisgarh’s success in implementing this law shows that if a political decision is taken at the top to do things right, things really can improve. Eastern states Odisha and West Bengal too are performing creditably in implementing NFSA to mitigate rural hunger. Assam should aspire to follow their lead to institute a universal PDS so that all beneficiary households receive full entitlements without fail.