PDS: It just works in TN

ALAMU R., The Hindu, Magazine, September 24, 2011

A combination of political commitment, awareness and better transparency has ensured that the in Tamil Nadu works as intended, ensuring food security for all.

Believe it or not, the Public Distribution System (PDS) is working quite successfully in Tamil Nadu — this is one of the main lessons we have learnt from a recent survey of the PDS in Dindigul and Dharmapuri districts. Be it political commitment that lies behind this success, or people’s enlightened awareness, the Fair Price Shops are open and people get their due. From the survey experience, we feel that certain factors have helped to make the PDS work in Tamil Nadu.

Less room for error

Tamil Nadu has a universal PDS where all households are entitled to food rations, including up to 20 kg of rice per month. In many other states, the PDS can be accessed only by Below Poverty Line (BPL) households. In those states, BPL lists are far from perfect — firstly, they cover too few households, and secondly, they come with a lot of exclusion errors. As a result, the PDS does not ensure food security. In Tamil Nadu, a universal PDS has, to a great extent, resolved this problem. Some exclusion errors, however, still exist in the distribution of Antyodaya cards (for the poorest of the poor, entitled to 35 kg of rice every month).

People here are aware of their entitlements. At least one person in every household is aware of the details of PDS rations and prices. In its election manifesto, the AIADMK promised free rice, and this began to be implemented soon after the elections, while our survey was on (in June 2011). (Earlier, in the DMK period, PDS rice was distributed at Re 1 per kg). We were stunned to find that all the randomly-selected households we interviewed were well aware that from June they were entitled to free rice! The dissemination of information was impressive. Awareness amongst the masses reduces corruption, as ignorance and lack of information often put people at the mercy of corrupt intermediaries.

It is not just awareness amongst people but also politics that makes the PDS perform. Tamil Nadu was the first state to sell rice at Rs. 2 per kg. Seeing the magical spell of the PDS in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh also started pricing PDS rice at Rs. 2 per kg, under NTR’s “populist” regime. Later, PDS prices in Tamil Nadu were reduced further. In the recent 2011 State Assembly Elections, both parties (DMK and AIADMK) promised rice for free. The PDS is a big election issue for all the political parties in Tamil Nadu, and even in this decade of populism, it often stands first in the list of schemes meant to lure or attract voters. Whichever government comes to power, it has to ensure proper working of the PDS. This is an important reason why illegal “diversion” of PDS grain (to the open market) appears to be very low in Tamil Nadu: only 4 per cent of the total, according to a 2004-5 estimate, compared with 90 per cent or so in Bihar.

In Tamil Nadu, a special vigilance wing has been set up to prevent the diversion of PDS commodities. In recent weeks, lots of diverted rations were seized near the Tamil Nadu borders. The Civil Supplies Department seems fully committed to reducing the diversion rate to zero. People’s vigilance and awareness assist this effort. In some of the villages we visited, we heard brave stories of villagers surrounding the ration shop dealer if he tried to smuggle rice or other rations. The same residents were instrumental in getting dealers suspended. Yes, the villagers are no longer ready to give away their quota!

Simple and effective

One common reason why people do not get what they are entitled to is that Fair Price Shop managers tell buyers that the stock of a particular commodity has been exhausted. The Tamil Nadu government has introduced a simple measure to prevent such lies. If you are phone savvy, you can send an SMS to find out the stock of any Fair Price Shop in Tamil Nadu at any point of time. All you have to do is send the text message ‘PDSdistrict numbershop number’ to 9789006492 (for instance, ‘PDS 22 DP041′ would give the currently existing stock of different items for shop DP041 in Dindigul). The relevant district and shop numbers are printed on each ration card. When we tried it out, it worked in almost all the villages. Simple transparency measures of this sort (and there are many others in Tamil Nadu) can go a long way in reducing the scope for smuggling and corruption.

Fair Price Shops in rural areas are run primarily by cooperative societies, and handled by salaried employees of the societies. This is different from most other states where Fair Price Shops are run by private dealers who earn from commissions on sales. In the cooperative-society system, there are more checks and balances. Also, because the manager is a full-time employee, Fair Price Shops in Tamil Nadu are open throughout the month. By contrast, in other states they typically open for just a few days, and in many cases the dates are not fixed. Tamil Nadu has also introduced additional, part-time ration shops in large Gram Panchayats, to ensure that everyone has convenient access to the PDS.

Other reasons

There are other factors at work in Tamil Nadu that tend to go unnoticed but still seem important. The villages are well connected with all weather roads and good state-run bus transport. Ration shops have a separate building which is either government-owned or rented, but at least stocks are not stored in the manager’s house. Apart from the manager’s phone number, entitlements (prices and quantities), stocks and the contact details of concerned officials are displayed in front of all the Fair Price Shops.

Overall, the PDS seems to be functioning exceptionally well in Tamil Nadu. People’s awareness, universal entitlements, political competition and other factors have helped to make the PDS work, and ensure that no-one sleeps hungry. In Tamil Nadu, when the sample households were asked about their views about cash transfers as a possible alternative to food entitlements, a majority of respondents preferred food over cash. The main reason is that the PDS is seen to provide food security and also reduces transport related hassles (ration shops in Tamil Nadu are more accessible than banks or regular markets). It does seem more reasonable to stick with a functional PDS that ensures food security than to make a hazardous shift to cash transfers. As respondents in one village said, “better to strengthen an existing system than dismantle it and develop a completely new one!”

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