Is rural development minister Jairam Ramesh eyeing the finance portfolio? The buzz is that he is, especially after Mr Ramesh wrote to Congress chief Sonia Gandhi and party general secretary Rahul Gandhi, suggesting ways to fix the battered economy. While the big-ticket reforms that Mr Ramesh and many others have been advocating are important and necessary, while deciding on them the Centre should not lose sight of other smaller but equally important reforms that need to take place without delay. One such is the reformation of the public distribution system (PDS). Last year, when the Centre was working on the Food Security Bill, a former Supreme Court (SC) judge dropped a bombshell at a public hearing in Maharashtra. Justice DP Wadhwa, who was mandated by the apex court to look into the PDS, said at the meeting that corruption in the PDS cannot be stopped unless and until the system in overhauled. Unfortunately, just a year later, in June, 2012, corruption in the PDS led to the killing of Ambika Prasad Dubey, a social activist from Madhya Pradesh. Dubey was shot dead by a police inspector when he and other villagers tried to stop a van carrying PDS grains from leaving their village.
The PDS was started in India in the late 1960s and it was expanded to the rural areas in the following two decades. Over the years, corruption has ensured mounting losses and according to some studies, 60% of the targeted population in high-poverty incidence states do not get their quota of grains; ‘out-of-stock’ scenarios are as high as 80% and nearly 50% pay bribes to get ration cards. The other issues that people face when they visit fair price shops are: harassment by the owners, non-availability of rations, poor quality, low weight and higher prices, closure without notice and non- availability of ration application forms. All these issues can be tackled if there is the political will to do so. For example, Chhattisgarh chief minister Raman Singh fixed the same corroded PDS system by undertaking structural and legal reforms. He took away the ownership of all PDS shops from private businessmen and gave them to local community-run bodies. To take care of bogus ration cards, a problem that plagues the entire system, cards based on a new database were issued. Riding on his good work, he came back to power for a second term in 2008.
While Chhattisgarh’s solutions may not work for other states, especially in those that are food deficit, the key issue that all governments need to keep in mind is that there has to be proper targeting and last-mile authentication about whether households have received their quota of grains or not. We also need an independent national regulator to tackle the working of the PDS, we need to strengthen the enforcement wing and anti-hoarding cell and make public servants engaged in PDS accountable by establishing flying squads to inspect the movement and distribution of food grains.