The groundwork has been set for a sweeping reform of the biggest documented example of Indian government waste and corruption, the public distribution system (PDS), on which the UPA govt will spend Rs 55,578 crore this year.
The Unique Identification Authority of India, headed by Infosys co-founder Nandan Nilekani, has released a framework that will allow its Aadhar programme, aimed at providing every Indian with a foolproof digital identity, to integrate and revive the floundering PDS, regarded as a political pillar for inclusive growth.
Only 27 paise of every rupee and 58 per cent of all food grain distributed through a nationwide network of half a million shops actually reaches the poor, various studies reveal.
An estimated 23 million fake ration cards are in usage across the country, making it difficult for the government to identify the actual poor.
With an urgent need to resolve these problems, the framework came out particularly at a time the National Advisory Council is deliberating on a bill making food a right of every citizen. The bill when in place would add an expenditure of at least Rs 50,000 crore.
The move also comes at a time the number of poor in the country have shot up by about 10 crore when the planning commission in April accepted the Suresh Tendulkar Committee report pegging the BPL as 37.5 per cent or 400 million of the population.
“Providing online authentication essentially is to reduce duplicates and making it demand based supply. Whatever
the approach of the government is – targeted or universal – the system needed a major reform which we are engineering using technology,” Nandan Nilekani, Chairman, UIDAI, told HT.
UIDAI envisions a system where genuine beneficiaries would be authenticated by the unique identity number. The system means actual targeted approach to the beneficiaries where identified by biometrics the duplicates and fakes are automatically removed. With Aadhar enabling remote, online demographic identity, beneficiary can collect entitlements (ration) from anywhere in the state.
It would enable the PDS to implement a statewide information system linking all ration shops, where the government can track the movement of food grain – as it is exchanged between PDS intermediaries – curbing diversions. It also makes the system dynamic with implementing agencies given an idea as where the demand lies or subsides.
The transformation is not exciting many, some of them part of the decision making process. “Technologically, it sounds good. But I do not believe technology can be a solution for what is a socio-political problem. We need a political resolve first,” Harsh Mander, member, NAC and special commissioner to the Supreme Court said.
And the challenge seems to be ensuring such authentication and implementation through the fair price shops or ration dealers.
“Identity is a problem which Aadhar can resolve by weeding out fakes but the major problem lies with delivery where FPS dealers do not deliver timely or properly. Bringing them in line is the challenge,” Raj Kumar, secretary, public distribution, Government of Gujarat, said.