The fact that the public distribution system (PDS) is in shambles is hardly breaking news. But when confronted with stark figures, the enormity of the problem sinks in. A report says that Rs 31,500 crore worth of grain supposed to be channelised through the PDS has been siphoned off and has made its way into the open market illegally. Last year alone Rs 11,336.98 crore worth of foodgrain for the PDS was diverted into the market. Every year, the poor are cheated out of 53.3 per cent of wheat and 39 per cent of rice. The worst offenders are Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Assam, Rajasthan and Maharashtra. The Northeast (NE) is worse-off: of the eight NE states, not a single grain of wheat supplied to Sikkim, Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland and Assam reaches the targeted population. In fact, it is believed that grains for the NE don’t even reach the states; they are siphoned off in Delhi itself.
The need and effectiveness of the PDS have been questioned for quite sometime. A year ago, the Cabinet tried to reduce people’s entitlements to grain but was forced to backtrack after sustained pressure from activists. The government had also talked about experimenting with the food stamps system, modelled on a similar one in the US. However, the food stamp system has failed in the US.
By trying to dismantle the PDS, which not only provides food for the poorest of the poor and also provides a ready buyer for farmers through the procurement system, the government is only shielding the people responsible for this mess. After the trucks laden with wheat and rice leave Food Corporation of India’s godowns, it is the civil supplies department’s responsibility to carry it forward and make sure that it reaches the targeted population. When this is not happening, surely someone is failing in his job. The government should make officers and the ration shop owners responsible for this pilferage accountable. Without addressing the internal malaise, it is foolish and politically suicidal to dismantle a system when you are in power thanks to the aam admi. Otherwise the consequences will be similar to what happened in Bengal recently: villagers in Durgapur faced with food shortage stormed a Left meeting and beat up leaders who refused to listen to complaints against hoarding by ration shop-owners.