Last month, Chief Justice of India KG Balakrishnan stated that the aam admi has been hit hard by “deep-rooted corruption” and the public distribution system (PDS) was in shambles due to this malaise. He mentioned that in some states, not a single grain reaches the targeted population, adding that corruption and police inaction was forcing people to take the law into their own hands. His observation has now proved to be prophetic. In Murshidabad, West Bengal, angry villagers pulled out a ration shop dealer on Sunday and tied him and his family to a tree, accusing him of selling subsidised foodgrains meant for them in the open market. In another incident in the same area, villagers sought accounts from a dealer and then proceeded to ransack the shop. Similar incidents were reported in two other districts — not to mention in Durgapur last month when villagers stormed a Left meeting and beat up leaders who refused to listen to complaints against hoarding by ration shopkeepers.
It’s not West Bengal alone that is sitting on a powder keg. A recent report of the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution states that in the last three years, Rs 31,585.98 crore worth of wheat and rice meant for the poorest of the poor was siphoned off from the PDS. Last year, Rs 11,336.98 crore worth of PDS foodgrain found its way into the market illegally. Every year, India’s poor are cheated of 53.3 per cent and 39 per cent of wheat and rice respectively earmarked for them. A Planning Commission study shows that only 42 per cent of the subsidised foodgrains issued from the Central pool reach the poor. The leakage through ration shops constitutes the bulk of the pilferage. Clearly, we cannot trust the government to deliver food to the poor despite its huge network of about 4.5 lakh fair-price shops and a well-laid out supply chain.
But instead of thinking of innovative ways of fixing the leaking pipeline, the government is keen to wind up the PDS. This would be disastrous as government procurement for PDS also works as an incentive for farmers. By making available a cheap source of food, it prevents large price rises in retail prices of grain sold by private merchants. The Finance Minister has often talked about food stamps. But what is the guarantee that these stamps would not become another route of corruption? Or that counterfeit stamps won’t be printed? The solution may lie in decentralising the PDS through Panchayati Raj institutions. The fact that members of such institutions are much more connected — and, therefore, answerable — to the people on a day-to-day basis may make the system work better.