People queue up to take foodgrains from a government PDS shop in New Delhi. (Sanchit Khanna/HT PHOTO)
People queue up to take foodgrains from a government PDS shop in New Delhi. (Sanchit Khanna/HT PHOTO)

Digitised PDS: Now, automatic food vending machines to be set up

The initiative is part of the food ministry’s programme to modernise the public distribution system, a chain of over 400,000 traditional fair price shops which serve as the endpoint for disbursal of cheap food to beneficiaries
By Zia Haq
PUBLISHED ON MAR 04, 2021 08:50 AM IST

The Union government is likely to gradually move towards automatic dispensing machines to provide subsidised food grains to nearly 800 million beneficiaries under the National Food Security Act. The shift is aimed at bringing transparency, plugging leakages, and ushering in real-time management of the country’s food stocks.

Trial runs to dispense monthly quota of food grains to the poor through automatic machines are being carried out in five cities, including Hyderabad and Ahmedabad.

The initiative is part of the food ministry’s programme to modernise the public distribution system (PDS), a chain of over 400,000 traditional fair price shops which serve as the endpoint for disbursal of cheap food to beneficiaries.

Also Read | 4 million Aadhaar-linked PDS cardholders avail foodgrains in Bihar

The government now provides subsidised grains to the poor through the “One Nation One Ration Card” digital system, which offers the mobility of in-kind subsidies, which allows beneficiaries to draw their ration from anywhere in the country and not necessarily from their usual place of stay. This is a boon for the country’s vast migrant labour force.

“Automatic grain dispensing machines are being tested in five cities on a pilot basis that enables beneficiaries to obtain subsidized food grains without having to visit a fair price shop,” an official said, requesting anonymity.

In the automated machines being experimented with, beneficiaries have to feed some simple inputs about their ration card along with biometric-based authentication into the internet-linked machine, which then dispenses the monthly quota of grains.

The PDS is a lifeline for the nearly 800 million food-insecure Indians who receive cheap food of 5 kg grains per month per beneficiary from government-held granaries.

India ranks 94 among 107 countries on the Global Hunger Index 2020 and is placed in the “serious hunger category” with a score of 27.2.

“With automated machines, not only will beneficiaries have more ease to access the benefits because these machines will be conveniently deployed but the government will also have a real-time update of food movements across the country,” the official said.

According to Aaditya Verma of The Northcap University, Gurugam, an expert on the PDS, the “existing ration distribution system has a high level of corruption such as inaccurate measurement of food grains, long waiting times in queues, material theft in ration shops and manual distribution of the food grains”. A fully automated model will offer “high levels transparency” at all the stages.

The “One Nation One Ration Card” system now covers 650 million citizens. The country’s food-rationing system has been fully digitised in 26 states, allowing beneficiaries to receive subsidised food handouts there.

A digitised PDS system links Aadhaar biometric details of ration cardholders with their entitlement details, enabling software to allow dispensation of foodgrains to any beneficiary anywhere. Until now, beneficiaries could only get access to rations in their hometowns, which meant those who migrated elsewhere for work lost food aid.

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