I am in the middle of my third visit to the field, with specific reference to the research project on computerization of the PDS that constitutes the core of my PhD research. As I spend most of my time focusing on PDS recipients, and on the ways in which computerization of anti-poverty schemes mediates their process of image formation on the state, I am sometimes concerned about missing the “big picture”, i.e. the macro-dynamics of the system of foodgrain distribution that I am looking at, and the ways in which these macro-dynamics, superimposed over the functioning of the system as a whole, condition its final outcomes in terms of actual delivery to citizens. This is why, in the (few) moments of break from field-based data collection, I have a go on reflecting on these dynamics, and try to position them in the specific context of Kerala, whose (well-deserved?) reputation as a minimizer of corruption is renowned inside and outside India.
To recap: all India, a federal nation consisting of 28 states, is served by a food security scheme known as the Public Distribution System (PDS), which places a subsidy on basic commodities, in order to make these accessible to below-poverty-line (BPL) people at reasonable prices. Since 1997 the system, that was universal, has become targeted, which means that (1) above-poverty-line people are virtually excluded from the subsidy, which is aimed for the poor, and (2) amounts of foodgrains to be allocated to every state are decided by the Central Government, on the basis of the poverty incidence that each state displays. To access subsidized PDS commodities (primarily rice, wheat and sugar), citizens need to present a document, called a Ration Card, which displays the poverty status of each household, and is therefore utilized by the BPL to prove their status and benefit from the subsidy. PDS is extremely complex from a logistical point of view, especially in a context like that of Kerala, whose condition as a food-deficit state (only 15% of the foodgrains needed for consumption is produced internally) needs PDS to be organized on the basis of imports. Moreover, Kerala’s PDS has been seriously damaged from the move to a targeted system in 1997, as poverty was estimated at a low level (25%) and as a result, allocation of foodgrains has been reduced to less than 10% of the pre-1997 situation. Logistical complications, coupled with damages occurred as a result of targeting, called for computerization to intervene in the system, as a result, a software for PDS management (TETRAPDS) has been commissioned by the local government in 2003, and gradually implemented in all the 70 Taluk Supply Offices (governmental units of the Food and Civil Supplies Department) of the state.
Here is where problems arise. When I led my preliminary visit to the field, in 2010, I came here to study what I had conceived of as a “success story”, that of a state in dire conditions of poverty which, challenging mainstream paradigms of economic development, was embarking in a big experience of digitalization. My first encounters with the decisional board responsible for the e-PDS, combined with the mediatic materials available on this experience, showed a picture of completeness and smooth implementation that, as subsequent visits to the field revealed, did not, in many ways, match the reality. Of the three key modules constituting the e-PDS (pertaining to digital management of ration cards, allocation of foodgrains, and computerized monitoring of the foodgrains supply chain), only the first one is functioning properly, and is effectively connected with national plans (including the match of ration card numbers with Aadhar, the unique identification number that each Indian citizen can avail). The slowly-proceeding, and largely absent, implementation of other modules, along with the extremely preoccupying levels of foodgrain diversion registered, among others, by the Justice Wadhwa Committee that came to Kerala in 2010, told a totally different story, in which transparency and technological advances are substituted, in the reality of facts, by lack of monitoring, insufficiency of PDS provisions, and rates of diversion of subsidized goods to the black market that approaches 28% for wheat, 23% for rice, and 25% for sugar (Planning Commission Report, http://planningcommission.nic.in/plans/mta/mta-9702/mta-ch8.pdf, p.239.)
Here is the key impediment to a well-functioning PDS: diversion of rationed goods to the black market, even in a “corruption-minimizing” system like that of Kerala, is widespread, and has a severe negative impact on final delivery of subsidized goods to poor people. The problem can be synthesized in these terms: lower prices of PDS goods, coupled with the dire economic situation of PDS ration shops as a result of the introduction of the targeted system, constitute incentives for ration dealers to deviate, by selling rationed goods on the open market, benefiting from the price difference. Diversion, far from occurring only at the level of ration dealers, is reported at many stages of the supply chain, as transportation of foodgrains often results in large amounts of PDS commodities “disappearing” from trucks: so much so that, as of the analysis of Prof. Reetika Khera at Delhi School of Economics (www.cdedse.org/pdf/work198.pdf, p.2), “the general practice has been to attribute all such losses to the illegal sale of PDS grain (…) as there are no reliable estimates of losses due to other reasons”. The macro-level picture delineated here is encountered, in my village-level research, in the micro-level images inscribed in the daily life of PDS beneficiaries: many villagers, questioned on PDS, report systematic incapacity of the local ration shop to serve them, so much so that the full quota, to which each household is entitled, is barley ever provided. Ration dealers, on the other hand, report being incapable of living just on the profit by the ration shop, and, as a result of the system collapse due to targeting, “having to find other ways” to make a sustainable livelihood for themselves and their families. The term “rice mafia”, utilized by the Justice Wadhwa committee with respect to the black market speculation on anti-poverty schemes, sadly seems the most adapt to characterize the big picture of the PDS, and the problem that new technologies, now embedded in the system, need to focus on combating.
Many aspects of the problem, experienced at the local level by citizens in Kerala, make the situation tougher than it may seem at a first glance. Digitalization, as it is dictated by the e-PDS as it is, is focusing mainly on the provision of bar-coded ration cards, that, as a result of matching with Aadhar numbers, will be made unique to each person, eliminating, in the intention of designers, the phenomenon of bogus cards – which, official sources claim, is at the root of foodgrain diversion, as it allows citizens to buy excess commodities and resell them at the market price. Be it as it may, diversion sources have been identified, by the Justice Wadhwa Committee Report, not so much in illicit purchases by citizens, but primarily in ration dealer misbehavior and losses along the supply chain(pdscvc.nic.in/PDS%20report%20of%20Kerala.doc, p.52): and the e-PDS, at least in the form that it is currently taking in Kerala, has not yet provided specific digital measures, to tackle these critical sources of corruption. Should the e-PDS fabric not undergo deep reflection and redesign of its targets, it will hardly be able to constitute a well-suited device for combating the rice mafia that operates at so many levels of the supply chain: fortunately, at the official level, there is recognition of this, and experiences like that of Chhattisgarh, where GPS devices are used to track PDS trucks and make sure of their loads and movements, are being taken as a model for evolution of e-PDS. Facing the specific problem of diversion, generated by a well-organized rice mafia and not by incidental losses, needs to be the specific objective of the e-PDS, and the one towards which further technology design and implementation need to be tailored.
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