[Model Answer QP2022 GS3]What are the major challenges of the Public Distribution System (PDS) in India? How can it be made effective and transparent?

India’s public distribution system (PDS) is the largest food security programme in the world, which covers nearly 60% of the population and costs Rs 1.45 trillion—close to 1.4% of the national income.
Public Distribution Scheme (PDS) is the public rationing system of India which is administered by the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food, and Public Distribution.

Major challenges of the Public Distribution System (PDS) in India.

  1. Identification of beneficiaries: Studies have shown that targeting mechanisms such as TPDS are prone to large inclusion and exclusion errors
  2. Production vs Procurement: Under the National Food Security Act, the centre procures millions of tonnes of food grains consistently every year to deliver rights under the law. Procurement of this quantity of food grains might be easier in years when production is high. However, in years of drought and domestic shortfall, India will have to resort to large scale imports of rice and wheat. This will exert significant upward pressure on prices.
  3. Rising food subsidy: The food subsidy has increased over the years, having more than quadrupled from Rs 21,200 crore in 2002-03 to Rs 2.2-lakh crore in 2019-2020.
  4. Imbalances in the availability of storage capacity across states:  64 percent of the total storage capacity is concentrated in  Punjab, Haryana, Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. 
  5. Maximum buffer norms not specified: The minimum buffer norms prescribed by the government do not clearly delineate individual elements of food security (e.g., emergency, price stabilization, food security reserve, and TPDS) within the minimum buffer stock. The existing norms also do not specify the maximum stock that should be maintained in the central pool for each of the above components.
  6. Nutritional Security: While India’s PDS, the world’s biggest food security initiative, has helped avert famines, it has not been able to provide nutrition security

How can PDS in India be made effective and transparent?

Following Odisha model of operation in PDS by all states can make PDS more effective and transparent. The Odisha experience shows that PDS can play a pivotal role in bringing convergence and making India’s two important missions—food and nutrition security.
Case Study: Odisha: A success story of governance

1. PDS coverage in terms of population was expanded, grain prices were lowered, and entitlements were simplified and rationalised. 
2. The outlets were largely brought under the ambit of community, presently managed by gram panchayats, self-help groups (SHGs), cooperatives and non-governmental organisations, which ensured participatory management and transparency in administration. 
3. The entire distribution system was computerised and vans were mobilised to reach distant places that were otherwise disconnected from the mainstream distribution network.
4. The movement of food grains from the warehouses to fair prices shops was monitored and tracked with GPS systems. 
5. The weighing scales were digitised, transport agencies were separated from distribution agencies and fixed distribution schedules were introduced
6. In fact, the overall system was strengthened with provisions for a grievance redressal mechanism.
Among the states Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Telangana and Gujarat have intensified reforms in PDS using latest technology and ensuring community participation—they have taken steps such as computerisation of offtake of grains, recording of procurement, storage and distribution, installation of electronic point of sale machines in fair price shops, and regular monitoring at every stage. 
The digitisation of beneficiaries’ database and verification of their identities through Aadhaar have resulted in scrapping of over 23 million fake ration cards and savings of Rs 14,000 crore of annual food subsidy.
The rights-based framework of NFSA gives legal entitlement to subsidised foodgrains to 75 per cent of the rural and 50 per cent of the urban population. The right to food is a justiciable right, but NFSA freezes the number of beneficiaries at the population figures based on the 2011 census. The NFSA does not provide for bringing under PDS purview more people who may have become eligible as a result of growth in population or poverty.
But there is scope to extend the coverage of PDS and Universalisation of PDS should be looked into by the government.

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