Home / Opinion / India’s food security response to COVID-19: Confident, smart & humane
India’s food security response to COVID-19: Confident, smart & humane

India’s food security response to COVID-19: Confident, smart & humane

Over the years, Public Distribution System (PDS) which was started in 1960s as a system to manage the scarcity of foodgrain supplies, has come a long way from a “welfare-based” means to a “rights-based” food-security platform under the National Food Security Act, 2013 (NFSA).  This is first of its kind attempt in the world to legislate ‘right to food’ for nearly 67% citizens and to deliver foodgrains to the targeted population at affordable prices of Rs. 3, 2, 1 per Kg of Rice, Wheat and Coarse-grains respectively, every month, and has become an important part of the Government’s policy for the management of food economy in the country.

The Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS), under NFSA, is operated in joint responsibilities of the Central and State/UT Governments, where, the Central Government does the procurement of foodgrains, store, allocate and transport up to the designated depots of FCI across the country, while, States/UTs do the identification of eligible households/beneficiaries under Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY) and Priority Households (PHH) categories of the Act covering up to 75% of rural population and up to 50% of urban population, issue and manage ration cards, allocate fooodgrains to Fair Price Shops (FPSs), ensure door-step-delivery to all FPSs for distribution to beneficiaries, etc.

Resilient technology system: Delivering benefits to poor

Over the years, especially during last 6 years, many pathbreaking initiatives and technological interventions have fostered multiple reforms in the TPDS. The ‘End-to-End Computerization of TPDS Operations’ has  brought-in silent revolution in TPDS operations, remarkably transforming the world’s largest foodgrain distribution network from a manually operated system to a transparent automated system, ensuring Citizen Centric Service Delivery. The digitised list of 23.5 Cr. ration cards covering >80 Cr. beneficiaries under NFSA across the country are available on respective public portals of States/UTs for enhanced transparency and participation. As many 31 States/UTs have also automated their supply chain operations for online management of stocks in godowns and the in-and-out movement. SMSs are also delivered to beneficiaries in some States, informing about quantity and expected time of arrival of foodgrains at their FPSs to plan their visit. Further, toll-free helplines 1967/1800-series and online mechanism for registering grievances related to PDS have empowered people.

The cornerstone of technology-reforms is the identification of genuine beneficiaries, for effective targeting of subsidized foodgrains. Now, over 90% ration cards in the country are seeded with Aadhaar  which has enabled transparent biometric distribution of up to 70% monthly allocation , through about 4.9 Lakh (91% of total 5.4 lakh) electronic Point of Sale devices  across the country. These measures have also put a check on ghost lifting of subsidised foodgrains, by detecting and weeding out nearly 4.39 Cr. ineligible/duplicate ration cards during the past 7 years since 2013, and thus, continuously improving the rightful targeting of beneficiaries under NFSA.

Further, technology has ensured that such a large and complicated system can be resilient with the help of continuous oversight & feedback. Regular third-party assessments beside concurrent evaluations through leading institutions/universities like IIMs/IITs are also helping the Central and State/UT governments to keep PDS sensitive & responsive.

Creating integrated supply chain for distribution: One Nation One Ration Card

Leveraging the strong foundations of computerisation, national portability of ration cards is introduced in the country through technology-driven process under “One Nation One Ration Card (ONORC) plan”. This integrated approach is empowering beneficiaries to access PDS from any FPS in any nook-and-corner of the country to lift their foodgrains while using their same ration card with biometric/Aadhaar authentication. Since this initiative is helping migrants to be self-reliant for their food-security, this has also become an integral part of Prime Minister’s Technology Driven System Reforms under the Atma Nirbhar Bharat Abhiyan. Presently, the system is active in 30 States/UTs covering approx. 68.7 Crore beneficiaries (85% NFSA population in the country), while we are targeting to cover remaining population by March 2021, including A&N Islands by Dec., 2020.The National Helpline number 14445 is further making use of portability easy and user friendly.

Launch of Pilots during Pandemic: 2020

To further ensure that no deserving beneficiary is left out, a pilot project on convergence is initiated across 6 districts in 6 States- Jharkhand (Palamu), Uttar Pradesh (Barabanki), Gujarat (Chhotaudepur), Andhra Pradesh (Guntur), Himachal Pradesh (Mandi) and Mizoram (Hnahthial). The beneficiary data from Ease of Living (EoL) survey conducted by M/o Rural Development is mapped with PDS data to verify the level of convergence, however since the EoL data is not Aadhaar based, the exercise had some challenges. The objective of this exercise was to check the common beneficiary base to identify whether the benefits of different programmes of the Government are reaching the rightful beneficiaries and also that no genuine and deserving beneficiary who is identified as a beneficiary in one programme is left out in another programme of a different Ministry.

The pilot is throwing interesting results with 61% matching data. Efforts have also been made to drilldown to block, panchayat and village level to improve convergence. As a step forward a similar exercise would be carried out to map Aadhaar seeded NFSA beneficiaries’ database with National Population Register (NPR) data of Registrar General of India. The success of this pilot can pave way for harmonisation of databases and creation of a master database which may be used as a single largest platform for convergence for rightful targeting under various schemes and programmes of the Government. A recent example is the proposal of M/o Health to utilize NFSA data for identification of beneficiaries under Ayushman Bharat (PM- Jan Aarogya Yojana), as it covers bottom 67% of the population and may ensure that no one in marginalized and vulnerable population is left out from the benefits of health cover.

What PDS did to deliver during Pandemic?

During COVID crisis, the country’s technology driven PDS swiftly came to the fore by successfully scaling up to distribute almost double the quantity of foodgrains to more than 80 Cr. beneficiaries in the country during the last 8 months of April to November 2020. During this period the Department had allocated nearly 680 LMT foodgrains (about 350 LMT under normal NFSA, 321 LMT under PM Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana) and it has been seen that an average of 93% foodgrains per month were successfully distributed with all COVID-19 protocols despite multitude of challenges. Further, against an estimated number of 2.8 Cr. migrants/stranded migrants, about 2.74 Cr. persons (98%) received the free ration under the Atma Nirbhar Bharat scheme. Some independent surveys by agencies like Dalberg and others have also shown very high level of satisfaction among the beneficiaries with respect to availability and distribution of foodgrains through PDS during the pandemic.

Biggest Food security programme: Implemented with ease

Nowhere in the world, a PDS  as big as in India, is being run. The system has not only delivered during the Pandemic, but, has actually improved during the crisis in many ways. While shortcomings may still be there but on a whole, India has emerged as a shining example in the way it tackled food security during the pandemic. This was possible because of the vision and strong commitment of the leadership, particularly the Prime Minister. By introducing Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana, for free distribution of food-grains for 8 months to feed about 81 Cr people per month, India demonstrated that in a crisis situation, it is capable of rising to the challenge and deal with all odds effectively-ranging from storage, transportation to distribution. Indian farmer also deserves to be complimented along with people involved in the entire distribution net-work which handled unprecedented quantities of food-grain during the lockdown and did not let supply chain disruptions affect delivery to end consumer to remotest parts. Thousands of railway rakes, trucks carried food grains, and air sorties & vessels were  mobilised for last mile distribution which is unprecedented.

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