Successful governments work in unison with the governed, easing their life and conduct. Resultantly different institutions and the departments come into existence to focus on their designated activity with Jammu and Kashmir government being no exception. The Department of Food, Civil Supplies and Consumers’ Affairs is one such established departments. The department comes under the purview of the Maintenance of the Essential Services Act.
Thousands of functionaries are associated with it. Public distribution system (PDS) is its main function since inception. It has developed as a system for managing scarcity of food grains through distribution to the needy at affordable and subsidised prices. It is a government sponsored and controlled range of about 6,738 fair price shops also known as ration depots entrusted with the work of distributing food and non-food commodities like rice, flour, sugar and kerosene oil. Earlier, paddy and even fire wood were issued. With its wide and vast inevitable impact on public life it has turned to be a part of policy of government for management of food economy. It helps in fighting hunger and famine by mobilizing supplies from the surplus areas to the deficit ones besides stabilizing prices of essential commodities.
PDS, in India, is stated to have its origin in the rationing system introduced by the British during the World War II and launched in its more or less present form since 6/1947. Some trace its roots to 1940s Bengal famine. Anyway it is one of the oldest and basic departments dealing with the first of the trio of Roti, Kapda aur Makaan necessities thereby inheriting its due primary importance for human beings irrespective of any sort of distinction.
The PDS has two types viz, Revamped PDS, and Targeted PDS. Revamped PDS was launched in 1/1992 to strengthen the PDS and improve its reach to hilly, inaccessible, remote and far-flung areas where a considerable population of poor live. During 6/1997 was launched the TDPS which, as the name connotes, focuses on the poor. Under this type, beneficiaries were divided into two categories of households: (1) Below Poverty Line (BPL) and (2) Above Poverty Line (APL). There are various types of poverty, such as absolute poverty, generational poverty, relative poverty, rural poverty, urban poverty, situational poverty etc. The poverty line for 2021 is Rs. 1,286/ per month in urban areas and Rs.1,059/ per month in rural areas. Families with 17 marks or less (previously 15 marks or less) out of 52 marks are classified as BPL. Likewise there are different types of ration card holders under National Food Security Act, 2013, put in operation with effect from 1/2/2016 in Jammu and Kashmir, which include; (1) Above Poverty Line (APL), (2) Below Poverty Line (BPL),(3)Annapurna Yojna (AY) (4) Antyodaya Yojna (AAY), and (5) Priority Household (PHH). Till 8/2020 any member of the ration card holder’s family or any other bearer could get the quantity of ration due on payment of ad-valorem money. Attendance of cardholder while giving the ration was neither mandatory nor a precedence. The card presenter would get the ration in as simple a way as en-cashing a bearer cheque.
Due to diverse nature of the department there have been reports of some alleged malfunctioning by way of undue wastage, unloading/loading, leakages, including false ration cards telling upon the supplies and the supplied, despite the intrinsic vigilance mechanism. There are also reports of some well offs having managed BPL/concessional cards. The fake ration cards bore the same nomenclature as that of the genuine ones and the holders thereof succeeded in getting the rations to which they were not entitled. This episode became an open secret. To eradicate this malpractice enabling chances for getting undue rations/concessions the government took a good step in right direction by linking the ration cardholders with their aadhaar numbers. Before aadhaar the ration card was a common identification document issued at the household level usually in the name of male head. This provided household level identity and not at the individual level. Instead aadhaar is a 12-digit individual identification number issued by Unique Identification Authority of India(UIDAI). It is based on a person’s traces of finger prints and iris reflections captured in a recognition device. Aadhaar including PAN Card, Voter –ID though not said to be a proof of Indian citizenship as observed in an important ruling by the Hon’ble Patna High Court, is an important document which serves as proof of date of birth, address and identity. By resorting to the introduction of aadhaar based ration cards, giving the two biometric descriptions of the members of a household, it is said to have enabled weeding out about 4.39 crore false card holders in India by 11/2021 with more than two lakhs in J and K. People welcomed the exercise and applauded the results. They appreciate how the government manages this cumbersome task of PDS.
However, with effect from 9/2020 the ration card holders of Jammu and Kashmir were to draw the ration from the ration depots only after giving the authentication of their biometric recognition every month. The practice requires the fingerprint authentication on the electronic device. If the device does not entertain the fingerprints beneficiary will not get any kind of ration. With all praise for weeding out bogus ration cards and curbing wrong doers, people across J and K exhibit a sort of displeasure on being asked to record their fingerprints every month for getting the rations. People suggest that since their ration card is aadhaar linked there remains no need to repeat the identification exercise. Moreover, since all the depot holders almost know personally all the members enlisted in a ration card in a locality there is no chance of falsification to con the department and hijack the benefits of PDS. Besides biometric authentication may disturb beneficiary due to sporadic supply of electricity, technical glitches, poor internet connectivity or dysfunctioning of the biometric recognition equipment. Financially biometric software entails procurement and operational costs as well. Pathetic are the scenes when the beneficiaries return dejected and empty-handed for the above shortcomings. It very sad to see when the old and the ailing crawl back home ration less. Somebody loses his service/study/business day. Some its labour, sacrificed for nought.
People view this as troublesome besides insulting as their certification is not considered. With all humbleness people aspire with hope that helmsmen may, keeping in view the quintessence of good governance, be pleased to waive off this condition. While people are upbeat that government has plugged the beneficiary side they simultaneously want removal of other lacuna to make this flagship programme sail more swiftly. Rice being staple food in J and K, people also desire suitable increase in quota of rice per head per month as they feel present quota insufficient. May the authorities concerned like to relax the avoidable pre-requisites and also reduce the biometric related operational costs to reinvest the money in furtherance of the PDS in J and K ?
The author is a former Sr. Audit Officer and Consultant in the A.G’s Office Srinagar.