Transparency in Public Distribution System

Around 3 years back the Government decided to install electronic Point of Sale (ePoS) machines in all government run ration depots across J&K which include private fair price shops as well. The then Minister for Consumer Affairs J&K, Chowdhary Zulfiqar termed introduction of ePoS machines as one of the biggest reforms in bringing transparency in the Public Distribution System (PDS). Crores of rupees were spent on purchase of these machines and for many years the machines were not put to use. It took the Government more than 2 ½ years to actually put these machines into use at ration depots.

Some months back when our volunteers exposed a PDS scam in Loolipora village in Chadoora tehsil of district Budgam, the Government then decided to make effective use of ePoS machines, and aadhar linking all consumers. This was only possible due to personal efforts of the Secretary Food, Civil Supplies and Consumer Affairs Department Mr Simrandeep Singh. As already mentioned in my article, published on June 13th, a Government ration  store keeper was selling subsidized rice to poor and disadvantaged consumers at exorbitant rates and this practice was being followed for the last many years in Loolipora village. When our volunteers cross checked the ration cards of almost 50 poor households on e-PDS portal (www.jkpsc.nic.in) they were registered under the Priority Household (PHH) category which is the name given to BPL consumers under National Food Security Act (NFSA). For the last 4 years, more than Rs 25,000 were looted from each such PHH or BPL family by the ration storekeeper of Lolipora village alone.

In July this year we again exposed a similar scandal in Tarzoo village in Sopore. In this village around 150 BPL consumers were sold rice @ Rs 15 / Kg (APL rate) which was actually to be sold @ Rs 3 / Kg. After bringing both the issues into the notice of Secretary Food Civil Supplies and Consumer Affairs (FCS & CA) he got the matter investigated and the team was constituted to probe the scandal. In Loolipora 10 officials were indicted by an investigation team which included two retired Tehsil Supply Officers (TSOs) who were identified to be involved in the scam. Govt has initiated penalty proceedings against them and the amount would be deducted from their pension, says the order issued by Govt. How much amount has been actually deducted from their pension in the last few months is not actually known and we will find that out soon. We are waiting for the action to be taken against other 8 officials.

When complaints continued to pour in, Secretary Food finally decided to put into use the electronic Point of Sale machines (ePoS) which had been procured some years back by Govt as mentioned in the beginning of this article. Pertinently a large number of Govt storekeepers and other officials were reluctant to make use of these machines which would have ensured transparency in the entire public distribution system in J&K.

How does an ePoS machine work ?

The Aadhaar-linked electronic Point of Sale machine (PoS machine) used at ration stores displays price, the weight of items and the credentials of a consumer. The field officials of the department of Food and Civil Supplies were thus reluctant to use these machines as there was no space left for corruption, mismanagement and black-marketing. The Govt storekeepers as well as fair price shop owners were supposed to sell the ration on the fixed rates to consumers plus his or her category under BPL, AAY, APL, PHH or NPHH is also visible on these machines. At the end of the transaction the consumer is supposed to get an electronically generated receipt which would show all these details.

Kerala Govt.’s initiative

Around 2 years back Food and Civil Supplies Department of Kerala deployed electronic point of sale (ePoS) machines in all the 14,374 ration shops in the state. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan declared the complete digitisation of the state’s ration distribution / supply chain, in compliance with the National Food Security Act (NFSA) at a function in Kannur on May 21st 2018. The said Department completed the task of installation of ePoS machines across all retail ration outlets after connecting the 3.41 crore ration beneficiaries in the state with the ration card management system utilizing the Aadhaar database. The department gave training to all 14,374 ration dealers and their staff in managing the sales through ePoS machines on a single day at 348 centres in the state. Around 1,500 Civil Supplies Department officials also underwent training in the ration card management system.

Social Auditing

With an aim of ensuring transparency in the public distribution system (PDS), the Food & Civil Supplies Department Kerala signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) for conducting social auditing to ensure a smooth ration distribution system. A pilot social audit on the National Food Security Act (NFSA) was conducted last year in Chengal Choola area of Trivandrum, Kerala. The TISS report found that several beneficiaries were deprived of their true entitlements under PDS. The audit report, full of poignant pictures of the living conditions of the people revealed that food-kit distribution had been discontinued but was resumed a week before the audit, many receiving them for the first time. Though all Asraya beneficiaries (Kerala Govt scheme for poor) were eligible for Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY), the audit found that only 44% got them. A similar social audit conducted by RTI Movement volunteers also revealed a lot of mismanagement in Loolipora and Tarzoo areas as mentioned above. In order to ensure transparency in PDS, J&K Govt also needs to undertake a massive social audit in association with some reputed institutions as complaints against Govt storekeepers are constantly pouring in. Only a few days back one more store keeper from Chara e Sharief circle in Budgam was suspended by the Administrative Department directly as he was found to be involved in serious offences and looting poor consumers.  The Kerala government has started GPS tracking of vehicles transporting food grains in the distribution chain as well as installation of surveillance systems in all distribution centers as part of the PDS renovation. J&K Govt must also follow this model.

Revivification of BPL, AAY

In most of the villages across J&K Govt employees and well off people have been provided Below Poverty Line (BPL) or even Antodaya Anna Yojna (AAY) ration cards and they are getting subsidized ration for years and years. These influential people are actually snatching the right of genuine poor and disadvantaged people who are deprived of this entitlement. Vide order No : FCS & CA/Bud/2020/1128-34 Dated 1.10.2020 the Assistant Director FCS & CA Budgam assured to undertake re-verification of BPL, AAY beneficiaries within 3 weeks but till date the reverification is yet to be initiated. The DC Budgam had actually directed for this re-verification in 2017 and it took Food officials 3 years to issue an order and actual work is still not done.

Conclusion

After we exposed mismanagement of PDS in Loolipora and Tarzoo, Adhar linked electronic point of sale machines (e-PoS) machines were put into use by the Government across J&K. Majority of ration stores (Govt and fair price shops both) have started using these machines. We appreciate this move taken by the Secretary Food. The Govt ration storekeepers on the other hand are still playing tricks with consumers. The electronically generated receipts from e-PoS machines are blocked and consumers are kept in total darkness about the transactions which are made through an offline mode instead of making it online. With proper receipts the storekeepers would not have been able to charge an extra amount or provide less quantity of ration to consumers which is norm in every village or town. To overcome this, Govt must issue a strict direction to all Govt Storekeepers or fair-price shop owners to provide proper receipt to all consumers after every transaction. The consumers on the other hand should be made aware about how these  e-PoS machines operate, plus making them aware of e-PDS portal as well. NGOs and civil society organizations should be involved in this work by the Government which is akin to digital literacy.

Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat is Founder and Chairman of Jammu & Kashmir RTI Movement