PDS is getting computerised, but documents still come in between the needy and food security
The Delhi government’s Food and Supplies Department is computerising its database to ensure ration card holders get their entitlements without fail. But it does not have a clue as to how the needy can get ration cards under the Public Distribution System (PDS). Or, it has not used any technology to reach the needy.
Getting a ration card is not easy, especially if you are poor and really deserving of a card. The official reels out a list of documents required. Speaking at a workshop organised by the ministry of food and the World Food Programme (WFP), it reconfirms the fact that targeted schemes are least interested in reaching out to the really needy. Exclusion is the norm.
First on the list is proof of residence. When it is pointed out that the poor would not have their own homes, the official says they have a separate category called homeless. But what about those who live in rented rooms? There is a separate category for them, too, he adds. But they have to get a no objection letter from their house owners — which is the whole problem. No house owner would give it. And, the Delhi government has no solution for this.
So, the bulk of the poor are conveniently excluded and left to fend for themselves.
You get state assistance if you have your house, or if you are homeless but aware to go and search for an NGO, which can get you the homeless cards. Nothing can be more ironic.
Why should states run these schemes if it doesn’t want to reach out to the needy? No one knows. Here identity is everything. Take the case of a food aid programme run by WFP in the rural areas of Kenya. It is a cash transfer model for the rural areas. The villagers, all illiterate, are registered using their biometrics and picture as identity. Their accounts are then opened in a bank. The documents needed are those needed by the bank, says Annalisa Conte, chief of the cash for food programme in WFP.
They need a national identity card, she says. Those who don’t have it, don’t get to open accounts. So, what happens to the rest?
Had they been in Delhi, they would be excluded. But, in Kenya, 80,000 accounts were opened. And, Conte says WFP helped those without documents to get the required papers. Those left out were bunched together with account holders into forming group accounts. Mobile vans of the bank arrive weekly to provide cash to the account holders in these Kenyan villages.
WFP also has other cash programmes, but the identification process is not clear.
In Palestine, the beneficiaries are given government Sahtein smartcards, which are like debit cards where top-ups are recorded on a monthly basis. The beneficiary can swipe the card in registered grocery shops and buy essentials from a pre-defined range of items. According to WFP, this has created more jobs, besides allowing people to buy items such as milk and eggs, which they cannot buy in a regular food delivery model. Besides, people can buy through the month from shops of their choice.
In Syria, the government and WFP have used mobile phones to reach out to Iraqi refugees. As soon as their entitlements arrive, the beneficiaries receive an SMS with a pin number, which they then cite at the shop. If they have money left in their accounts, they get a fresh SMS and a fresh pin number that can be used the next time. Here reaching out to refugees is easy, as they have identity cards showing their refugee status, says WFP’s Conte.
But, in Delhi and the other places, the focus is on preventing theft of food grains. Everyone, except the government, is a potential thief and the sole purpose of technology is only to catch thieves. Had the focus been on the needy, the technology would have been used to reach out to them. And, every person in need would be covered.