Even as the Tamil Nadu government has introduced digitization of the Public Distribution System (PDS) and smart PDS cards, ration card holders from many parts of the district complain of lack of access to the monthly supply of commodities which points to the discrepancies in the functioning of ration shops.
Tamil Nadu, which follows universal PDS system unlike other states, had asked for more time to implement the National Food Security Act (NFSA) 2013, which is based on targeted PDS. Under NFSA, 75 per cent of the rural population and 50 per cent of the urban population are entitled to five kilograms of food grains per month at Rs. 3, Rs.2, and Rs. 1 per kg for rice, wheat and coarse grains respectively.
Meanwhile, the state distributes rice at a price of Rs.1/kg, and all rice card holders get anywhere between 12-20 kg rice depending on the number of individuals in the family, instead of the 35kg/month mandated by the central government. In June 2016, the central government approved the allocation of 62,307 tonnes of food grains to Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Nagaland which are in the process of implementing NFSA.
PDS in Tamil Nadu
According to the website of the The Tamil Nadu Civil Supplies Corporation (TNCSC), there are over 33,220 Fair Price Shops (FPS) serving 1.98 crore families in Tamil Nadu; out of these, 31,232 are run by Cooperative Societies, 1,394 by the TNCSC and 596 by women’s Self Help Groups.
According to TNCSC, the government plans to open new FPSs so that no cardholder has to walk more than 1.5 km. However, the residents of some areas, such as those in Ward No 126 of Mandaveli, have been demanding FPSs in their locality for a long time.
Essential commodities including rice, wheat, sugar and kerosene are supplied under the PDS in Tamil Nadu. The state government issues family ration cards based on the needs and preferences of the families. Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY) Scheme Cards are for the poor who are eligible for 35kg rice per month, Rice Cards for those who prefer to buy rice along with other commodities, Sugar Cards for those who prefer additional sugar instead of rice, and No Commodity Cards who do not wish to buy any PDS commodities.
The Special PDS was introduced to protect people from the sharp increases in prices of essential commodities like toor dal, urad dal, palmolein oil and fortified flour. Police personnel are issued separate cards while transgender people living in groups are issued family cards. While the Poverty Line (PL) itself remains a contentious issue in the country, many who are eligible for BPL (Below Poverty Line) cards based on the existing definition are issued APL (Above Poverty Line) cards which denies them access to subsidies meant for their income group. “My husband and I are daily-wage labourers, and what we earn is hardly enough to make both ends meet. There are days when we don’t get work, and we had provided the right information about our income when applying for the ration card. Still, we were issued an APL card. We have approached the authorities to change the category to BPL, but it is taking a long time and we have to shell out more money to get food and oil which we could have saved for health and education expenses of our kids,” says Nalini P from Nungambakkam. There are also cases where people from a higher income group have been issued BPL cards.
At the same time, many feel that the upper annual income limit of Rs 2 lakh for BPL families in urban areas and Rs 1.5 lakh in rural areas is unfair, and they do not provide the details of the total family income. “The Poverty Line specifies an amount that is barely enough to survive, and though we earn more than that, we struggle to meet the expenses of our five-member family,” says an auto driver from Villivakkam who wished to remain anonymous. “It is unfair to deny us the subsidies based on the PL. So, many like us do not reveal our total income, instead we provide a lower figure so that we do not have to spend more money while the price of essential commodities keeps spiraling,” he adds.
The Right to Information Act 2005, makes it the right of every card holder to know the stock status of each PDS commodity at the nearest FPS. TNCSC and the co-operatives send the closing balance of each PDS commodity to a server, which makes the information accessible to the public. The cardholders can access this information through their SMS facility on their mobile phones. Ration card holders can avail taluk-wise and shop-wise information on the status of the stocks of commodities in their rations shops from the Department of Civil Supplies and Consumer Protection through the website http://www.consumer.tn.gov.in/fairprice.htm. Consumers can also register complaints regarding PDS on the online registration form. However, many cardholders who had complained about the malpractices at the FPS, mentioned above, do not have access to online facilities.
District Collectors, the Civil Supplies department, Co-operatives and TNCSC officials are responsible for monitoring PDS commodities at godowns, and also conducting inspections during transportation to shops and distribution from them. According to the Civil Supplies Department, all ration shops in Tamil Nadu would get a Point-of-Sale system to curtail pilferage as well as a GPS-based system to track the details of commodities sent from godowns to shops, the quantity received at shops, and delay in transit. The pilot project has been proved successful in Ariyalur and Perambalur districts and will be extended across the state in a phased manner.
Easy access to information on the stocks available and effective grievance redressal mechanisms will help empower people and enable them to check unfair practices at fair price shops, leading to improved access to the PDS.