Bar codes are helping to contain pilferage of PDS food grain in Odisha's most backward district

Madi Eswari, 50, of Kolanara block in Rayagada is managing at last to keep hunger at bay. She is being helped by technology, or to be precise bar codes, to put an end to the rampant pilferage that marks the public distribution system (PDS) in this tribal district in Odisha where some of the poorest in the country live.

Earlier, despite having a ration card entitling her to subsidised rice at Rs 2 a kilo through the PDS, Eswari would be forced to buy rice in the open market at five times this price because local fair price shop claimed that stocks of subsidised rice had not come in. “Every time I went there, the shopkeeper would tell me to come back the next day. Sometimes I would find that someone else had taken my quota of foodgrains, and I didn't know what to do about it. With this new ration card at least I get what is my due at the subsidised price,” she says.

The implementation of the biometric ration card system that is helping to ease Eswari's life is an initiative of the Odisha state government in collaboration with the United Nations World Food Programme. Under this system, the card holder can easily draw his or her quota of rice, wheat, sugar and kerosene by using a coupon. Each ration card carries the beneficiary's photograph as well as those of family members. In addition, a monthly coupon is given to each beneficiary, attached to which is a strip of special paper bearing the bar code, which is then scanned so that the information is later used to make subsequent allocations to the fair price shops and the beneficiary can access his or her entitlement.

But why was Rayagada chosen for this pilot project? It is one of the most poverty-stricken districts of southern Odisha and falls in the Kalahandi-Bolangir-Koraput region, where about 68.8 per cent of people live below the poverty line. Despite mineral wealth and natural resources, chronic hunger and poverty have forced people here to migrate under conditions of distress and incidents of starvation deaths are frequently reported.

There are a wide range of poverty alleviation schemes and food security policies and programmes for this region, but they seem to have generally failed to make much of a difference because of various challenges including corruption at the lower levels. Rayagada district collector Dr Nitin Bhanu Das Jawale describes the scenario that existed before the introduction of the biometric based smart card project came into force on August 18, 2010.

He says, “There were loopholes in the traditional PDS. On routine inspections, we found that blank BPL cards were given to panchayats, which would then fill in the names of favoured people. About 30 per cent of the food grains were given to the wrong persons or retained by shopkeepers themselves. There were instances when more than one card was issued to somebody and ghost cards were numerous. Rampant pilferage of PDS items was also taking place at each transaction point and those other than the intended beneficiaries ended up using the card.”

The case of Palan Gopi, 46, from Minajhaola village, is fairly typical. His Antodaya card entitled him to 30 kilos of rice at Rs 2, but during a period of drought he reached a point when he couldn't even afford that minimal amount. So he did what many in this area do. He mortgaged his card to a local money lender who then bought up all the rice that Gopi was entitled to and passed on five kilos to him, or lent Gopi Rs 100, keeping his card until that amount was repaid.

The new system has the potential to check such exploitation by preventing the misuse of the card by a third-party. Says Santosh Mohanty, Rayagada's Civil Supply Officer, “This project is unique in the sense that for the first time all 13 biometric indicators are used for the database and ghost/bogus cards have been eliminated at the verification stage itself.

The technology is also helping to identify and remove duplicate registration…. Every transaction between the beneficiaries and the fair price shops is now available on the government website and the new system has introduced transparency in the working of ration shops.”

The figures bear Mohanty out. According to the district civil supplies department data, Rayagada has 53,673 beneficiaries in the Above Poverty Line category and 1,30,585 in the Below Poverty Line category.

Under the present project, 6,000 village or ward-level biometric enrolment stations have been set up across 2,445 villages in 11 blocks and 41 wards. It has so far identified 10,092 pairs of duplicate families and 12,828 pairs of duplicate individuals.Some 1,89,829 new cards have been issued as against 2,09,351 that were in circulation.

According to sources in the district administration, there are less than five per cent errors in the existing database of about 1.9 lakh odd people, and these are being rectified.

However, poor connectivity, infrastructure, raw and unverified data, inadequately trained staff, resistance of vested interests to change, and lack of adequate commitment and ownership at cutting-edge level are also challenges being faced.

Once these lags are addressed, this could be a model that can be replicated anywhere in the state or country, says Dr Jawale.

(Women's Feature Service)