The central vigilance committee led by retired Justice D. P. Wadhwa, which was established by the Supreme Court of India to monitor its orders in the PIL on the right to food, has come out with a strong indictment of the public distribution system (PDS). Based on State-level reports for Delhi, Orissa, Bihar, Jharkhand, Uttarakhand, Rajasthan, Gujarat, and Karnataka, the committee has identified widespread corruption at different levels of the system. To ensure the availability of basic items of food at affordable prices to the masses, containing and eradicating corruption in the PDS is an imperative. The committee has made several useful suggestions in this regard, including automation of the weighing system, doorstep delivery of food grain to fair-price shops, speeding up cases pending in courts under the Essential Commodities Act, and setting up inspection squads. It points to the lack of a system of accounting for grain allocated and a weak implementation of the monitoring and vigilance procedures. Rooting out corruption requires action by the executive and the judiciary, and also more directly through gram sabhas.

The recommendation of the committee for the “abolition of APL,” however, is unwarranted. Indeed, many of the ills of the PDS today can be traced to the introduction of narrow targeting in 1996, and the artificial and unfair separation of BPL (below-poverty-line) and APL (above-poverty-line) households. It is now widely recognised that the current definition of BPL is really a definition of destitution and has excluded large numbers of poor, malnourished, and food-insecure households from the ambit of the PDS. Incentives for diversion of grain, as the committee notes, stem from the high demand for BPL cards and the unmet needs of the so-called APL households. Targeting, it notes, has reduced the profits of traders running fair price shops. International experience shows that narrow targeting lowers the quality of welfare programmes. Lessons have also to be learnt from Tamil Nadu and Kerala. In Tamil Nadu, all households have access to grain of the same quantity, quality, and price, and there are recognisably fewer leakages in the PDS. Prior to targeting, Kerala, with near-universal programme coverage, was renowned for having the best-run PDS. It is well known in law that the misuse of a thing is no argument against its use. In the name of reducing corruption, the public distribution system itself must not be dismantled. On the contrary, during a period of high food inflation and in a country with the largest number of malnourished people in the world, the PDS needs to be strengthened and made universal.

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