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No substitute for PDS

Lifeline: PDS is not perfect but it works... Photo: Reetika Khera

Lifeline: PDS is not perfect but it works... Photo: Reetika Khera  

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In the rural and ‘backward' districts of Orissa, where starvation is still a real threat, the people prefer PDS to the proposed cash transfers…

The Public Distribution System (PDS) is a great idea. If you go into the countryside and talk to people, you can understand the real value of the PDS. This is what I learnt by taking part in a recent survey of the PDS in Orissa, in June 2011. We went to two backward districts: Nuapada (which comes under the “KBK” region) and Sundergarh (with a large tribal population). As we were studying the PDS and asking people what they would feel about getting cash transfers instead, I learnt a lot not only about the PDS but also about the rural society and how poor people live. I started seeing many things with the eyes of an insider, not an outsider; things like poverty, starvation, unemployment, corruption, and so on. In a backward district like Nuapada, you can still meet families who face the threat of starvation death because of a shortage of food.

Imperfect but works

If people are still exposed to starvation in spite of the PDS, how can they trust a system of cash transfers? In Nuapada and Sundergarh, we got an idea of how the PDS works, and felt it was quite successful. Of course there are problems, like unfair distribution of BPL (Below Poverty Line) cards. But still, people prefer the PDS to the idea of cash transfers.

When we were asking people about their views on the PDS and cash transfers, we got a lot of interesting feedback. Almost all families were quite satisfied with the PDS. Further, they had many ideas and suggestions about what should be provided through the PDS and how the system can be improved. On the other hand, when we asked about cash transfers, their responses suggested that they thought it was a very bad idea. This is not just because they are satisfied with the PDS; they also commented on many disadvantages of the cash system. Some respondents became very suspicious when we asked them this question, perhaps thinking that we have little idea about poor villagers, their lifestyles and livelihood. It is understandable that any poor person would respond like this: They depend on the PDS shop to survive and, if you suggest closing it down, it seems to them that we are trying to take away the little that they have. If anyone snatches your food from you when you are hungry and about to eat, then how would you behave? You are likely to get angry and just say, “I want my food”. The poor villagers too want just the PDS, nothing else.

Returning to the problems with the PDS, most of them occur at the local level: unfair distribution, corruption, lack of awareness of entitlements, and so on. In many cases, people do not know what their ration card entitles them to. This makes it possible for the PDS dealer to cheat innocent, often illiterate, people.

Easily preventable

Some of these problems could be resolved if Gram Panchayats were functioning properly. However, most of the time no Gram Sabha meetings are held, and an opportunity to create awareness and accountability is lost. Panchayat officials get the signatures of “important” people in the village, and the Gram Sabha meetings are declared over. Those who suffer, again, are poor or illiterate people. Of course, there are exceptions where Gram Sabhas are held, but that is not the general rule. The Gram Panchayat is the most accessible forum for poor people, but if the Gram Panchayat functions like this, where can people go?

When we were in Kanika block of Sundergarh district, in Dalak village we encountered a large number of people who did not have ration cards, though they were poor by any yardstick. They need a card for their survival; in fact, they need it desperately. When we spoke to them they told us that the Panchayat Secretary had snatched their ration cards. When we confronted officials of the concerned Gram Panchayat, we were told that these people did not want their ration cards! If you are hungry and someone offered you food, would you refuse it? Are illiterate people not entitled to a ration card? They are but they need help to secure their rights.

There are many problems with the Public Distribution System, and a lot of scope for improvement. But does this mean that the PDS itself is wrong? No, it is very important for poor people — that is the prevalent feeling among the people we spoke to. The focus of the debate should be on how to improve the system. The PDS stands for food security of the rural poor — it is not only a government scheme, but an invaluable gift for the people.

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Printable version | Jan 22, 2020 8:00:07 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/no-substitute-for-pds/article2420775.ece

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