Author : Soumya Bhowmick

Expert Speak India Matters
Published on Sep 20, 2019
In states such as West Bengal, the purpose of holding a ration card is still of utmost importance for procurement decisions. The low level of digitisation of the PDS further adds to the woes of the state.
Food security in West Bengal: Inter-state portability and digitisation

The origins of institutionalised food security by the Indian government date back to the Second World War in 1944. In its current form, the world’s largest Public Distribution System (PDS) is in India under the aegis of the National Food Security Act (NFSA) of 2013. Every year, more than 60 million tonnes of subsided food grains is distributed to more than 810 million beneficiaries.

Over the decades, there have been various policies to ensure food availability to the rising Indian population. India ranks 76 out of 113 nations in terms of the Global Food Security Index 2018, with major challenges identified in the areas of public expenditure on agricultural R&D, GDP per capita and protein quality. The UN points towards Central schemes, such as the targeted PDS, National Nutrition Mission, the National Food Security Act, Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana and the National Mission on Sustainable Agriculture, in improving India’s agriculture to tackle food scarcity and security.

The Centre’s recent announcement of the ‘One Nation One Ration Card’ scheme after the completion of BJP’s first 100 days in the second consecutive NDA term is regarded as one of its benchmark achievements. This scheme, which is scheduled to be implemented by June 2020, is aimed at the portability of the food security benefits. This means that unlike earlier times when an individual ration card was linked to a particular Fair Price Shop, this scheme would facilitate the interstate mobility of the PDS benefits from different ration shops, with the help of a single digital card. However there are certain cautions to consider

a. Pan India implementation of this scheme would mean detailed research on the intra-country migration patterns to make procurement decisions, and

b. Adequate availability of Electronic Point of Sale (ePoS) machines need to be installed in all the Fair Price Shops across the nation to facilitate the digitisation of the PDS system.

In states such as West Bengal, the purpose of holding a ration card is still of utmost importance for procurement decisions. The low level of digitisation of the PDS further adds to the woes of the state.

Despite its relatively large food supply, the Public Distribution System in West Bengal is not in place.

West Bengal is well endowed with fertile soil and abundant water for agricultural activities, by virtue of the state’s position in the lower Indo-Gangetic plains. According to the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare, West Bengal is one of the largest producers of food grains (including Rabi and Kharif) in India. In 2016-17 it was the largest producer of rice at 15.9 million tonnes and at approximately 16.9 million tonnes of total food grains in 2017-18, it is ahead of the southern, western and northeastern states in India.

Despite its relatively large food supply, the Public Distribution System in West Bengal is not in place. By analysing data retrieved from the Lok Sabha, the estimated ratio of the number of ration card holders to the number of Fair Price Shops (FPS) in each state/union territory, depicts the average number of people each ration shop catered to in 2017-18. Expectedly, the 10 most populated states (as per Census 2011) are listed in the initial ranks in the table below, exhibiting an unfavourable ratio due to burgeoning demand from the masses.

Rank States/Union Territories People per Ration Shop Rank States/Union Territories People per Ration Shop
1. West Bengal 2968 19. Telangana 282
2. Delhi 863 20. Jammu and Kashmir 268
3. Dadra and Nagar Haveli 686 21. Jharkhand 247
4. Odisha 647 22. Manipur 240
5. Karnataka 519 23. Kerala 240
6. Madhya Pradesh 514 24. Punjab 218
7. Daman and Diu 473 25. Nagaland 168
8. Chhattisgarh 436 26. Assam 151
9. Uttar Pradesh 422 27. Uttarakhand 144
10. Gujarat 420 28. Himachal Pradesh 142
11. Rajasthan 389 29. Lakshadweep 131
12. Bihar 371 30. Mizoram 115
13. Andhra Pradesh 329 31. Arunachal Pradesh 102
14. Tripura 327 32. Meghalaya 91
15. Goa 310 33. Sikkim 68
16. Haryana 310 34. Andaman and Nicobar Islands 28
17. Tamil Nadu 283 35. Chandigarh 0
18. Maharashtra 282 36. Puducherry 0

Despite Bengal’s large production of food grains, the clear lack of realisation between demand and supply in the food market is highlighted by the above average figure of 2,968 people per ration shop. One of the major reasons for this is the ineffective updation of the NFSA database, where many people holding rations cards are either not financially eligible for it or hold it for purposes other than food security. In fact, many card holders had taken advantage of the system to run a huge nexus of black marketing operations, especially with subsidised kerosene.

Given this abnormally high figure, very soon, the West Bengal Government intends to hold a survey to categorise ration card holders based on purpose — the ones who are actually claimants of the PDS system and the ones who merely hold cards as identity proof. Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee adds: “Many people are holding ration card in fear that they could face trouble if NRC will be conducted in the state. However we will sort out who is the actual beneficiary and who is just keeping the card as an identification proof.”

West Bengal is awfully lagging in terms of digitalising the PDS system.

Although the portability of ration cards would help ameliorate the issue of a high population to be catered by ration shops, the concerns regarding West Bengal are two-fold.

Firstly, the ‘One Nation One Ration Card’ scheme is mainly aimed at tackling the food security issues of the migrant workers who can have easier access to the PDS facilities across the country. Both West Bengal and Bihar have huge labour emigration every year with the districts of Malda in West Bengal characterising the epicentre of this labour migration to far-off Indian states. Hence, for the ration card portability to work in favour of the Bengali migrants, the system has to be integrated  all across the country, which might take a while. In the first phases of the scheme, only two pairs of states, i.e. Andhra Pradesh-Telengana and Maharashtra-Gujarat became the first ones to implement the portability.

Secondly and more importantly, West Bengal is awfully lagging in terms of digitalising the PDS system. According to the Food Ministry, in West Bengal, only 366 out of 20,806 Fair Price Shops have installed ePoS machines. Food and Public Distribution Minister Ram Vilas Paswan states, “There is only 70% coverage of ePoS in West Bengal, 33% in Uttarakhand and 15% in Bihar. In the Northeast, in Meghalaya, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Mizoram and Assam, there is no coverage at all. This is where we must focus.”

India’s high population and extreme poverty incidence makes it accountable for one-fourth of the world’s burden of hunger, with almost 195 million undernourished people. Major challenges remain in achieving Sustainable Development Goal 2: Zero Hunger in India by 2030. Amongst all the indicators, the prevalence of stunting (38.4%) and wasting (21%) in children are identified as the crucial challenges according to the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network in its 2019 report.

The ‘One Nation One Ration Card’ scheme, if implemented properly, too can drastically bring down inequality in access to food. A cue for the pairing or grouping of states can be taken from the table above where West Bengal and other high ranked states can be grouped with states with lower ranks to enable equitable access to food. For example, keeping the geography in mind, West Bengal could start with grouping together with Assam or Sikkim in the initial phases. This method can be a definite way forward for homogenising the demand-supply gaps across the country, as an objective step towards food security in India.

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Soumya Bhowmick

Soumya Bhowmick

Soumya Bhowmick is an Associate Fellow at the Centre for New Economic Diplomacy at the Observer Research Foundation. His research focuses on sustainable development and ...

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