Thimmamma limped slowly to the Fair Price Shop in her village. This was the second day that she was going there. She just could not manage to stand the whole day in the queue and negotiate her way through the crowd and buy her rations the previous day. She was hoping that she would be lucky today. She was now nearing 70 years and had lost her husband more than 15 years ago. Her only son had left the village looking for greener pastures more than 35 years ago and she had not heard from him for more than a decade now. Her eyesight being poor and her body old, she could neither work as an agriculture laborer nor stay at home all day long doing nothing. She occasionally visited the larger homes in her village and helped the women folk in cleaning the grains and in other domestic chores. This kept her busy and the women would usually offer her a meal in return. Month after month she would wait for the local drummer to announce the arrival of food grains in the Fair Price Shop. This shop, owned by a local politician, would be open for a few days till all the grain stock was exhausted.
After a wait of more than 5 hours, she managed to get her rations for the month. She paid the assistant at the shop Rs.100 and collected Rs.15 in return. For Thimmamma, this was a monthly chore and her life revolved on successfully getting her Rs.85 worth of food grains. I was visiting her village on one such day and managed to strike a conversation with her. Thimmamma was amused that somebody would be interested to talking to her. She told me her story and how she was patiently waiting for her death. Talking to her made me wonder what one needed to do to help people like Thimmamma. The state had created schemes specifically for people like her. She was carrying an Antyodaya card that entitled her to 29 kg of rice and 6 kg of wheat per month, apart from the 4 liters of kerosene and 1 kg of sugar. What Thimmamma had got that day was just 16 kg of rice and 2 kg of wheat and no kerosene or sugar. And all this at Rs.85 instead of the Rs.52 that these grains were worth.
There are hundreds of people like Thimmamma who are blissfully unaware of their entitlements and consider themselves lucky to be getting what they are getting. Despite the best of planning, the last-mile problem dogs many of our schemes and they fail to meet their objectives. The Indian PDS is one of the largest subsidized food distribution systems in the world. More than 500,000 shops all over the country are involved in distributing food grains at highly subsidized rates to millions of poor Indians, who depend on them solely to meet their food and nutritional needs. Despite the orders of the Supreme Court, most of our Fair Price Shops are ‘Unfair’ in the way they transact their business.
The FPS show owner in Thimmamma’s village (and in all the others that I have visited till date) neither discloses information on the number of cardholders or their entitlements nor the stock position publicly. Bills are hardly given and even if done so, are unreadable and erratic. The quantity and quality of food grains issued are mostly below standards. I am yet to see a single FPS in the entire state which issues the allotted quantity of rice to the cardholders at the stipulated price. It is mostly less by 4-10 kg of their entitlements and sold at prices varying between Rs 3.25 and 3.50. The shops are usually open for 4 to 6 days in a month, against the required duration of entire month with Tuesdays being the official holiday. When one talks to these shop owners, their standard response is that they are given very little commission and are forced to distribute grains to more people than the actual number of legitimate cardholders. They also mention that palms need to be greased and they always end up talking like they too are the victims.
Amidst such a prevailing ecosystem, how does one get people like Thimmamma, who cannot get to read and understand the entitlements written on her card, to get their rightful due? How does one get to work with a system that is designed to be opaque, gray and patronizing of the corrupt? Can technology be an equalizer and help her get what she deserves and what the State ends up claiming to spend on people like her? Can we not design a system that can ensure pre-packaged and labeled food products that can be issued only to her, using biometrics and centrally linked point-of-sales machines? All this can be done and should be done. We need to make sure that the millions of rupees that the government is spending on providing safety nets to the vulnerable and the marginalized actually end up reaching them. And we need to do it before it is too late.
For people like Thimmamma, the 2G spectrum scam or the ISRO S-Band scam mean nothing. But losing out on their few kilos of grains, month after month, can make the difference between life and death for them.