In response to Covid-19, the Finance Minister announced a relief package of ₹1.7 lakh crore in March 2020 for 80 crore people. To enhance the benefits of the package, the government announced Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana (PMGKAY I & II) and Atma Nirbhar Bharat Scheme (ANBS) in March and June 2020.

The Department of Food and Public Distribution allocated about 680 lakh tonnes (lt) of foodgrains, including rice, wheat and coarse cereals, in 2020–21. About 350 lt foodgrains were supplied to States and Union Territories for distribution under the the National Food Security Act (NFSA) and Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS).

The Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution reported that an average of 93-94 per cent foodgrains per month was distributed under NFSA and PMGKAY. So, only 6-7 per cent of foodgrains was not lifted by eligible or excluded beneficiaries.

Notwithstanding the instrumental role of TPDS to tide over the hunger pandemic, more than 10 crore people have not been covered by the food safety net as shown by Dreze, Khera, and Mungikar (2020). It means that the NFSA/TPDS coverage ratio stood at 67 per cent at the all-India level, benefiting about 81.3 crore people.

The higher coverage in absolute term has been observed in Assam (81 per cent), Bihar (84), Chhattisgarh (76), Madhya Pradesh (75), Odisha (78), and Uttar Pradesh (76). So, the States/ UTs wherein the coverage ratio is below 75 per cent or has touched only 50 per cent need to develop an inclusive NFSA/TPDS in association with the Central Government.

What measures can be taken to feed the 10 crore-plus excluded people, and how to improve the NFSA coverage ratio and infuse inclusivity in TPDS?

While the integrated management of PDS through automation of operational fair price shops (FPS) or Aadhaar-seeding of ration cards helps deepen the portability of One Nation One Ration Card (ONORC), reducing targeting (inclusion/exclusion) errors, foodgrains access, and mitigating diversion or leakage should draw attention for an inclusive food safety net.

The Ministry of Food and Public Distribution has initiated a scheme of Concurrent Evaluation of NFSA implementation Phase I (2018–20) and Phase II (2020–23) and it has chalked out a few thematic areas to bring inclusivity in NFSA. The indicators to evaluate inclusivity include access to full quantity of entitled foodgrains, price paid by beneficiaries and quality of foodgrains received, ease of access to underprivileged sections, removal of ghost/invalid ration cards for rightful targeting, assessment of purchase-to-entitlement ratio, average transaction and waiting time of beneficiaries at ration shop or FPS, and regularity in service by FPS.

The second dimension is targeting errors by assessing and analysing the per cent of inclusion/exclusion errors in NFSA list, per cent of ration cards added or deleted during the reference period, use, accessibility and efficacy of online ration card management system, number of ration cards to be distributed through Census data and actually distributed by the States/UTs, ease of process for applying the new/duplicate ration cards, and awareness level of beneficiaries/people regarding NFSA inclusion and exclusion criteria.

The other dimensions of evaluation are awareness and education on ONORC portability, effectiveness of grievance redress system and social audit, and supply chain and PDS reforms.

Undoubtedly, NFSA has contributed to transforming PDS, but there are still a few laggard States where improvisation in supply chain is yet to be seen.

Way forward

To mitigate deprivation of the poor and migrant labourers during the pandemic, the Food and Civil Supplies Department should keep a vigil on the functioning of FPSs, checking for any diversion of subsidised foodgrains to the open market.

Second, there can be graduated sanction for unscrupulous FPS dealers if they do not extend working hours for a stipulated period and fail to maintain a daily transaction ledger and update stocks/inventories.

Third, data governance should be put in place to increase transparency and accountability of TPDS that can help deepen portability benefits of ONORC and scale up the implementation of integrated management of PDS.

Fourth, States and UTs should allocate foodgrains to those who are excluded from the TPDS by means of food coupons, cash transfer, and release of surplus stocks from the Central pool in a phased manner.

And fifth, the community kitchen concept must work with the support of civil society organisations to serve the excluded sections.

The writer is Chairman of CFAM, IIM Lucknow. Views are personal.