Tuesday, May 29, 2012

I’ve been thinking about what Gandhiji would do about our Public Distribution System (PDS). At the heart of this programme is the idea that the poor must not starve: They must have a bit of food security, despite market prices or black-marketeers. It is an idea Gandhiji would approve of. Most of us would find it very hard to dispute the rectitude of this idea.
But the PDS has never worked as well as it should. Recently, finance minister Pranab Mukherjee even said, “Improper PDS is the biggest weakness of the country.” He said this while talking to students at Mohanlal Sukhadia University in Udaipur. It must have rung painfully true, given that this was south Rajasthan, which has reported several hunger deaths in recent years...
As it is, the last Global Hunger Index report (2011) has ranked us 67 (among 88 nations) when it comes to food security. We have 
actually dropped a rank since 2008, when we were ranked 66. Our overall situation is judged ‘alarming’.
Researchers have also developed an India State Hunger Index, which calculates hunger and malnutrition within India. They looked at 17 states, and claim to have covered 95% of the population. Some states, expectedly, did better. Punjab, for instance, was the best performer – its food security situation is merely ‘serious’. Madhya Pradesh was ‘extremely alarming’, 
with people suffering greater hunger here than in Ethiopia or Sudan. Gandhiji would not have approved.
It is also true, of course, that India is a food-surplus nation. Or so it claimed to be, in our school textbooks. But this ‘surplus’ exists because too many of us — some estimates suggest 836 million Indians survive on less than Rs20 per day — either have no land to grow food, or don’t have jobs that pay enough to buy food.
If we are not to turn into a failed state, we have to prevent mass hunger. The PDS is a firm step in that direction. But what ails the PDS?
One answer is ‘poor offtake’, which means our distribution system isn’t distributing far and wide enough. Another is ‘leakages’. This doesn’t refer to rats biting through sackcloth. It refers to non-hungry people stealing grain meant for hungry Indians.
The way to tackle theft is to police it. But the PDS is a complex system. There are too many stages of transportation and storage and sale. No matter how alert administration officials are, or how honest, it is hard to plug a million leaks unless a food inspector physically stands around, guarding each sack of grain. We know that isn’t a tenable solution.

1 comment:

NightWatchmen said...

I read the article in DNA. My two cents is possibly make PDS universal rather than have any kind of income criteria. Tamil Nadu does seem to be doing quite well with such a scheme. Would be interesting to see what the India State Hunger Index has to say about Tamil Nady

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