While the Centre may well have political reasons to object to Delhi government’s proposal to deliver atta (wheat flour) and rice to beneficiary homes, there are sound economic reasons why home delivery of ration under the Public Distribution System is not a good idea.
Doorstep delivery of ration was included in the 2020 poll manifesto of Aam Aadmi Party. So, the commitment of the AAP government of Delhi is not a new proposal which has suddenly cropped up. It was in February 2020 that Mukhya Mantri Ghar Ghar Ration Yojana (MMGGRY) was announced by the Delhi government.
There are around 17.54 lakh ration card holders in Delhi who are covered under the National Food Security Act, 2013. There are 68,730 poorest of poor Antodaya Anna Yojana families (AAY) having 2.81 lakh persons. There are 15.35 lakh priority households (PHH) having 62.12 lakh persons. In addition, the state government has identified another 1.74 lakh priority state households (PRS) covering 7.84 lakh persons.
Thus, 72.77 lakh persons in Delhi are at present eligible to get food grains under PDS.
The population of Delhi as per 2011 census was 1.67 crore and 43.5% of population was covered under the NFSA.
The estimated population of Delhi in 2021 is 1.93 crore. So, only 37.7% of the population is now eligible under NFSA. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a large number of families would be under acute food insecurity but they would not be covered under NFSA. In addition, many poor households may be having their ration cards issued in their home states.
In Delhi, the allocation of wheat in April 2021 was 29,706 tonnes against which the state government lifted 25,489 tonnes from FCI’s godowns. In the case of rice, the allocation and lifting in April was 7684 tonnes and 7126 tonnes respectively. So, the ratio of allocation of wheat was about three times higher than the allocation of rice.
The state government wants that the beneficiaries need not come to ration shops and the same should be delivered at homes of beneficiaries.
Home delivery of cooking gas shows that there may be some advantages of the same but for PDS food grains, we are of the considered view that the proposal to distribute atta in place of rice to all the beneficiaries is flawed for several reasons.
The first reason is due to the involvement of roller flour mills.
At present, ration card holders get their wheat milled in local chakkis and they pay small amounts for milling. If the Delhi government gives the contract to flour mills, they may charge about Rs 1,500 per tonne for milling of wheat into atta. One tonne of wheat will give 91% whole mill atta and 8% bran. About 1% is other refractions. This is if the flour mills honestly perform the milling operations. If they decide to make resultant atta instead of wholemeal atta, they can produce ‘fine’ products like Maida and suji (55% – 68%) and bran (23%) with 2% to 3% refraction. Milling of wheat can give 6% to 15% resultant atta.
Resultant atta contains less protein, ether extractives and ash than wholemeal atta. This is why wholemeal atta retail price in Delhi is Rs 3,500 per quintal while resultant atta is at about Rs 2400 per quintal. Fine products like maida and suji are at Rs 4,800 and Rs 6,200 per quintal respectively.
Clearly, there would be an economic incentive for unscrupulous elements to collude and deliver resultant atta to PDS beneficiaries instead of whole mill atta.
Secondly, centralised milling of wheat by roller flour mills will destroy the livelihood of small chakkis.
Thirdly, wheat can be stored up to three years from harvest but the shelf life of atta is not more than a few months. Many families taking ration under PDS may be storing wheat at home for milling and consumption at a later date. At present, they may not be milling the entire quantity at one go. This freedom will be lost if atta is distributed in place of wheat.
Fourthly, the home delivery of atta and rice will be complicated and more expensive for the Delhi government. It is envisaged that Delhi Consumer’s Co-operative Wholesale Store Ltd (DCCWS) will engage private agencies for delivery.
Fifthly, the different quantities of wheat issued to AAY and PHH families will result in different sizes of packages required to be delivered. While AAY families get 35 kg grains irrespective of family size, the priority households get 5 kg per person per month. If atta is to be distributed every month, packing will have to be done in different sizes. And rice and atta will have to be packed separately anyway.
Sixthly, it appears likely that Aadhar authentication will have to be done at the residence of the beneficiary and in case of failure, the delivery boy will have to return the ration or visit the home again.
Lastly, the check on ration shops due to the presence of a large number of beneficiaries will be lost. The possibility of under-weighment and issue of poor quality of grains is minimised. Home delivery will leave the beneficiary at the mercy of the delivery boy.
Having said this, there is a case for home delivery of food grains for differently abled and senior citizens. The Centre must consider allowing the Delhi government to conduct a pilot of this.
There is no doubt that quite often ration shop owners treat the card holders shabbily and, in many cases, the card holders have to visit ration shops several times. For this, the Delhi government must notify specific dates along with the timings during which the ration shops will remain open so that the card holders do not have to make multiple visits to ration shops.
The Delhi government will do well to spend the money on direct income support to vulnerable families so that they can spend on proteins. For this, much more data will have to be collected than what is at present available with the government. Despite the oft-repeated claims of JAM trinity, there is as yet no authentic database to identify the poor and transfer money directly to their bank accounts. Jan Dhan Accounts are not necessarily held by the poor.
Let Delhi become a role model for income support, especially as the livelihoods have been very severely affected by COVID-19 pandemic and distress levels for workers in the unorganised sector are at all-time high.
Siraj Hussain retired as Union Agriculture Secretary. At present, he is a Visiting Senior Fellow, ICRIER.
Jugal Mohapatra has worked as Secretary in the Ministries of Fertilisers and Rural Development.