COVID-19: Delhi's PDS System is Failing People When Needed Most

People outside Raghubir Nagar slum area on April 10, 2020. Photo: PTI/Kamal Singh

New Delhi: A fortnight after the Delhi government announced that it would be providing free rations to those in need in the capital city and the Centre also announced release of additional foodgrain and pulses, a ground survey by a foods right campaign has revealed that not only have these promised grains not reached the people, the manner of operations at fair price shops has deteriorated.

The Delhi Rozi Roti Adhikar Abhiyan has now written to Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal about the urgent need to simplify the system for delivery of foodgrains to people who don’t have ration cards.

Performance of fair price shops dips in time of crisis

The demand from the Abhiyan – raised by activists Anjali Bhardwaj, Annie Raja, Dipa Sinha and Amrita Johri – has come after a survey of rations shops revealed that instead of an improvement in their functioning, operations have become stuck. The group visited 37 ration shops in in Delhi located in several parts of Delhi between April 4 and 8 and found 13 of them to be closed during working hours.

Of the remaining 24 shops, which were open, the Abhiyan found 18 to be distributing grains to ration cardholders. The remaining six shops stated that their stock was finished.

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This data has revealed a marked drop in the performance of the public distribution system at a time when it is needed to perform optimally. A  similar survey done by the Abhiyan a week earlier had revealed that of the 37 shops that were checked, 12 were found closed during working hours. Of the remaining 25 shops, 23 were found to be distributing grains to ration cardholders. The remaining two shops stated that they had finished their stock.

‘More ration shops closed, out of stock, fewer distributing grains’

So as per the latest survey. one additional shop was found closed, five fewer FPS were found distributing the grains and four additional shops stated that they had finished their stocks.

Citing how during the recent survey, shopkeepers at two FPS in Munirka and RK Puram claimed that while they had received stock of wheat that they were not distributing rations as the stock of rice was awaited, the Abhiyan said a perusal of the online database of delivery of ration confirmed that full allocation of rice for the months of April and May had been delivered to the ration shops.

It also added that while some of the shops stated that stocks were over, it found cardholders who had not yet received their rations even though the online website showed that their ration had been dispatched to the shop. “The issue of shops claiming stocks are over requires an investigation by the Food Department,” the Abhiyan said.

‘Data indicates possibility of diversion of grains’

The food rights group also said that as per the Delhi government order of March 26, ration stock of two months, i.e. April and May 2020, was to be delivered to all ration shops by March 29. “It is, therefore, not clear how the stock has finished already, especially since the update put out by the Delhi government on April 3, 2020, mentions that ration has been distributed to only 60% of cardholders (no update has been put out since then). This raises serious concerns about the possibility of diversion of grains,” it cautioned.

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The Abhiyan said Delhi has a network of 2,028 ration shops and “the proper functioning of these shops is crucial, especially during the time of the coronavirus crisis when lakhs of people are running out of food and are on the brink of starvation.”

‘E-coupon system making PDS inaccessible to most’

But, it noted that “the current system requires those without ration cards to apply for an e-coupon using a website. They need to have the ability to access the internet, have a mobile phone to generate an OTP, upload a photo of their Aadhaar card and a photo of their family, and finally, download the e-coupon. This makes the system inaccessible for the poorest and marginalised who need rations.”

The Abhiyan also demanded a change in the manner of how those without ration cards could get rations. It said another area of concern is the announcement that foodgrains for those without ration cards would be given in some schools and not at the fair price shops. This, it said, would cause confusion and hardships.