Bengaluru: Revamma, 94, stays alone in her two-room house in Kethohalli village in Ramanagar, 30 km south-west of Karnataka’s capital city. She can barely walk as her left leg is swollen due to an injury. Previously, she relied on her only daughter Manjula, 56, to collect her rations from the government fair-price shop (FPS). An initiative launched last October by the Karnataka Food and Civil Supplies and Consumer Affairs Department ensures that she gets 5 kg foodgrain at her doorstep every month.

Under the public distribution system (PDS), either the fingerprint of the ration card holder is scanned or a one-time password is sent to the linked phone number to confirm delivery of foodgrain. “My daughter is a daily wage worker. Once a month, after coming from work she used to collect my rations and give them to me," says Revamma. "Now, I’m grateful that I directly get them at home. I find it difficult to move around in my house--how could I go to the ration shop?”

‘Anna Suvidha' was started by the Siddaramaiah-led Congress government in Karnataka to deliver rations to people who are aged 90 years and above. At present, single-member household Antodaya Anna Yojana (AAY) and Priority Household (PHH) ration card holders aged 90 years and above are entitled to receive the benefit. Each priority household beneficiary under the National Food Security Act is provided with 5 kg of foodgrain, and the poorest of the poor (AAY) households get 35 kg for free as NFSA entitlements. Priority households under NFSA are those identified by states’ scheme guidelines, while AAY beneficiaries are based on scheme guidelines issued by the Union government.

There are 5,314 eligible individuals in the state as of February 2024, according to the Karnataka Food and Civil Supplies and Consumer Affairs Department. The FPS dealers deliver the rations every month to the recipients, and department officials use an app to track the status of the delivery.

Senior citizens, especially those aged 90 and above, found it near impossible to access ration shops and carry the provisions back home. The situation is harder for single-member households, i.e. those who do not live with their families due to factors such as perceived burden, poverty, low family income, migration of family members for work, or internal conflicts.

While food security is the primary motive, it also brings hope and dignity back into their lives in the twilight years. “A report published in a local newspaper [in June 2022] highlighted how an old lady in Karwar was not able to carry the government-provided rations and almost starved for a few months," said Gyanendra Gangwar, former Additional Director, IT and Vigilance, Food and Civil Services Department. "Our food inspector personally visited her and provided her rations. This incident made us think that there will be many such individuals in the state who would need support. This is when we started conceptualising and analysing data for 'Anna Suvidha’.”

The initiative, which is in the pilot stage, was started under Gangwar’s supervision. "We took the decision to sort the available data on a monthly basis, since many names get deleted due to deaths and new names are added as people are ageing,” he said.

How beneficiaries were identified

In February 2023, the Food and Civil Supplies Department initiated the process of sorting the digitally available ration card data to shortlist single-member households on the basis of age--70-79, 80-89, 90 and above, and the various categories of cards (AAY, PHH and non-priority households), according to Gangwar.

Next, the food inspectors in different districts across the state were asked to physically verify details such as the address and contact details of nonagenarian and centenarian single-member AAY and PHH ration card holders by random sampling.

During this physical verification process, it was found that many of the individuals whose names were in the list were dead. The department deleted the invalid ration cards from the database on the basis of the e-janma (birth and death registration) portal data. After this exercise, the number of single member ration card householders in the state who were 90 and above in the AAY and PHH categories were found to be 248 and 8,066, respectively, Gangwar told IndiaSpend.

Further, an in-depth analysis of the ration uptake or collection status undertaken by the department found that there were 37% of single member households with AAY and PHH cards in this selected age bracket consistently missing their rations on a monthly basis, and 24% had not collected them for a continuous period of six months.

In Devanahalli in Bengaluru Rural, Annamma (she uses one name), 90 got her rations collected through her son L. Srinivas, 49, and daughter-in-law Shobha Annayappa, 39, only when they were free from work. She could not collect her rations in the month of September 2023, and was glad when the dealer delivered her 3 kg rice and 2 kg ragi in October when the initiative was launched.

“My son is a mason," Annamma said. "He often goes out for work and does not return home for months. My daughter-in-law also accompanies him sometimes along with the kid. Previously, I used to wait for them to bring my rations and sometimes missed them when they were away.”

Annamma, 90 depended on her son and daughter-in-law, who often migrate in search of work, to collect her rations. She was glad when the fair-price shop dealer delivered her 3 kg rice and 2 kg ragi in October 2023, she says.

Tech-enabled collaboration

The initiative requires collaboration between FPS dealers, food inspectors, and joint directors/deputy directors of the Food and Civil Supplies Department. For ensuring a smooth operational workflow and monitoring the process, a user-friendly mobile application was developed with the assistance of private software developers. This app, called ‘Anna Suvidha’, uses geo-tagging to verify the location of the delivery; hence, inspection can be done only at the location of the recipient where the rations are delivered.

The interface of the app is slightly different for the FPS dealers and food inspectors. Once the head office in Bengaluru uploads the verified data in the server every month, food inspectors can view the number of recipients in their area, and the FPS dealers see the list of people to whom they have to home-deliver rations.

FPS dealers have to take a photograph while delivering the foodgrain and upload it on the app. To ensure that the rations have been delivered by the dealer, food inspectors are required to visit some of the recipients and upload an image of inspection. When deliveries are not done for whatever reason, the names appear under 'pending’.

The assistant programmers--who are contractual technical employees--of every district were provided virtual training in August on how to use the app. They trained the food inspectors who in turn explained the process to FPS dealers operating within their area.

Fair price shop dealers seek incentives, food inspectors struggle to verify

Our children moved out of the house after their marriage. They don’t really care for us. When we need help, our neighbours come to our rescue,” Ashwatha Bai, 85 said. They have four sons and one daughter. While she is a homemaker, her husband Narayan Rao, 94 is a tailor. He stopped working a few years ago due to knee pain. They live in Kengeri in Bengaluru Urban, and depend on financial assistance provided by the government for survival.

Due to poor health, the old couple find it difficult to walk to the closest FPS which is a mere 500 metres away. “Previously, we asked our neighbour to bring our rations. We are very happy that the dealer comes home now. It is a great relief. May God bless him,” Rao said, as his eyes welled up.

Ashwatha Bai, 85 and her husband Narayan Rao, 94 live in Bengaluru and receive rations at home under Anna Suvidha.

Although the ration card is in Ashwatha Bai’s name, they still receive the rations at their doorstep since October as Rao is a nonagenarian. The department officials could not provide a satisfactory explanation of why the couple is considered for the home delivery initiative when it only covers single-member AAY and PHH card holders in the 90 and above age group. They, however, accepted that despite their best efforts, there are chances of discrepancies due to which a few people are probably left out from the database or some who don’t meet the criteria are included.

Ashwatha Bai and Rao’s scenario reflects that couples in their 80s and 90s and single members in their 80s will also largely benefit if they are brought under the ambit of ‘Anna Suvidha'.

“Since I have to only take the rations to one house which is very close to my shop, I have no problem delivering it for free,” Shankaraiah K.S., 52, an FPS dealer in Kethohalli village, said. He wants the government to increase the incentive (currently Rs 124 per quintal) given to dealers for rations distributed under the PDS.

J.L. Somashekar, 40, who runs an FPS in Devanahalli, echoed this view. “In a month, I pay Rs 4,000 rent for the shop and Rs 4,000 to the helper for offloading foodgrain,” he pointed out. "For electricity, I have to shell out Rs 250 approximately and Rs 300 for internet. With all these expenses, it is very difficult to manage the shop with such low incentive. For home delivery, I am currently providing rations to only one person. I will be happy if the government provides an extra amount for delivery.”

J.L. Somashekar, a fair-price shop dealer in Devanahalli in Bengaluru Rural. “For home delivery, I am currently providing rations to only one person. I will be happy if the government provides an extra amount for delivery,” he says.

In its report on strengthening PDS using technology in March 2021, the parliamentary Standing Committee on Food, Consumer Affairs, and Public Distribution recommended increasing the margin of FPSs.

The Food and Civil Supplies Department officials feel that it is important to incentivise the FPS dealers as it will keep them “motivated”. Raghu N., Bengaluru Urban food inspector, suggested that the FPS dealers are “listening" to them and “complying" with their requests only because they don’t have to do doorstep delivery for more than one or two households at present. "In the future, if we plan to add more people under the initiative, like the disabled category, then we can’t expect services from dealers for free,” he said.

According to the Food and Civil Supplies and Consumer Affairs Department, the number of nonagenarians and centenarians who have received rations at home in October, November, December and January are 788, 667, 521 and 456, respectively. This declining trend indicates that the assessment of the department officials, that the FPS dealers are not “motivated”, is correct and the failure to provide financial incentive to FPS dealers is a real problem.

“Since we use an app to implement and monitor ‘Anna Suvidha’, we know exactly how many deliveries are made and what is the status on ground," said Prathik G. Hegde, Assistant Director, Karnataka Food and Civil Supplies and Consumer Affairs Department. "But, the point is we can’t push FPS dealers since we are not paying them any amount for home-delivering rations. Therefore, even when we are aware that some of the dealers are not complying with our requests at all, we can’t force them.

“We have proposed to the Finance Department to consider allocating funds for this initiative in the state budget this year. If the budget announcement is made, we plan to provide Rs 50 as incentive to the FPS dealers for each delivery every month.”

Food inspector T. Nirmala during an inspection of the fair-price shop in Kethohalli, with the dealer Shankaraiah K.S. “Our department does not have vehicles to be taken for verifying home delivery of rations. We have to manage to reach the recipient's house for monthly verification on our own," Nirmala said.

Another important aspect is the verification undertaken by the food inspectors to confirm delivery. In Ramanagar district, to cover a distance of 10 km approximately, food inspector T. Nirmala travels in a bus for a few kilometres on the highway from her office and then waits for the FPS dealer to take her to Kethohalli village in his vehicle; there is one eligible recipient in this village. “Our department does not have vehicles to be taken for verifying home delivery of rations. We have to manage to reach the recipient's house for monthly verification on our own," Nirmala said. "In Ramanagar, there are 49 FPS under my area.”

While this is the situation in Ramanagar, close to the state capital, food inspectors in remote parts of the state with scant coverage of public transport will have to struggle to go for verification drives under ‘Anna Suvidha’.

Tried and tested in other states

Different doorstep ration delivery schemes were introduced in other states and Union territories such as Kerala, Punjab and Delhi.

The Kerala government launched a scheme called 'OPPAM’ on a pilot basis on February 13, 2023 in Nadathara Panchayat in Thrissur District. The Department of Food, Civil Supplies and Consumer Affairs and auto rickshaw employees collaborated to deliver foodgrain at the doorstep of extremely poor families, and impoverished and bedridden persons in the state.

It was later introduced in Kozhikode district as well. "The autorickshaw drivers don’t charge any money for participating in this free home delivery initiative. We have successfully launched it across the state and it is in every district of Kerala now,” Kerala Civil Supplies Commissioner D. Sajith Babu said. “The beauty of our scheme is that we didn’t have to spend any additional amount. We have mapped the auto rickshaws in such a way that the auto drivers can take the rations with them after completing their work as the delivery locations are between the auto stands and their homes.”

When asked how the department ensures that there is no leakage, Babu said, “The recipients sign a receipt after receiving the rations. Additionally, our ration inspectors visit the houses of recipients for random checks.”

Further, he pointed out that the scheme has sociological benefits. “Through this scheme, we provide rations to the extremely poor who are mostly old, disabled and sick. Many of them are living alone without any support. When the auto rickshaw drivers visit the houses of such people and find out that they need any help like medical attention, they inform the ASHA workers [accredited social health activists] in the area. In this manner, the scheme is benefiting people in multiple ways."

The Mukhyamantri Ghar Ghar Ration Yojana launched by the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in Delhi aimed to deliver packed rations--wheat flour, rice and sugar--under the Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS) to 7.2 million people in the capital who were eligible for PDS after biometric verification through the e-POS method.

It was never implemented and remained only on paper since the Delhi High Court scrapped the scheme. The Delhi Sarkari Ration Dealers Sangh, a group of FPS owners, challenged it in court and demanded that the door-to-door rations programme should be declared ultra vires (beyond one’s legal power or authority). The High Court bench underlined that the policy did not comply with the provisions of the National Food Security Act (NFSA), 2013, effectively ending its legality.

Similarly, the AAP government in Punjab also faced legal hurdles as it launched the Ghar Ghar Ration Yojana since it was challenged by depot owners. They relaunched it on February 10, 2024.

“The door-to-door delivery of food grains under PDS is a good idea for people above 90,” said Siraj Hussain, former Union secretary for agriculture. “If doorstep delivery of rations is done, then grains like wheat should not be given which cannot be readily cooked. How can they go to a chakki and then get it converted into flour? It is a good thing that Karnataka is giving rice which can be cooked directly,” Hussain told IndiaSpend.

On concerns related to the quality of rice, jawar and ragi home-delivered by the FPS dealers, he said, “In Karnataka, the evaluation done by Arcus Policy Research suggests that more people in urban areas are satisfied with the functioning of the PDS than the people in rural areas. Generally, the quality of rice issued by the Food Corporation of India is good. So quality shouldn’t be an issue as such in the state in general.”

The way forward

“Many ration shop dealers resort to malpractices, illegal diversions of commodities, holding and black marketing due to the minimum salary received by them,” as per this research paper on ‘Corruption in Public Distribution System’. Further, the paper said, the “FPS dealers indulge in malpractices in inappropriate weighting of the materials”.

In a research work on ‘Does Computerisation reduce PDS Leakage - Lessons from Karnataka’ conducted by London School of Economics fellow Silvia Masiero, it was underlined that “policy shifts cannot be achieved by technology alone”. It holds true for the home delivery initiative as well.

Nevertheless, the very essence of the National Food Security Act (NFSA) is to guarantee food security to every individual, ensuring that even the last person in the queue is not deprived. In the context of this initiative, an elderly AAY or PHH cardholder not only occupies the position of the last member but also represents the most vulnerable. The over-reliance on FPS dealers, however, without or even with financial incentive, might prove to be a hurdle for the overall success of the programme in the long run.

“No doubt this is an experiment worth watching," economist Jean Dreze told IndiaSpend. "Food grain rations are quite bulky and they can be difficult for elderly or disabled persons to manage, especially if they live alone and far away from the distribution point. The question is whether there is a practical and reliable way of taking the rations to their doorstep. The proof of the pudding will be in the delivery.”

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