On February 20, the Delhi government published a notification detailing the features of its ‘Mukhya Mantri Ghar Ghar Ration Yojana’ (MMGGRY). The MMGGRY envisaged doorstep delivery of wheat flour, rice and sugar under the Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS). About 7.2 million people eligible for PDS in Delhi could have potentially benefitted from this scheme.
However, the Centre dismissed it citing the scheme’s illegitimacy under the mandate of the National Food Security Act, 2013 (NFSA). According to the Centre, the doorstep delivery referenced in the NFSA pertains to the Fair Price Shops’ (FPSs) doorstep and not to the beneficiaries’ doorstep. Additionally, the Centre opposed the initiation of a state-specific scheme with a different name that is distinct from the NFSA. Especially considering that the scheme will deliver subsidised food grains allocated under the NFSA after processing and not opt for independent procurement.
If other states choose to introduce a similar scheme, they might also face delays manifesting from negotiations with the Centre for approval. The Centre could cite sub-clause 12 (2)(h) of the NFSA which requires the Centre’s approval if states want to introduce ‘other’ schemes to ensure food entitlements to the beneficiaries.
Under the MMGGRY, the Delhi Consumer’s Co-operative Wholesale Store Ltd (DCCWS) were to empanel private direct-to-home delivery (DHD) agencies to deliver packed rations and do biometric authentication using the e-POS device. Many beneficiaries, particularly from marginalised communities, have faced exclusion from the PDS across India due to the failure of the Aadhaar-based biometric authentication.
Since April 2018 Delhi had suspended the e-POS system for authentication (except for the Seemapuri area). Any state government hoping to implement a doorstep delivery scheme could benefit from exploring other sustainable alternatives for delivery authentication based on the regional context and budgetary limits. These states could consider using non-biometric options, such as electronic chip-based smart cards that are used in Chhattisgarh and Tamil Nadu, or a one-time password (OTP) authentication.
The notified scheme should also provide an alternative mechanism to ensure that beneficiaries receive their legal food entitlements despite biometric failure such as food security allowance or coupon generation for authentication that have been applied in Telangana and Karnataka, respectively.
Another concern regarding the scheme is the provision of wheat flour instead of wheat grains. The notification explicitly states that a ‘specified amount as milling/conversion charges will be levied on the beneficiaries’ in addition to the cost of the subsidised grains. In this context the provision of atta to the beneficiaries is logical only if these milling charges fall below the average market cost of milling in the city/region.
Further, the issue of quality control will be a critical hurdle. However, the delivery of wheat flour (instead of wheat grains) also displays prudence from the government. It has two important benefits. First, beneficiaries confronted closure of flour mills due to a lockdown in the first wave. This plight can be averted in the event of a stringent lockdown in the future. Second, beneficiaries will not have to visit their local mills which could be a potential site for the spread of COVID-19.
With empanelled processing units in the picture and the absence of a ‘community eye’ to monitor physical proceedings, there is a greater scope for fraudulent practices that could hamper the quality of the food entitlements being supplied to households. Comparable models of last-mile delivery of ration have been implemented to a certain extent in Andhra Pradesh and Haryana.
However, they have been limited to the delivery of unprocessed grains. It will prove to be particularly beneficial for the disabled, elderly and the sick population whose burden will be greatly reduced with the convenience afforded by the scheme.
The scheme is silent on other aspects such as the procedure to request redelivery in cases of unavailability of beneficiaries at home, return policy in instances of dissatisfaction with the product or redress if episodes of failure in biometric authentication occur. If the scheme is implemented poorly it could result in sporadic delivery of food entitlements, further marginalising vulnerable groups.
There are merits in a scheme such as the MMGGRY, but state governments should consider testing this scheme on a pilot basis to identify such loopholes and plug these gaps effectively. Feedback on the popularity of wheat flour provision in lieu of wheat grains should be a major consideration.
Food coupons and cash transfers could also be explored as alternative measures by state governments on a pilot basis. Both have the advantage of affording increased autonomy to the beneficiary in choosing their consumption basket. But both alternatives have the potential to expose the beneficiary to price volatility and inflation, which are a big worry during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Conscious of these limitations, doorstep delivery of ration could be an efficient and effective strategy to buckle down on starvation deaths due to COVID-19
, and prepare in anticipation of a third wave.