March 17, 2012 - India: India's public food distribution system or PDS - the world's largest social security net - has long been riddled with holes, through which precious food and money were being stolen. The big fix has now begun, but it's a tight race against time. The system needs to be plugged and tested before the food security law can take off.
The government distributes cheap food grains among the poor through a pilferage-prone network of 500,000 "fair-priced shops". The Rs 88,600 crore-a-year exercise was easy to fudge: Stocks would often move only on paper, not in trucks, and grains would go to feed ghost consumers.
If keeping track of large stocks was the problem, scores of export shipments would have vanished in the seas, and pilfering employees would have drained the Wal-marts dry.
Stopping PDS theft required just a look at what large-format stores do to keep a tab on their stocks: Having bar-coded inventories, self-monitoring electronic registers, GPS-tracked shipments and digital delivery records.
The food ministry is now pushing states to install Information Technology-enabled systems to cover these very loopholes, replacing theft-prone human handling with trustworthy computer screens.
"We have now brought down pilferage levels from 2.5% to 0.1%. There was a time when 30% of the stocks used to be pilfered," says food minister KV Thomas.
A case in point is the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, which has just finished the first step: digitising 11,456 ration cards. When complete, a swipe of the beneficiary's card will show everything from entitlements to his monthly off-takes.
Most states have put in place plans to computerise the PDS. What they may not have, however, is enough time.