The Chhattisgarh government’s public distribution has often been cited as a model of effectiveness worthy of replication everywhere. An estimated 90 per cent of the state’s population makes use of PDS subsidies—35 kilograms (kg) of rice at Rs.1 per kg, 2 kg of chana/dal at Rs.5/10 per kg, and 2 kg of iodised salt free of cost on the 7th of every month. People congregate in Chawal Utsavs—literally translating to rice festivals—and procure their rations. For the last three years there have been few cases of default.

Part of this is attributed to political will and the drive provided by Chief Minister Raman Singh. Whatever the reason, there’s been a virtual transformation of the state PDS. “Where there is a will, there is a way,” says Vikas Sheel, secretary in the state’s Department of Food, Civil Supplies and Consumer Protection. At a time when popular perception is extremely negative about government-run systems and programmes, PDS in Chhattisgarh presents a heart-warming story.

The prompt delivery of rice and other essential supplies ensures food security. Informal conversations with people in Chhattisgarh’s Kunta village in Dantewada district, bordering Andhra Pradesh, shows beneficiaries receiving their rations promptly. “We always get chawal (rice) and other items regularly,” one man said while on his way to watching a local cricket match. “We are happy at the distribution of chawal,” said another.

The administration made the delivery system a well-oiled operation. Technology and end-to-end computerisation of the PDS have been enablers in ensuring the transparency and keeping track of the delivery. So many things—procuring rice, transporting it to ration shops, and distributing rations from the fair price shops (FPSes)on time—have to happen every month to keep it going smoothly. Although the government started revamping PDS in a top-down approach, the whole enterprise has acquired the tone of a movement. The administration’s drive to make everyone a participant in the system has yielded results. It’s the people at the grass roots that are involved and make the system deliver. The system belongs to them. It’s their own.

Vikas Sheel, via telephone and email, talks about the programme’s various aspects.

How did the programme evolve over the years? Could you chart the course right from conception to execution?
The non-IT reforms like deprivatisation of fair price shops, improving the financial viability of FPSes, introduction of doorstep delivery and elimination of middlemen in delivery of rations to the shops and Chawal Utsav took place between 2004 and 2007. The Mukhyamantri Khadyan Sahayata Yojna (MKSY, the Chief Minister’s food self-sufficiency scheme) was launched in 2007 and ration cards were for the first time generated through a computerised system, creating a unified ration card database. The concept of end-to-end computerisation was first visualised in 2007 and implemented by January 2008. But supply chain computerisation did not include FPS automation.

The concept of COREPDS (FPS automation offering portability of entitlements) was approved in 2011 and made operational by March 2012. COREPDS is now operational in 400 FPSes and being extended throughout the state this year.

How did the administration go about the deprivatisation of FPSes? What were the problems?
It was done in 2005-06 by amending the PDS control order. The amended provision provides that FPSes can now only be run by cooperative societies, local bodies, gram panchayats, and women’s self-help groups. This marked the beginning of the journey of PDS reforms in the state. By eliminating private licensees, a clear signal was sent about the serious intent of the government to reform the system. In order to make it work, the government also sanctioned an interest-free loan of Rs. 75,000 for every such new start-up shop from the state budget. This support was provided to make sure that the new shops didn’t fall back in the grip of erstwhile licensees due to the lack of necessary working capital.

How was the problem of nexus between corrupt dealers and politicians tackled?
The dealers were simply eliminated, both at the shop level and at the transport level. This was possible only because of firm political commitment at the highest level.

The government brought the ration shops under the control of panchayats, self-help groups, and other community institutions. How did this help?
The shops are now run by institutions already accountable to people. This has introduced much more transparency and community participation.

How did the administration ensure the financial viability of FPSes?
The following steps were taken: sales commission of FPSes was increased from Rs. 8 per quintal to Rs. 50 per quintal; one month’s stock was provided to shops on credit; and an interest-free loan of Rs. 75,000 was given to the shops.

Before the system was designed, different states running PDS to a satisfactory level had been studied but we did not find a single model that could be duplicated in Chhattisgarh. 

Did the job involve overhauling the entire PDS, or fine-tuning it? If it’s the former, how did it happen; if the latter, what were the areas tweaked to make it efficient?
It can be considered as overhauling as there was a paradigm shift in PDS delivery. The whole logistics of PDS was reorganised in order to fulfil the guarantee of delivery of rice from PDS shops on the 7th of every month in Chawal Utsav.

How is the system designed to succeed? Is this based on successful models in India or other countries?
Before the system was designed, different states running PDS to a satisfactory level had been studied but we did not find a single model that could be duplicated in Chhattisgarh. But the study and analysis showed that transparency and citizen participation could improve the system. Structurally, the system was not redesigned, although the lacunae in the system were identified and dealt with by introducing reform measures.

What were the administrative difficulties in the beginning to reach large numbers of people?
The only difficulty, in my view, was the negative mindset of the machinery that is supposed to deliver PDS services; in other words, lack of motivation and a sense of hopelessness prevailed before the reforms were initiated. The Chief Minister changed it with one public proclamation: ‘We will reform and improve PDS’. The rest is history.

What did the government learn from mistakes leading to reforms? 
It was not a matter of hit and trial. All the reform steps were carefully considered before implementation. Hence none of the measures had to be rolled back.

What’s the cultural milieu that made the programme a success? How was the bureaucracy primed to deliver, down to the lowest rung? 
If there is political commitment at the highest level, as was the case in Chhattisgarh with the PDS, the rest follows. End-to-end computerisation helped measure performance based on quantitative metrics. Department started measuring performance of districts and compared each in the public domain. Recognition for better performance primed the bureaucracy, at all levels, to deliver.

How were the leaks plugged, what mid-course corrections were made, and how were they implemented?
Private licences were cancelled. Doorstep delivery was started. And, most importantly, the government declared a guarantee to deliver rations on the 7th of the month, every month. To back this commitment the government also set up a robust public grievance redressal mechanism. Leaks were plugged by increasing transparency, introducing citizen participation and by better monitoring due to availability of real time data.

What is the single biggest difficulty in reaching out to people and how was that dealt with?
Connectivity with people, which was established through Chawal Utsavs.

How did you plan the sheer amount of logistics involved, keeping it running month after month?
The logistics were always there in any case. Computerisation of the supply chain has led to reduction of workload.

How is the introduction of smart cards working out?
Smart card-based COREPDS is working fine. It empowers the beneficiary with the choice of selecting her or his FPS and by checking proxy issues due to mechanical authentication.

How do you assess the success of PDS till now?
PDS ensures that the genuine beneficiary gets full entitlement. Still, the beneficiary is faces problems at FPSes—like under-weighment, delays in service delivery, lack of respect, etc.—which will be solved through COREPDS.

How, for example, will you tackle the problem of under-weighment? How will the system address the lack of respect for beneficiaries?
In conventional PDS, the shopkeeper has a monopoly over the beneficiary and is in a position to exploit the beneficiary by over-charging, short weight, rude behaviour, etc. COREPDS empowers the beneficiary to pick up her rations from the shop of her choice. The beneficiary need not go to a shop where proper respect is not accorded her. In fact, it is natural that the beneficiary will go to a shop that provides the best services. This takes care of problems at the shop level.

The shop is now accountable to the beneficiary. In the first year of COREPDS implementation in 400 shops in the state, we have seen 27 shut down because no beneficiaries were going to these shops. On the other hand, 25 per cent of shops have sold rations to more than 100 per cent of their original number of beneficiaries.

What measures helped in removing bogus cards?
Bogus cards have been removed first by running some algorithms in the database to a certain extent. Secondly, cards have been distributed through gram sabhas.

Could you tell us about licensing for PDS shops? 
PDS shops in Chhattisgarh are run by non-private entities. Agreements are executed between the FPS and the department. No annual renewal is required.

How is the system of ration shops under self-help groups, panchayats and others working out? This was one of the first reforms in PDS. What are the other key reforms and what are the results?
Reforms include deprivatisation, increasing the economic viability of FPSes, doorstep delivery, strengthening infrastructure, end-to-end computerisation, and the rice festival. Deprivatisation helped in keeping the FPS accountable to both people and to administration.

How is funding guaranteed for this scheme, and where do funds come from?
The funds come from the state budget and administrative charges allowed under the decentralised procurement scheme.

How does the administration redress grievances?
There is a call centre with a toll-free number and complaint monitoring system. Everything is operational.

How do you ensure overall transparency?
The Janbhagidari web portal hosts all kinds of reports generated from the data captured from end-to-end computerisation and has increased transparency many-fold.

Targeting beneficiaries is always a fraught issue for government. How does the administration tackle this? The government has increased coverage, and now nearly 90 per cent of households are covered. Do you think you have solved the problem of targeting? 
Yes, by increasing coverage, Chhattisgarh has solved the problem of exclusion errors.

Do you think you have plugged all the leaks? For example, the recently introduced 35 kg for pensioner women may be more than they can consume, as there is only a single person in most cases. The remaining rice ends up again in the market. Do you think it’s a small price to pay for coverage?
Yes, 35 kg may be more than the need for a single person but we believe that the excess rice will generally be used to procure other food items like oil, etc. Another option is to increase the food basket size with different commodities and decreasing the quantity of rice.

What problems did you face with COREPDS? How did you overcome them?
Lack of interest by FPSes in running COREPDS is a major problem. It has been solved by offering portability. FPSes that lack interest shall lose the business. Another problem is reliable connectivity. We have solved it by allowing limited offline issues. Maintenance of POS device is another problem, solved by keeping 15 per cent of devices as reserve.

Is the administration thinking of tying the PDS scheme with any other initiative? For example, while procuring rice the administration could think of promoting indigenous seeds, landraces, folk varieties—not hybrids and green revolution seeds—that can withstand pests, droughts, floods, and tolerate salinity. In this way, the administration can ensure grain availability even when global warming makes it tough to produce grain in fluctuating environmental conditions. Another initiative could be tying PDS with nutritional diet considering prevalent malnutrition. 
Chana and dal are being offered in PDS for the last two years. The state started distributing iodised salt in 2005. Diversification of the food basket has paid rich dividends in the form of substantial reduction in malnourishment in the state.

How did/does the scheme ensure food security for people at large?
Chhattisgarh is the first and only state to have enacted the food security law. Efficient delivery of entitlements in a time bound manner has ensured that there have been no deaths in the state due to hunger in last seven years.

What are your plans for moving forward, the specific things you want to work on?
The idea is to sustain and further improve upon the measures implemented so far. Further diversification of the food basket, upscaling COREPDS across the state, and social audit of FPS are few things being worked upon.

PDS is one great example of success; another is the pulse polio campaign. What are things that make these programmes such a success?
Where there is a will, there is a way. Commitment (publicly proclaimed commitment) at the highest level, citizen-centric intervention, and a robust feedback and grievance redress mechanism are a few common themes in both programmes.

In general, how can other government services be improved using these models?
Government delivery mechanism can be improved by following a five-point strategy. The first is to involve the most important stakeholder, i.e. the beneficiary. Second, keep the beneficiary at the centre of attention. Third, use technology for obtaining or generating useful information in a timely manner. Fourth, publicly proclaim a guarantee of public service delivery. Finally, set up an effective mechanism to redress grievances to ensure delivery of guarantees.