Several experiments are taking place across the country to make the public distribution system (PDS) free of leakages. Chhattisgarh that has led these is set to mark a new precedent with its PDS going smart in the next three months.
The state government has reached an agreement with the labour ministry to park its PDS services on the smart card of Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana (RSBY), the health insurance scheme run by the ministry.
This development is a turning point for RSBY’s smart cards as much as it is for PDS in the country. Each RSBY smart card entitles a beneficiary and his family to free health care worth Rs 30,000 a year in impanelled hospitals for a premium of just Rs 30 a year.
The new deal would mean these smart cards would double up as ration cards. The cards would now show entitlements for wheat, rice, millets, sugar or kerosene, or whatever the state wants to give. A PDS shop would swipe the card on its machine, capture the reading, take the thumb impressions of the customer on the biometric machine and hand over the food grains. This would ensure food doesn’t go to duplicate card holders.
The information goes to a central server and there is little chance of misuse, says Anil Swaroop, additional secretary in the ministry. The scheme is already operational in an area covering 13 PDS shops in Raipur and is getting a good response, according to state officials.
Last week, the Chhattisgarh government wrote to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh requesting him to provide health insurance cards for the entire population, and not just the Below Poverty Line families. This also makes it the first state to universalise health insurance. The state has not asked for any money for this either, says Swaroop.
The smart ration card would enable the citizen to get his ration from any of the impanelled shops. This would also include private shops.
Odisha, too, has developed a separate smart card for PDS with the help of the World Food Programme. The state has been doing pilots and there is no talk of convergence yet.
Madhya Pradesh has been toying with the idea of giving food coupons to PDS card holders. But people are baffled at the touching faith that the government has on the postal services delivering food coupons for a whole year to each of the 10 million card holders every year.
People expect a disaster, says a food rights activist there.
Gujarat has developed a scheme called E-Gram, which again is an offline service. According to government officials, it is better than smart cards that require technology.
According to Vijendra Katre, additional CEO, RSBY (state nodal agency), convergence of the two schemes is going to help both. People having these cards would now be aware of their health rights and would not hesitate to claim it, says Katre. The biggest benefit, he says, would be to the citizens who would not be cheated of his ration card or his rightful share of food grains by a fake card holder or ration shop owner — thanks to the biometric facility.
The state wants more schemes to ride on smart cards, and PDS is the first step, says Katre.
Meanwhile, the state is already replacing old 32-kilobyte cards with 64-kb ones. The new cards being issued countrywide under RSBY are already enhanced in space to 64 kb with a lifecycle of 10 years, says Swaroop. He believes convergence would happen with more schemes, as states would realise the benefits. And, once that happens, the master data of the card would remain with the labour ministry and the various ministries would manage the data on their respective schemes, says Swaroop.
The next stop for RSBY smart cards could be educational entitlements and NREGA wages — that is what at least some in the officialdom are dreaming loud.