How to Feed the Poor – The Story of a 10 kg Bundle of Rice
This article focuses on how to fix the Public Distribution System using technology. Note: Nothing that I have written below is impossible using current technology, if it is presently impossible, it is only because of present governance.
To plug leakages in the system, we start at the top of the supply chain – the Food Corporation of India warehouses. From here on, we track the progress of a 10 kg bundle of rice (bar-code number – RL10805236 ) to its final destination – Mr. Sunil Kumar Yadav (a day labourer in Baddi, Himachal Pradesh).
There are innumerable flaws with the PDS but I focus on 2 key flaws: Getting aid to the right people AND Fixing leakages in the long supply chain. One end of my plan is already being implemented through the Unique Identification Number project. A card is issued to each individual. This card contains a small computer chip. Through a digital reader, the data in this chip can be accessed. These are all existing technologies. I simply suggest that each individual’s financial status also be inserted into the card – BPL (Below Poverty Line), APL (Above Poverty Line), NA (Not Eligible for Aid). This classification is simply borrowed from the existing system. The individuals that are BPL are eligible for most aid, followed by individuals that are slightly APL. All others are not eligible for the aid. I would like the income classifications to be re-calibrated to increase the number of people eligible for aid. Let us shift our attention to the supply side.
Modern packaging and sealing technologies must be brought in at FCI warehouses. The basic purpose of this is to divide, store and transport the food in packages of individual denominations. For the purposes of our journey through the supply chain, we assume that a BPL individual gets 10 kg of rice per month while an APL individual gets 6 kg rice per month. At the warehouses, the entire stock of rice is now divided into packets of either 10 kg or 6 kg. Now I propose the implementation of a simple technology, already in use – bar-code tagging. Each individual packet of rice has a bar-code stuck on it (this process may be mechanised). Between the process of packaging and tagging, leakages may yet occur. This can be plugged only though human intervention. However, the tagging of each packet through bar-code essentially means that in a central computerised database, the stock has been registered. This is known as the entry scan. So the database now tells us that Warehouse Code 17A, located in Ludhiana, Punjab has a rice stock of 100 tonnes (all figures are assumed, for the purposes of explanation) divided into denominations of 10 kg and 6 kg. We track the progress of a 10 kg packet of rice with bar-code number RL10805236.
Once bar-codes have been stuck on the rice packages, they have entered the database. Presently RL10805236 is being stored in FCI Warehouse 17A. However the time has come for RL10805236 to make its onward journey to the FCI secondary warehouse in Pathankot (Code – 19PC). These packets are packed together in massive cardboard boxes. These card-board boxes have a bar-code stuck on them too. This contains information regarding the entire range of packages being contained in them. RL 10805236 is being transported in a cardboard box that contains bar-codes from RL10804000 to RL10806000. When these card-board boxes are being loaded onto the trucks, they are scanned with a bar-code reader. This is known as an exit scan. The computer records into its database that bar-code numbers RL10804000 to RL 10806000 have left warehouse 17A in Ludhiana. Till the time these goods have been through the entry scan at warehouse 19PC, Pathankot, the liability for the safety of the goods lies entirely with the trucker. This fixes responsibility. At Pathankot, the trucker unloads the goods and ensures that each card-board box goes through the entry scan. The computer now records that RL10804000 to RL10806000 that had left warehouse 17A have now entered warehouse 19PC. The liability of the trucker is over with the entry scan at Pathankot. It is the trucker’s responsibility to ensure that the goods are correctly entered in the system to absolve his liability. Once RL10805236, the 10 kg protagonist of this story, has reached Pathankot, he is packaged in another bundle. However this bundle does not contain only rice packets. At the secondary warehouses, bundles are specifically tailored with an individual in mind. If an individual is eligible for rice, wheat, kerosene, sugar etc, then bundles of 2 different denominations (For BPL & APL) are made. Each bundle is meant for one individual. So RL10805236 is packed along with 5 kg of wheat, 3 litres of kerosene and 3 kg of sugar. Together they constitute bar-code number: FCR9866452.
RL10805236 is destined for Baddi, Himachal Pradesh. Again, an exit scan of the card-board packages takes place at Pathankot. The computer records that the package has left the building. Till the entry scan at the Fair Price Shop at Baddi, Himachal Pradesh, the liability lies with the trucker. At the Fair Price Shop (previously a massive source of leakage), the trucker ensures that the goods have entered the system again through an entry scan of the bar-codes. Once the trucker has ensured that this process has been undertaken, his liability is over. At the Fair Price Shop, RL10805236 waits, inside of FCR9866452, the package that houses not only the 10 kg protagonist but also sugar, kerosene and wheat.
Enter Mr. Sunil Kumar Yadav, a day labourer at a pharmaceutical company in Baddi. He has the UID number 548550004965 (a 12 digit number). He visits the shop and hands over his card, which contains a computer chip. The shop-keeper digitally reads his card to discover that he is BPL. The shop-keeper fetches a bundle to which he is eligible. He is handed over bundle FCR9866452 containing our rice packet – RL10805236. The shop-keeper too is liable for leakages. The computer has recorded that goods have entered his shop through the entry scan. Now with the bar-code scanner, he scans the goods again. This process is akin to that of a check out counter of a supermarket. The exit scan is valid if and only if it is accompanied by a UID card. So he digitally reads the card again with a chip-reader. Now the central database recognises that bundle FCR9866452 that also contained RL10805236 has been handed over to UID number 548550004965. The computer chip on the card records that the ration for the month of May has been received by Mr. Sunil Kumar Yadav. Now he cannot receive rations again till the month of June. The central database stores information from both the Unique Identification Number scheme and from the Public Distribution System. Thus if an individual approaches a shop for the second time in a month to try to cheat the system, the exit scan will not be validated. If the shop-keeper still hands over the goods, despite an invalid exit scan, he will be liable for the value of these goods. And hereby ends the tale of RL10805236 who heads home with Mr. Yadav.
The model that I have proposed above is very much possible. All of the required technology is in existence at this very moment. India has abundant Information Technology talent, and designing of the central database and inventory management system will not be a challenge. The project will definitely require a tremendous amount of investment coupled with training at all levels, but in the long run, benefits will far outstrip the costs. For the upliftment of the nation we require 2 things: Service Models AND Implementation. In the present political scenario, the implementation of any model appears impossible. It is our duty however to design models that if, coupled with governance can transform the country.
I look forward to your opinion on my humble attempt to digitalise the PDS. Mail me at: firstname.lastname@example.org