Corruption in the PDS & will coupons or cash transfer work better? 1

This is a part of a series of articles on the proposal to shift from PDS to coupons or cash transfers. To see the introduction, click here .

The level of corruption in the public distribution system has been one of the rallying points in the cry for change.  The following are some of the corruption related arguments for change:

There is large scale corruption in the system

It is undeniable that there is a lot of corruption in the PDS, and something needs to be done about it.  In arguing that we should shift from PDS to coupons or cash transfers, we have to ask if the chances of corruption will be lower in the proposed systems compared to what we have.  There is little evidence to make that argument.  India has a number of cash transfer programs such as old-age pensions, maternity benefits, family benefit, etc.  P. Chidambaram introduced a well-publicised coupon system in one of his budgets, and there are other benchmarks for the suggestions being made today.  If one wishes to do so seriously, they could examine the level of corruption in such programs and compare it with the PDS.

The proponents of PDS reform have not offered any evidence as to whether these alternatives work.  There are scattered references to a cash transfer program in Mexico, and in other parts of the world completely ignoring the reality at home.  I suspect that there are two reasons why we see no evidence that cash transfers workbetter: nobody has chosen to carefully evaluate the alternatives for the lack of interest in such an exercise, and in part because the unpublicized official evaluations of coupon experiments are not flattering making it difficult for proponents to use them for their purposes.  The proposed reform is thus not evidence-based in the Indian context; it is a purely ideological project based on the mainstream economics today.

The fact that the proposed reform is mainly an ideological project should not deter us from the possible merits of the reform proposals.  If a well considered idea has a promise, it is well worth giving a shot.  Is the reform proposal a well-considered idea?

Corruption is entrenched in the PDS

One serious argument is that moving to channels that we know to be less corrupt than the PDS could be a strategic way of reducing corruption.  This is certainly a serious argument to consider, especially given the deeply entrenched culture of corruption in the PDS.  While I do believe that corruption is deeply entrenched in the PDS, I do not believe that the system is irredeemably lost.  Many State governments have demonstrated that they could make the system work if it becomes a political priority, Chhattisgarh being an important example.  Beyond the PDS, one can take the example of Bihar that was considered a hopeless government, but a determined CM has shown how things can turn around dramatically with some political will.  Where the political incentive is to make money off such programs, the odds are that a proposed alternative would suffer equally.

Proponents have also argued that the banking system is less corrupt, and so using that channel would help in reducing corruption.  It may well work in areas where there is a good banking network.  It would be a move worth considering in urban areas, but then the use of banks does not eliminate every scope for corruption.  Ghost beneficiaries could continue to exist, those who issue periodic identification documents to beneficiaries could charge them, shortages in overall allocation could be created (as it gets created in PDS), which could then be used for arbitrage.  Other possibilities abound.

It does not work since the subsidy is not given directly

One curious argument that found its way to the economic survey 2009-10, and has been repeated by some prominent economists is that the PDS does not work since the subsidy is not given directly to the citizen, but is instead routed through intermediaries.  The idea that cash transfers or coupons will eliminate intermediaries is silly.  We don’t expect beneficiaries to have the direct access to the coffers of the Ministry of Rural Development from where beneficiaries will directly take their allocation of cash without the interference of any official whatsoever.  Cash transfer will have its own set of intermediaries.

If intermediaries are the problem, then replacing the PDS with coupons is the silliest idea possible.  First of all, there will have to be a system of distributing the coupons periodically to the beneficiaries.  This will necessarily involve multiple layers of the government.  Beneficiaries will then have to collect their entitlements from a grocery store or other shops, which are nothing but intermediaries.  Private shopkeepers will not have the same kind of accounting formalities, or any other measure of accountability that ration shop dealer will have to maintain.  In essence, the grocery store is an intermediary with little accountability.  The grocery store owner will in turn have to submit the coupons to a government agency which will reimburse her.  This additional channel will create its own set of opportunities for corruption.  In all, the coupon system only represents more intermediaries and less accountability.

The system is too large to monitor

There have been reports in the media that the Chief Minister of Delhi, Ms. Shiela Dixit, advocated cash transfers since the PDS is too large to be monitored effectively.  This is curious in a lot of ways.  Delhi is one of the smaller states, and the size argument should be the least problem there.  It should be even less of a problem compared to other states, considering the fact that the state has fantastic transport and communication infrastructure that makes monitoring easier.  Curiously, the argument of size has not been offered on Public Works Department or other departments that are much larger in the state.  Will we even consider eliminating them?  Delhi also has a well established right to information movement that has focussed on the PDS from the beginning that would assist a well-meaning Chief Minister in the quest to monitor.

Delhi’s RTI activists have met the Chief Minister time and again with well-documented information about corruption in specific ration shops, only to find the CM stonewalling.  If monitoring is THE problem, we would expect the Chief Minister to act on the information she was given.  Alas, that is not the problem.  How do we know that cash transfers will work better in her government? Do we know that existing cash transfers in Delhi work a lot better?  Sheila Dixit has been a wonderful Chief Minister for Delhi in many ways, but in this case her arguments cannot be less convincing.

The promise of right to information

Given that the PDS involves straightforward entitlements to specified beneficiaries, the right to information movement offers a terrific tool to contain corruption in the system.  Using the right to information, it is possible to identify precisely whether there is corruption in the system, who is corrupt and by what magnitude.  There is much that could be done to strengthen the RTI regime including proactive provision of information via notice boards, the Internet, mobile phones and other means.  If control of corruption is a goal, then we have to focus on means that we know to work, and means that have a promise instead of focusing our attentions on ideological projects with no demonstrated or theoretical reasons for the alternatives to work better.

The bottom line is that there is no doubt that there is a lot of corruption in the PDS and that something has to be done about it, and there is scant reason to believe that the proposal to change to coupons or cash transfers will reduce the level of corruption.  The government of Chhattisgarh offers to send a text message to anyone who wishes to monitor ration shop, whenever grains are delivered to such shops.  In addition, they have introduced stricter norms of documentation including the requirement that delivery trucks have to take a picture of the truck in front of the ration shop and send an MMS to the State government.  Such measures, along with the fact that the State government has responded more actively to complaints about the PDS have contributed to a major improvement in the system.  The power of right information can be extended even further using digital technologies more effectively.

A lot could be done to redress grievances about the PDS, which will automatically have an impact on how the system functions.  For example, setting up independent ombudsman, imposing penalties to officials who do not comply with PDS regulations, initiating independent call centres that could receive and officially lodge complaints, training the judiciary to respond to at least large-scale complains on the PDS, et cetera could be done.

Those calling for reforms have paid scant attention to other alternatives for better accountability.  It is particularly surprising when Chief Ministers and other powerful officials call for the reform, especially when we know that they could do a lot to change how the system works without radically reforming the system, if only it were their priority.

About Vivek Srinivasan

I work with the Program on Liberation Technology at Stanford University. Before this, I worked with the Right to Food Campaign and other rights based campaigns in India. To learn more, click here.

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