Andhra Pradesh takes digital route to ensure transparency in ration distribution

Using biometric authentication linked to Aadhaar, state hopes to weed out duplicate ration card holders

A year ago in East Godavari district, when the Andhra Pradesh government decided to go hi-tech in distributing essential commodities to low-income consumers, it wasn’t an easy task.

The project it undertook then was to digitize the targeted public distribution system, from tracking the stocks that reach the fair price shops to how much quantity a consumer has bought.

The department of civil supplies had to combat the clear hesitation on behalf of the ration shop dealers alongside the inability of consumers to understand how digital things work.

Now, in all the 13 districts of Andhra Pradesh, people who rely on ration card supplies to cook daily meals, can access their allotted rice, sugar, daal and wheat flour with an assurance of transparency.

The government too on its part hopes to save at least Rs.1,000 crore every year on subsidies as it weeded out the non-existent or duplicate users by linking the ration cards to Aadhaar cards.

“Earlier, there were complaints from consumers that they were being cheated when it comes to the weight of the commodities. Also, irregular shop timings, travel involved in reaching the allotted fair price shop along with poor cooperation of the dealer were noticed,” said G. Jayalakshmi, commissioner of the consumer affairs, food and civil supplies department of the state government.

“Now with the end-to-end digitization, all a consumer has to do is walk to the nearest fair price shop. Through biometric authentication linked with Aadhaar (unique identity number), they can collect commodities which are weighed digitally. All the information is fed in our system which can be tracked anytime and does not leave any scope for pilfering,” she said.

In October, the project completed digitizing around 28,000 shops and 12.9 million ration card beneficiaries. In the next one month, the remaining 340 shops, which are not included because of technical lags, will be brought under the digital ambit.

The Rs.200 crore computerization project involved taking the ration card data online through Aadhaar seeding as the first step. In doing so, the government found that 850,000 users were what it calls fake or duplicate. The fair price shops were then equipped with e-point of sale (e-pos) devices and electronic weighing machines. The e-pos device has stored in it fingerprints of all family members of the ration card.

There is also the e-PDS portal, where all information related to ration cards are placed and there’s an app for shop dealers, which is used by them to check information on details like stock allotted and received opening and closing balance. To track the supply chain management, the government’s National Informatics Centre has developed software for the state.

This software captures information like allotment by the commissioner of civil supplies, generation of release orders and dispatches to the ration shops. Dispatches too are done through biometric authentication of dealers by route officers. The vehicles are tracked through GPS and GPRS tracking systems to bring transparency in this segment as well. To be sure, there are 670 vehicles under it so far and not all have the tracking system.

The state government supplies around 2.2 million tonnes of rice every year for Rs.1 per kg, apart from other commodities. While the digitization project seems to have addressed all aspects of taking work online and increase convenience and transparency, the department agrees that there still is scope for improvement. More so in removing risks linked to failure in authentication.

Admitting that there have been some initial loopholes, the department is now working on fixing them. “Sometimes finger authentication fails because of the nature of work that daily wage labourers are involved in. We have introduced iris authentication system in all shops now. Also there are times when the data server and the UIDAI (Unique Identification Authority of India) server is down. We are now looking at strengthening the network or take it offline where it is not possible to do so,” said G. Ravi Babu, director of civil supplies, Andhra Pradesh government.

In case digital authentication fails, the consumers would have to reach the village level officer for physical authentication.

“Digitization through Aadhaar is causing more exclusion than inclusion. There is scope for a host of flaws in this system be it administrative or technical issues. In fact, in a social audit we conducted, there were quite a number of beneficiaries who were left out because of biometric finger mismatch. This does not mean that they are fake. The system for redressal to tackle such issues is also not in place. In a rush to prove that we have achieved end-to-end digitization, the government cannot ignore that technology has its own limitations which cannot be ignored,” said a government official from the rural development department of the state government who declined to be named.

Mint has a strategic partnership with the Digital Empowerment Foundation, which hosts the Manthan and mBillionth awards.