Public food distribution schemes provide an important source of food security for the poor, but are also areas that are ripe for corruption. PTF has worked with various civil society organizations (CSOs) to strengthen citizen voice and participation, and to improve accountability and transparency in public food distribution.
Few people would disagree that hunger and malnutrition are the worst manifestations of poverty. Despite an overabundance of food in the world, severe malnutrition continues to exist, particularly in South Asia and Africa. Faced with this situation, many countries have adopted some sort of public food subsidy and/or public food distribution system. Common forms of programs include ration shops, food stamps, food for work, community kitchens and nutrition supplements.
While these systems can be effective in reducing hunger and poverty, they are programs that can be severely compromised by corruption. Government procurement of food opens up various possibilities, including collusion between officials and sellers to ship lower quality products, or less than the contracted amount. Once purchased, food can be illegally sold on the market by government officials or distributors for personal profit, or simply lost due to pilferage and adulteration. Identifiers to benefit eligibility, such as ration cards, open the door for corrupt public officials to demand bribes for their release. Ration shop officials often overcharge clients for the food or dispense less than the regulated amount. As a result of these corruptive practices, food available at ration shops is often of poor quality, sold at above the regulated price, and/or not available in the appropriate quantity.
PTF has been active in supporting and helping CSOs with programs designed to reduce corruption in PDS (Public Food Distribution Systems). Since 2009, it has financed eight projects with grants totaling $202,000, for projects operated by 4 CSOs (civil society organizations) in India.
Most projects report success in raising citizen awareness, promoting collective action, reducing corruption, and improving the operations of PDS facilities to ensure fuller access to entitlements. Some specific projects that PTF has supported include the following.
The Centre for Advocacy and Research (CFAR) worked to: (i) consolidate on-going efforts by Women’s Forums and Community Advocates to strengthen transparency and pro-poor urban governance, (ii) make the urban bodies sensitive and accountable to the entitlements of the community, and (iii) strengthen mechanisms to legitimize community participation and involvement. In the process, CFAR established 13 Vigilance Committees for 13 ration shops in the Bangalore slums, plus 9 committees to monitor 9 Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) centers.
Before the project began, a baseline survey identified 1246 eligible households that did not have ration cards, and by the end of the project, 612 (40%) had received their cards. By the end of the project, 62% of families were receiving the stipulated rations and paying the stipulated prices. The project’s completion report notes that 9 or 13 ration shops are now considered to be operating properly, as are 6 of the 9 ICDS centers.
With PTF support, Paraspara Trust successfully formed 50 PDS Citizens Monitoring Committees (20-25 people) to monitor the performance of 50 PDS ration shops. Through the project, awareness of citizen entitlements improved dramatically with better information on display in PDS shops, the distribution of handbills, community dialogues and street play demonstrations. Citizens were trained in the use of India’s Right to Information Act (RTI) as a tool to monitor PDS shop performance.
The project targeted 1580 eligible, but excluded, families in the PDS system. By the time it was completed, 1098 of those families had gained inclusion. In addition, about 1,500 bogus ration cards were identified, of which 500 were revoked. The project defined a “model PDS shop” in terms of the absence of bribery, sufficient stocks of essential items, proper scales, and supply of quality materials at the right weight/counts. By the end of the project, 19 PDS shops were certified as “model “shops. The project also made progress in improving water services.
Suraksha’s efforts to empower and educate people about their entitlements have improved access, both to PDS and the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). SURAKSHA used a variety of methods to raise awareness, strengthen community organizations, training citizens on the use of RTI, and engage in constructive dialogue with officials.
As a result, the numbers of PDS Card Holders has increased 16% over the baseline values; 100% of PDS beneficiaries have regularly been getting PDS commodities (rice & cooking oil) in correct quantities and of good quality. PDS distributing agents have stopped collecting extra charges on sugar, as evidenced by 100% of PDS entitlement-holders surveyed reported that they are not paying anything extra for the commodities.
The objectives of a PTF-supported project implemented by Youth for Social Development (YSD) were to engage citizen groups and civil society in the monitoring of basic service; to build capacity of the citizen groups and civil society by utilizing Right to Information (RTI) access; and to advocate for disclosure of information, grievance redressal and institutional reforms to reduce bribery and ensure transparency and accountability.
YSD was successful in constructive engagement among stakeholders, and in building community awareness. Six Citizens Monitoring Committees were formed, and information on service norms were disseminated in six areas, including PDS. YSD sponsored groups filed 161 RTI applications. An end-project survey showed a 28% drop in corruption. While the community is now aware of its rights and issues, there is still reluctance on the part of citizens to raise their voices because of fear of loss of benefits.
Experience in partnering with citizen organizations working against corruption in public food distribution systems has yielded valuable lessons that PTF is applying across a range of programs. Some of these include the following:
- There is a natural fear among PDS recipients to raise issues of corruption, given the danger of reprisals that would deny them access to basic food supplies. The solution is steady and careful organization, to build an atmosphere of collective action, and the identification of champions within the community that can take a leadership role.
- There is often substantial resistance on the part of government officials, distributors, and ration shop owners to recognize and admit to problems of corruption, since they are often the beneficiaries of this corruption. Change occurs slowly over time; most projects faced resistance at first, but over time officials and shop owners became more cooperative. The activities of these citizen groups can push government officials into greater use of their own enforcement mechanisms.
- Engagement on this issue must be done on all levels, not just with clients. These include shop owners/operators, government officials and elected representatives.
- The use of the media to raise awareness is critical, including print media, film, TV and radio. The use of “street plays” to dramatize the situation has proven especially effective. This has worked well in India which has a high degree of freedom of expression and assembly, but may not be so readily available in other countries.
- Right to Information (RTI) requests enable citizen groups to better monitor service delivery at the local level. CSOs supported by PTF in India were instrumental in building capacity within community groups for making RTI requests and using the information to make PDS shop owners and government officials accountable.
- These projects have had a particularly important impact on women, in terms of providing an organization through which they can voice complaints and share experiences, as well as increasing access to food for their families. Once organized to address PDS issues, there is evidence that groups expand their purview to take on other issues, such as violence against women, drunkenness, rights of widows and pensioners, and access to caste and birth certificates.
PTF projects in PDS have overwhelmingly been highly effective, but compared to the overall level of corruption, their impact is limited. PTF projects have improved services at perhaps 100 ration shops; however, the total number of ration shops in India is about 500,000. There are similar problems in food distribution systems in other countries which PTF has not yet had the funds to address. Greater involvement by PTF and other donors can usefully broaden the impact of citizens groups in controlling corruption. These groups can serve as models for replication by other groups, so that the model can be replicated on a larger scale.
The fact that 40% of subsidized grains in India now are diverted from target groups, suggests that there is enormous potential both to expand benefits so as to reduce poverty and/or to reduce the cost of the program in the Government budget. While many suggestions have been made to introduce a system of food stamps, cash grants, or transfers via smart cards, such systems will have little impact if nothing is done to control corruption. It is virtually impossible to design a system that cannot be compromised by corruption, whenever transparency and accountability are absent. Indeed, such reforms could as much facilitate corruption as impede it.
PTF has had great success and is now looking to scale-up citizen led anti corruption projects that include the following elements that have proven to be effective:
- Raising awareness of citizen rights and entitlements, through the dissemination of information and education, through group meetings, public media, street plays, etc.;
- Identifying and building capacities of community based citizen groups, particularly of women and youth, to engage with government officials and to put pressure on them to increase transparency and comply with entitlement rules;
- Raising citizen participation in the monitoring of PDS activities, particularly though applications under the Right to Information Act(RTI);
- Establishing citizens’ groups to monitor effective provision of service and reducing corruption of PDS outlets, including strengthening/establishing citizen Vigilance Committees as called for under government regulations;
- Monitoring performance of individual PDS outlets, in terms of issuance of rations, quality of food, existence of counterfeit ration cards, and requests for payments from ration shop managers;
- Improving networking among CSOs in terms of fighting for greater transparency in the use of government funds, including tripartite discussions between users, government officials and CSO groups; and
- Surveying PDS users, to determine the extent of corruption, and to measure progress in reducing it.