Poorest households most in need often left out of PDS, finds study

Analysis of NFHS-4 data finds skewed distribution of BPL cards that provide access to various welfare schemes, including food ration

A first-ever study on the linkages between the availability of PDS (public distribution system) ration and the prevalence of malnutrition finds that the poorest households most in need of free food grains are often left out of the scheme.

The study is authored by Basant K. Panda, Sanjay K. Mohanty, Itishree Nayak and Vishal Dev Shastri from the International Institute of Population Science in Mumbai, and Subramanian S.V. from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston. Titled ‘Malnutrition and poverty in India: does the use of public distribution system matter?’, the study was published in BioMed Central’s Nutrition Journal last week.

The study uses National Family Health Survey-4 data for its analysis and finds skewed distribution of BPL (below poverty line) cards used to provide access to various welfare schemes, including food ration. According to the study, an estimated 15% of the households are classified as ‘real poor’ (economically poor and have a welfare card); 16% as ‘excluded poor’ (economically poor but don’t have a BPL card); 23% as privileged ‘non-poor’ (economically non-poor but have welfare card); and 46% as ‘non-poor’ (economically non-poor who don’t have a welfare card).

Out of the total households, 57% of poor households with PDS and without PDS had at least one stunted child, while 43% among non-poor households with PDS and 36% among the non-poor households without PDS had at least one stunted child.

An estimated 48% of children from poor households with PDS; 47% from poor households with no PDS; 35% from non-poor households with PDS; and 29% from non-poor households without PDS were underweight.

“Reduction of child nutrition was not in the ambit of the PDS. We investigated to understand the impact and found a mixed result. Since, PDS cards are given largely to poor people, it is no surprise to see high stunting and [the presence of] underweight [persons] among these real poor. There is no difference in stunting and [the presence of] underweight [children] among the children from real poor and excluded poor, while the excluded poor are deprived of subsidised benefits. Thus, excluded poor should be included in the safety network. Thirdly, the State patterns are mixed. In many States, the odds of stunting among the excluded poor are higher than [in the] real poor,” Basant Kumar Panda replied over e-mail to a question on why there was high prevalence of malnutrition among poor households that were provided PDS rations.

The study also highlights variations in the distribution of BPL cards and asset deprivation across various States. It states: “Though the economically poor States of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Jharkhand had a higher proportion of ‘asset deprived and had welfare card’, the exclusion of ‘welfare card among asset poor’ was also large in these States. For example, in the State of Uttar Pradesh, around 27% of households were asset deprived and did not have the welfare card, while it was 15% in Bihar and 21% in Jharkhand. In a similar line, the States Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Karnataka, the largest share of the non-poor households had welfare cards.”

The study concludes that the poorest of the poor most in need of welfare schemes are not being covered by them. It recommends improved coverage to ensure poor households are given priority and included in welfare schemes to ensure universal access to food. It also calls for a need to improve the quality of nutritious food under the PDS, and the widening of the food basket to help reduce malnutrition.


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