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Justin Smith worked as a journalist before joining WFP in 2010. He tweets at @justin_eugene
With over 330 million beneficiaries, the Indian government runs the biggest subsidized food scheme in the world. However, keeping track of them all isn’t easy, which is why WFP is working with the state of Orissa to streamline the system using biometric data like fingerprints and eye scans.
RAYAGADA—A man in the east Indian state of Orissa dies of a heart attack. His indebted brother gets hold of his ration card, which he either uses in addition to his own or sells on the black market.
According to WFP programme officer, Basant Bal, situations like these are the bane of India’s subsidized food regime, the world’s largest, providing affordable food to roughly the same number of people as live in the United States.
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“The problem is that ration cards can be quite valuable,” explains Bal, who says that poor families can use them to obtain discounts of up to 75 percent off the normal price of rice, wheat, oil, sugar and other staples in government-subsidized ‘Fair Price’ shops.
Working in Orissa, where WFP lends technical support to the Indian government's feeding and nutrition programmes, Bal has a clear understanding of the challenges it faces there.
“Sometimes, people will use multiple identities to try to get more than one, which consumes resources that could be used to provide further assistance to the people who really need it,” he said.
Drawing on WFP’s technological savvy and exerience running targeted feeding programmes, Bal and his team are working with the State of Orissa on a solution that will weed out “redundant” ration cards using biometric data like fingerprints and eye-scans. “Teams go into the field, to towns and villages, take fingerprints and sometimes eye-scans, and then cross-check the data with the government’s roster of cardholders,” Bal explained.
He underlined that the scheme’s purpose was to improve a vital public service and bolster food security, not to crackdown on counterfeiters: “when we come across a case of multiple identities, we simply contact the person and ask them which was is right.”
The Orissa project is experimenting with two different kinds of ration cards. One carries a simple photo with personal information that the cardholder can use together with the coupons he receives once a month to get a discount at the Fair Price shops.
The other contains a microchip, which stores the carrier’s biometric information, and can be scanned like a credit card at the time of purchase. Though it too has a picture, in order to use it, the cardholder first has to scan his fingers using a device that WFP is providing to merchants.
Around 400 Fair Price shops around Orissa are now on the card-and-coupon system, while 18 in the city of Rayagada are equipped to use the smart cards.
Bal said that both schemes were very economical, and would more than pay for themselves in recovered costs from duplicate cards.
WFP India Country Director Mihoko Tamamura summarized that: “This project will ensure food goes only to those entitled to it, and will produce savings which, I am sure, will enable the state government to reach out to many more vulnerable people who urgently need help.”