Public distribution system is an important measure to protect the poor against inflation, to keep the prices of essential commodities under check, to reduce fluctuations in the prices and also ensure regular supplies of essential commodities at reasonable prices particularly to the poor and vulnerable sections of society.
The system is a part of the vast strategy of social justice and elimination of poverty. It is a programme controlled and run by government for the benefit of the common man. During last decades network of public distribution system has been expanding. During the last five years the number of Fair Price Shops has increased form 3.02 lakh to around 4 lakh. In view of the great demand and value of the Fair Price Shops, the State Governments and Union Territories are opening more and more shops, particularly in remote, far-flung inaccessible areas covering tribal areas. Even the farthest corners of hilly areas are covered under the system.
Government procures and supplies seven essential commodities, viz. wheat, rice, sugar, imported edible oils, kerosene, soft coke and controlled cloth. That apart, Governments at states and Union Territories are free to include any other commodity of mass consumption by arranging for its procurement on their own. Some state governments have already made arrangements for the supply of pulses, vanaspati, soaps, cycle tyres and tubes, torch cells, salt and match boxes though fair price shops. Other Governments are in the process of increasing the number of commodities being supplied by them under the system.
Almost all the cities and town are already covered under the system. Efforts are being made to bring all the villages in the rural areas under its cover. Where fair price shops cannot be opened, mobile vans visit the area to enable the inhabitants to purchase the commodities they need. Government gives financial assistances to states and Union Territories for purchase of such vans. Government procures wheat and rice directly from the farmers. These food grains are kept in godowns and from there dispatched to various centers of distribution. Sugar mills release quota of sugar for free sale and fair price shops as per directions of the government. These measures help maintain availability of cereals and sugar in the market at a reasonable price. Government arranges imports of edible oils for their distribution through the fair price shops. This is so because there is not enough of production of edible oils to meet the total demand of consumers in the country.
Consumer co-operatives play an important role in supplying quality goods at a reasonable price to common public for their daily needs. Programmes for development of consumer co-operatives are being introduced in a planned manner, so that they remain as a permanent and distinctive feature in public distribution system. Consumer Co-operatives are promoted and strengthened to support public distribution system and a strong consumer protection movement both in urban and rural areas. Super Bazars are also institutions, which with their outlets serve the consumers.
Government accords highest priority to consumer protection. Department of civil supplies as a nodal authority in matters relating to consumer affairs, has initiated various measures to promote a broad-based and responsive consumer movement. Government Protection Act, 1986 to safeguard consumer interests. Its main objective is to promote and protect consumer’s rights.
There is no doubt that government has done a lot for the protection of poor consumer and to make available supplies of essential commodities to him at a reasonable price. There is still much that is needed for the relief of the common consumer. It has been observed that the commodities available at the fair price shops opened under the public distribution system, are not of prescribed quality. It has also been seen that some of the commodities are always in short supply. Consumers are at the mercy of these fair price shops. They have to buy whatever good or bad things are available with these shops. At times none of the commodities are available in the shops continuously for weeks together.
The poor consumer has to go the shop and take a chance. It is also alleged that some of the good quality commodities find their way to the open market and are sold at a higher price. The chronic artificial scarcity created by fair price shop creates panic among the consumers. The poor, illiterate and helpless consumer is unable to take help of the Consumer Protection Act. He does not know where and to whom make a complaint. The consumer represents an individual whereas the fair price shops are part of a vast machinery. There cannot be a fight between two unequals.
The public distribution system is a great help to the poor people. The fair price shops protect the poor from the fluctuations in prices in the open market. These shops are a boon to the poor. There is need for improvement in their working. The number of commodities to be supplied from these shops should also be increased to include other essentials like items of stationery, tinned foods, school books, salt match-box etc.