One Nation, One Ration Card and the hurdles ahead

Context:

  • The Union Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution recently announced that the One Nation, One Ration Card scheme would be introduced from July 1, 2020.
  • The scheme seeks to facilitate portability of subsidised food grains for internal migrant workers, provided their ration card is digitalised and linked with Aadhar.

Details of the scheme:

  • All the States have been given one more year to use point of sale (PoS) machines in the ration shops and implement the scheme, Food Minister told. Already, 77% % of the ration shops across the country have PoS machines and more than 85% of people covered under the National Food Security Act (NFSA) have their cards linked to Aadhaar.
  • While Aadhaar linkage is not necessary to access NFSA benefits in a beneficiary’s local registered ration shop, located closest to her home address, it will be necessary to access the portability scheme, according to senior Food Ministry officials. 
  • Ten States — Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Haryana, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Kerala, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Telangana and Tripura – already offer this portability, pointed out Mr. Paswan. Delhi had also begun implementing portability, though it was later stopped for technical reasons. Other States, including Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Punjab and Tamil Nadu, could easily implement the scheme, as they had PoS machines in all the ration shops.
  • “This scheme will ensure that no poor person is deprived of subsidised grains,” said the Minister. “We have written to all State governments to fast track its implementation, so that the whole country is ready to implement ‘One Nation, One Ration Card’ latest by June 30, 2020.”
  • A senior Ministry official clarified that migrants would only be eligible for the subsidies supported by the Centre, which include rice sold at Rs. 3/kg and wheat at Rs. 2/kg. Even if a beneficiary moved to a State where grains were given for free, that person would not be able to access those benefits, as they were funded by the State exchequer.

Fortified grains:

  • In a bid to reduce nutrition deficiencies among beneficiaries, the Centre would roll out a pilot project in 15 districts to fortify rice grains with iron, folic acid, Vitamin A and Vitamin B12. The first fortified grains would be available in ration shops from this November.
  • The State governments have also been given a six-month deadline to bring the operations of their depots and warehouses online, said Mr. Paswan. Ultimately, it would be possible to monitor the entire network of state-owned grain storage facilities, including Central warehouses that were already computerised, using an integrated dashboard. 

Universal access to PDS food grains:

  • ‘One Nation, One Ration Card’ will bring perceptible changes in the lives of vulnerable migrant workers in India. The food rationing and PDS system was begun during the famine of 1940, and was revived in 1970 as a universal food entitlement programme for Indian citizens.
  • Post-liberalisation, in 1997, the universal food scheme was made a targeted one, covering poor and vulnerable people. Later, in 2013, due to civil society and judicial influence, the landmark National Food Security Act (NFSA) was passed by Parliament. It made the right to food a legal entitlement for two-thirds of poor households in India.
  • From the inception of the food rationing system in India, a series of reforms have been carried out to identify legitimate beneficiaries, fix per capita food grain, include the most vulnerable people, digitalise and authenticate, in order to improve its target and efficiency.
  • India has been on the move. The mobility of the poor inside the country for employment is quite complex and multifaceted. A majority of poor households practice temporary or seasonal migration in India.
  • According to some academic estimation, the seasonal rural-to-urban migration in India is somewhere around 10 crore people, who work as informal workers in urban areas.
  • The incidence of mobility of poor people from poor and backward states is rising mostly due to the current agrarian crisis, unemployment, poverty and vulnerability resulting out of natural disasters.
  • Among poor households, a large number prefer their male members to migrate whereas some migrate with their families. The key sectors which are accommodating migrating workers are construction, brick kilns, plantations, agriculture, manufacturing, services and other informal sectors.
  • Usually, the migrant workers in these sectors are excluded from accessing PDS at their place of work. Moreover, most of the anti-poverty, rural employment, welfare and food security schemes were historically based on domicile-based access and restricted people to access government social security, welfare and food entitlements at their place of origin.  
  • That internal migration in India is huge is evident from the 2011 Census data. It indicates that 45.36 crore people or 37 per cent of the total population of India are migrants. On the other hand, migration for work and employment accounted for 10.22 per cent, which is about 4.3 crore people.
  • Migration data on people engaged in informal work within the state and inter-state destinations is yet to be captured through any systematic survey or enumeration.
  • Similarly, capturing information on the patterns of migration and especially seasonal or circular migration is hardly being done either at the state or national level.

Challenges of design and implementation:

  • The ‘One Nation, One Ration Card’ will mostly assist seasonal and circular migrant workers to have better access to PDS, both, at source and destination. The authorities can be expected to encounter hard-hitting ground realities for designing and implementing the scheme.
  • The first hurdles will be to have exact data on the mobility of poor households migrating to work, locating intra- and inter-state destinations and sectors employing the workers.
  • Secondly, the domicile-based legislation for accessing government schemes and social security needs serious rethinking before making ‘One Nation, One Ration Card’ portable.
  • NFSA defines food security as nutritional security. Therefore, portability of Integrated Child Development Services, Mid-Day Meals, immunisation, health care and other facilities for poor migrant households can’t be neglected and should be made portable.
  • Thirdly, the ‘One Nation, One Ration Card’ is based on two important guiding principles: Aadhar and digitalisation of ration cards. It is feared that both Aadhar and digital ration card may exclude either a person who migrates alone, or migrates with his family or the left-behind vulnerable family member who stays back in the village.
  • The Rastriya Sawthya Bima Yojna (RSBY), the national health insurance scheme of the Indian government, had an interesting component of splitting the unique insurance card to help both migrants and those left behind.
  • This component from RSBY may be adopted in devising PDS access to both migrants and those left behind. Moreover, Aadhar seeding and the biometric authentication of eligible migrant workers at the destination may create obstacles for hassle-free access to PDS both, at source and destination.
  • Finally, there are multiple social security, welfare, food and anti-poverty schemes in India, in addition to an array of labour laws.
  • On the other hand, the poor and vulnerable population is more mobile today in searching for better livelihoods, wages and opportunities for their families beyond their native villages.
  • They certainly need a better access to both, welfare and labour laws to protect their rights and entitlements.
  • Therefore, the ‘One Nation, One Ration Card’ should create inclusion in food schemes, both, at source and destination, without negating the very spirit of ensuring household food security of the migrant family.

Source:TH & Downtoearth