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Is One Nation One Ration Card the panacaea for India's migrant population?

File photo of people queuing up in front of a ration shop in Delhi to get their monthly quota | Photo: Sanjay K Sharma
A few weeks back, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, while giving an assessment of the steps taken by the Centre as part of Covid relief, said that considerable progress had been made towards ration card portability, commonly known as One Nation One Ration Card (ONORC) and almost 650 million Food Act beneficiaries can now avail this option.

ONORC is a highly ambitious scheme that the Central government started few years back to bring about ration card portability so that beneficiaries under the National Food Security Act (NFSA) can avail their monthly quota of subsidised foodgrains from anywhere by just feeding in the Aadhaar number without getting tied to their respective ration shops.

At present, all ration shops have a fixed list of beneficiaries who can get their alloted quota of grains from there. But if anyone moves out of vicinity of that ration shop, he loses his entitlement and no other ration shop in any other place will deliver him his quota.

As a result, millions of migrant labourers or people who leave their native place for jobs in other areas, lose their entitlement and unless any such person makes a fresh ration card, he won't get his share of subsidised grains.

The issue drew attention when millions of migrant workers from cities left for their hometowns after the Covid lockdown.

Though the Centre announced extra grain allocation for all NFSA beneficiaries to tide over the crisis but it was of little help to the migrants as most either did not have their names in the list of ration card beneficiaries or were not carrying the card to their workplaces.

According to an update by the Centre released a few months ago, at present, the facility of national portability of ration cards under “One Nation One Ration Card plan” is seamlessly enabled in an integrated cluster of 24 States and UTs covering around 650 million beneficiaries (80 per cent of total NFSA population).

Under the NFSA, some 800 million beneficiaries are entitled to 5 kg of free rice or wheat a month, at highly subsidised rates of Rs 3 per kg for rice and Rs 2 for wheat as a legal entitlement from the Central government.

The scheme covers around 67 per cent of the country’s population as per the 2011 census. The list hasn’t been revised since, as the Act says that revisions can happen only after a gap of 10 years.

The Centre says that the states and UTs where the portability is currently in force include Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Dadra & Nagar Haveli and Daman and Diu, Goa, Gujarat, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Mizoram, Odisha, Punjab, Sikkim, Rajasthan, Telangana, Tripura, Uttar Pradesh, J&K, Manipur, Nagaland and Uttarakhand.

“This means that within this cluster movement of migrant workers would be possible with ration portability fully as well as partially depending upon the requirement of the ration card holder,” the official statement said.

The Centre further said that concerted and regular efforts are being made to enable the facility of One Nation One Ration Card in the remaining 12 States and UTs (including two DBT Cash Transfer UTs) before March 2021.

Not all-embracing

So Will ONORC solve all the problems of migrants or people who move from one place to another?

The Right to Food Campaign (RTF), in a statement issued sometime back, said that ONORC is not a panacea for all the problems of the migrants and moving population.

It said that the main problem with the food ration entitlements under NFSA remains that these are available to only those who currently hold a ration card.

According to the NFSA, on an average 67 per cent of the population is to be covered with these cards.

But currently, only 60 per cent of the population has a ration card under the NFSA, as population estimates that the Government of India uses to allot ration cards are from 2011.

This, according to a study released by economists Jean Drèze, Reetika Khera, and Meghana Mungikar shows that more than 100 million people are excluded from the public distribution system (PDS).

This is because the Centre insists on using the 2011 figures to calculate state-wise PDS coverage.

At the all-India level, applying the 67 per cent ratio to a projected population of 1.37 billion for 2020, PDS coverage today would be 922 million, instead of around 800 million.

This means over 100 million eligible people are outside its ambit, the study showed.

Meanwhile, the government argues that it is helpless as the next Census is due in 2021 after a gap of 10 years.

ONORC does not cover entitlements under state food schemes as well and is only restricted to NFSA beneficiaries. 

The Right To Food Campaign (RTF) further said that as has been the experience of targeting in welfare schemes, there continue to be exclusion errors, where many food insecure people are left out from the PDS.

This is especially true after the roll out of NFSA in urban areas where the eligibility criteria for a ration card are not clearly defined and there exists a large (floating) population without the necessary documents for residence verification and so on.

According to the Campaign, the ONOR scheme also has several implementation issues.

It is dependent on Aadhaar-based biometric authentication, which will only work if every ration card in the country is seeded with Aadhaar and if every Fair Price Shop (FPS) uses the Electronic-Point Of Sale (e-PoS) system.

There is widespread evidence of exclusion from legal entitlements in this system due to issues such as failure of fingerprint matching, non-functioning of the e-POS machine and poor internet connectivity.

There are also a number of issues related to data safety with Aadhaar.

Other concerns with ONOR are more specific to the scheme. First, given that PDS entitlements vary from state to state, what items – and in what quantity and at what prices – will be provided to migrant workers? Suppose a family from Chhattisgarh entitled to 7 kg of grain per person and 2 kg of pulses per household migrates to Delhi, where each household is entitled to only 5 kg of grain per person.

Once it migrates, will it get the entitlement of Chhattisgarh or Delhi?

Second, if ration cardholders can access their food quotas from anywhere in the country, the number of transactions at any given FPS will be uncertain. This will pose a serious challenge, as shops with an unexpectedly high number of transactions in a month are likely to run out of its food stocks even before supplying the month’s quota to all those households who normally purchase from it.

Third, for families that have members in multiple locations, there is an apprehension that even if one member takes part of the ration quota, the FPS dealer will show purchase of the full quota and siphon off the balance.

Noted economist and Associate professor (economics), IIT Delhi, Reetika Khera in an article written for Scroll.in sometime back had also highlighted some of these lacunas in the ONORC.

Khera and also other social activists from the Right to Food Campaign have repeatedly called for universalizing the PDS as a more prudent approach to the entire issue rather than harping on technologically challenging attempts such as ONORC etc.

But, how far is it financially and fiscally possible and whether the government can take up the challenge, is a big question. 

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