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The demand for a fast rollout of ‘One Nation-One Ration Card’ grew stronger when the plight of migrant workers became visible to urban elites in the 2020 lockdown. Here are some of the challenges it faces.
In India, migration is mainly seasonal and circular in nature, and not of permanent type. Almost a third of the Indians are internal migrants. According to an estimate by Ravi Srivastava, an expert on migration, the population of short duration migrants is roughly 50 million. Therefore, the ONORC scheme is considered to be one of the best and most effective solutions to provide rations under the public distribution scheme to the footloose, internal migrant workers (mainly either semipermanent or long-term circular migrants or seasonal or short-term circular migrants) under the National Food Security Act, 2013 (NFSA).
The demand for effective and fast rollout of ONORC grew stronger when the plight of migrant and informal workers became visible to the urban elites after the sudden announcement of countrywide lockdown on the evening of March 24, 2020.
Before the ONORC came into existence, ration card holders could access their entitlements only at a Fair Price Shop (FPS) or ration shop, where they were registered. So, a migrant worker who moved to another city or town usually had no other option left to access PDS ration except to forgo it. She had to shell out extra money from her purse to purchase food grains from grocery shops at open market rates, instead of buying food grains at subsidised prices from FPS. The newly launched ONORC allows a migrant worker to access the food entitlement at any FPS in the country, thanks to an attribute called ration portability.
A new study by Dalberg in collaboration with Kantar, and with support from the Omidyar Network India, reveals how effectively the ONORC is serving PDS ration to migrants as well as non-migrants in five states of India, namely Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, and Jharkhand.
But the ONORC scheme has also been facing some challenges since its rollout. Some of the points mentioned here have already been discussed at length in the Dalberg report, and studies conducted by others.
1. Access to PDS ration by the income poor
Among other things, the survey by Dalberg researchers have found that over three-fourth of low-income households (i.e., 77%) who possessed no ration card, wanted to get enrolled in the PDS. However, due to various reasons, such households could not apply for a ration card and therefore, remained outside the PDS net. While 36% of income-poor households surveyed lacked necessary documents, almost one-fourth of them faced problems with their Aadhaar authentication.
It is important to discuss here how many people are outside the NFSA net despite being eligible. Under the National Food Security Act, subsidised food grains is extended upto 75% of the rural population and upto 50% of the urban population at the national level. As a whole nearly 67% of the entire population of the country is eligible for subsidised food grains under the NFSA. The proportions of rural and urban population eligible under the NFSA varies across states and UTs.
According to unpublished estimates by Jean Drèze, Reetika Khera and Meghana Mungikar, roughly 922 million persons should be ideally covered under the NFSA if 1.37 billion population in 2020 (as estimated by them) is considered. However, as per the 2011 Census, around 814 million persons – 67% of the 2011 population – are eligible (see ‘Statement indicating State-Wise number of Persons/families Covered under National Food Security Act, 2013‘ during 2020 in any of the month-wise food bulletins).
In short, it means that more than 100 million (i.e., over 10 crore individuals) needy persons, were entitled to receive food rations under the NFSA but were unable to access that due to outdated data in 2020. The situation has not changed a bit in 2022.
A recent article published in Indian Express informs us that the offtake of PDS food grains was higher during the COVID-19 pandemic years in comparison to the offtakes in the post-NFSA years i.e., in each of the years from 2013-14 to 2019-20 at the national level.
Almost similar trends were noticed in the three poorest states (as per NITI Aayog’s National Multidimensional Poverty Index) of India i.e., Bihar, Jharkhand and UP.
|State||Offtake of PDS food grain in 2013-2014||Offtake of PDS food grain in 2019-2020||Offtake of PDS food grain in 2021-2022|
|Jharkhand||1.2 million tonnes||1.9 mt||3.1 mt|
|Bihar||4 mt||5.6 mt||9.8 mt|
|Uttar Pradesh||7.5 mt||9.5 mt||17.3 mt|
In India, the offtake of rice and wheat under various government schemes grew from 92.9 mt in 2020-21 to 105.6 mt in 2021-22. The average offtake of PDS food grains in the country was 62.5 mt every year in the period from 2013-14 to 2019-20.
However, as per the calculation done by Drèze, Khera and Mungikar, in 2020, around 17.7 million persons in Bihar, 4.4 million persons in Jharkhand, and 28.5 million persons in UP were excluded from accessing PDS ration from the NFSA. Had these many persons been part of the NFSA net, the offtake of PDS food grains would have been much higher during the pandemic years.
Without further issuance of PDS ration cards to the excluded at the state-level and adequate budgetary support from the Union Government, many of the income-poor persons (who are likely to be migrant workers, casual workers and self-employed in the informal sector) would remain left out of the ONORC.
The Supreme Court order of June 29, 2021, which was delivered by Justice Ashok Bhushan and Justice M.R. Shah, clearly mentions the following:
“Section 9 provides for coverage of population under Targeted Public Distribution System, which is to be determined by the Central Government and the total number of persons to be covered in such rural and urban areas of the State shall be calculated on the basis of the population estimates as per the census of which the relevant figures have been published. The State-wise coverage under National Food Security Act was determined by the then Planning Commission (now Niti Aayog) by using the NSS Household Consumption Survey data for 2011-2012. More than 10 years have elapsed from determination of State-wise coverage. In event, Central Government undertakes fresh determination of the State-wise coverage under National Food Security Act, number of beneficiaries State-wise are bound to increase benefitting the large number of eligible persons. We, thus, are of the view that Central Government need to take steps to undertake exercise under Section 9 of the National Food Security Act, 2013 to re-determine the total number of persons to be covered under Rural and Urban areas of the State, which shall be beneficial to large number of persons.”
2. Access to cooking gas, cooked meals, and community kitchens
Unlike portability of ration, portability of LPG cylinders has not been given much thought by policy thinkers. The food grains bought from the FPS needs to be cooked properly at one’s home or shelter. House-owners do not generally cooperate to certify that a migrant worker is staying in their house as a tenant on rent, which is a major obstacle in getting an LPG connection. Therefore, a migrant worker in most cases is compelled to purchase LPG cylinders from the black market at exorbitant rates.
It should be noted that in order to ensure food security of the migrant and informal workers, the Supreme Court in 2021 passed two important orders. The Supreme Court had directed that provision of dry ration and cooked food through community kitchens to migrant workers and workers in the informal sector must continue till the pandemic continues.
The apex court directed all the states and Union territories to make operational community kitchens to provide food to migrant workers all over the country and ensurewide publicity of the locations of community kitchens against the backdrop of the pandemic. The plea to universalise food from community kitchens and provision of dry ration to all migrant workers across India was accepted.
Prayagraj: Migratory workers stand in painted circles maintaining social distance to collect free food outside Ishwar Sharan college community kitchen during the nationwide lockdown in 2020. Photo: PTI
The provision of cooked meals and access to community kitchens is also helpful to migrant workers who are either outside the NFSA net or do not have access to fuel for cooking PDS food grains.
Aside from ONORC, experts have suggested that portability of Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) scheme, mid-day meals (now termed as National Programme of PM POSHAN), immunisation, health care services, and other social welfare schemes should also be facilitated.
3. Aadhaar-based biometric authentication
One can enjoy the ONORC only if the Aadhaar-based authentication is successful, says the Dalberg report. Unfortunately, the extent of Aadhaar seeding of ration cards varies across states. Their report also mentions that ePoS (electronic point-of-sale machine) based transactions related to ONORC fail many times due to biometric authentication or connectivity failure.
A new report by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) clearly states:
“[T]here were instances of issue of Aadhaars with the same biometric data to different residents indicating flaws in the de-duplication process and issue of Aadhaars on faulty biometrics and documents. Though UIDAI has taken action to improve the quality of the biometrics and has also introduced iris-based authentication features for enrolment for Aadhaar, the database continued to have faulty Aadhaars which were already issued.”
Elderly persons and those who perform manual work often face issues with Aadhaar-based biometric authentication during ePoS transactions because their irises or fingerprints are diluted or obscured. That’s why, even after seeding of Aadhaar with ration card, one is unable to get ration through ONORC because of authentication failure.
4. Aadhaar seeding
It may happen that the seeding of Aadhaar with ration card fails because the individual’s personal information (such as date of birth, gender, and name, etc.) mismatch (such as due to spelling errors). Many people who access or want to access PDS ration are unable to recognise the mistakes or mismatches in their ration cards and Aadhaar on their own. The wrong personal details do not get corrected on time. Later, income poor persons face difficulty in seeding Aadhaar with ration cards.
The Dalberg report mentions that recently separated or divorced women were unable to get new ration cards because of lack of documents. If the Aadhaar and ration card carry the husband’s surname after the woman’s name, then it would be difficult to make name changes – by dropping the surname of the husband and taking the surname of the father or just having the name without any surname – in both these documents after separation or divorce.
Similarly, in the absence of a marriage certificate, it would be difficult to get a woman’s name with the husband’s surname on Aadhaar and ration card because her school certificates and other documents would carry the surname of her father. In the case of a woman, it is often difficult to get PDS ration after marriage due to relocation to another place (a different village, city or town, away from her original residence). Usually, she requires a new ration card with her husband’s residential address, with her name (along with her husband’s surname) on that ration card.
‘Many people who access or want to access PDS ration are unable to recognise the mistakes or mismatches in their ration cards and Aadhaar on their own.’ Photo: Joegoauk Goa/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)
5. Threats to PDS ration
In many states, there have been efforts, on a pilot basis, to move towards cash transfer in lieu of the PDS, perhaps for some items, instead of entire sets of items sold through FPS. The cash offered is often inadequate for the same quantity of that item from the open market. This is because of the huge gap in prices between FPS and the local grocery shops.
6. PDS ration quality
The quality of food grains supplied may vary across FPS, both within a state and between states. In some states, the PDS basket may have more items or more quantity of an item, whereas in others, the basket may be limited to just a few items.
A few examples will suffice to illustrate this. Although most states offer rice and wheat, in Maharashtra, only wheat is provided to below poverty-line families. Only rice is provided in Andhra Pradesh. Although a below poverty line household gets 20 kilograms of rice per month in Tamil Nadu, a BPL household receives 5 kg of rice per member per month in Karnataka. The latter state also provides ragi or jowar.
Although rice is sold at Rs 3 per kg in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, 20 kg rice per month is given free of cost in Tamil Nadu to BPL households. BPL households in a few states such as Himachal Pradesh and Chhattisgarh also receive pulses.
The price variation for the same item and in items sold across states may make things difficult and complicated for the floating population who opt for portability of ration.
In some states, the state government provides additional food subsidies. As a result, those states are able to give subsidised ration at prices below the level designated by the Union government. Such states may not be willing to share the additional subsidy with a person from another state. So, cooperation among the states is essential to take care of the welfare needs of the interstate migrant workers.
Representative image. Photo: Reuters/Rupak De Chowdhuri
7. Problems with the ‘Mera Ration’ app
Some of the salient features of the Mera Ration mobile app application are:
- Beneficiaries can identify and locate the nearest fair price shop.
- Beneficiaries can easily check details of their foodgrain entitlement, recent transactions, and the status of their Aadhaar seeding.
- Migrant beneficiaries can register their migration details through the application. This particular piece of information helps the states in advance planning and provisioning of food grains under ONORC for those beneficiaries.
- Option for beneficiaries to enter suggestions or feedback.
- More functionalities will be added in the application with time to improve its utility and extend additional services.
- The app is available in 10 languages: English, Hindi, Kannada, Odia, Gujarati, Punjabi, Telugu, Malayalam, Marathi and Tamil.
The creation of such mobile applications presumes that those who opt for ONORC have access to a smartphone that can be used to run it. However, a large chunk of the floating population is quite poor.
Given the adverse impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the livelihoods and income security of the majority of the informal and migrant workers, many of them would be unable to purchase such a phone and also pay for the internet data.
Digital divide due to socio-economic differences is quite prominent in our country.
8. Adequate availability of PDS ration stocks and low awareness about portability
Inadequate stocks with PDS dealers or the FPS is one of the key impediments in accessing portability, says the Dalberg report. Among other things, it has suggested allowing flexible stock requisition for PDS dealers.
Both PDS dealers and news media should be involved by the state governments to inform beneficiaries about the availability of portability. During awareness campaigns, efforts should be made to reach out to vulnerable groups like migrant construction workers and marginalised women. PDS dealers should be made aware about the possibility of interstate portability.