A major fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic was the rise in food insecurities worldwide and especially in the developing countries where hunger and under-nutrition are an unending epidemic. Wage earners, informally employed, and marginalized sections were the worst hit due to shutting down of the livelihood options and subsequent displacement from urban centres. One of the crucial reasons for the increased food insecurity among these sections was absence of local ration cards which could be used to access subsidized food grains through the Public Distribution System (PDS). Millions of migrants who did not ‘belong’ to the place of their work lacked documents which could enable them to secure PDS ration and other social security benefits. In addition to this, these footloose workers lacked any local kinship support and networks which put them at a higher risk of destitution, hunger, and starvation. In some cases they mortgaged their labour to borrow money from a potential employer.
There has been a whole new area of research and deliberations to look at the migration question in India and elsewhere in the post-Covid-19 times. A range of policy recommendations and suggestions have been discussed to avoid a repetition of the migration crisis of 2020. The ‘One Nation, One Ration Card’ (ONORC) scheme has invited a fair amount of attention and controversy recently. The scheme is not something which is put in place after the ‘2020 migration crisis’ and was launched in June, 2019. However, the scheme is an important intervention as it aims to ensure the delivery of food security entitlements to all beneficiaries covered under the National Food Security Act (NFSA), 2013, irrespective of their physical location. Under ‘ONORC’ scheme one card will be accepted across the country and cardholders will be able to access their entitled subsidised food grains from any ration shop. The scheme is aimed at bringing inter-state portability of ration to all PDS beneficiaries, making it easier especially for migrant workers to access their ration entitlements in the place of their residence. The scheme needs to be streamlined and strengthened. The scheme is also said to put check on corruption, leakage, and irregularities in the ration distribution by making all transactions through digital means. Majority of the States and Union Territories have been brought under the national portability of ration cards but there remains, as per the recent updates, 11 states and 8 Union territories which still need to come on board. The scheme was expected to be fully implemented at national level by March 2021. There are a few issues which a number of States have raised with the Centre and a lack of consensus is slowing down the implementation of the scheme.
Exclusion, Under-Coverage, and other Concerns
As of now, there exists large-scale exclusion and under-coverage of the legally entitled food beneficiaries and ration card holders under the NFSA 2013 (see Khera and Somanchi 2020), and the ONORC must address this exclusion. Unfair exclusion, corruption, and malpractices as a result of excessive technocratisation, and heavy reliance on IT in the existing PDS system have already been noted by scholars and food security activists. The Supreme Court on March 17, 2021 expressed serious concerns while hearing that approximately four crore ration cards have been cancelled as there was no Aadhar card and biometric authentication. The reports point out that there are a number of reasons such as poor internet connectivity in rural and remote areas, non-possession of Aadhar cards, poor finger or thumb prints, etc.It is critical that the concerns regarding the exclusion and under-coverage of PDS beneficiaries be addressed under the ‘One Nation, One Ration Card’ scheme, and the long-standing demands of food rights campaigns of universalising the PDS should be met. The mandatory condition of seeding Aadhaar cards with ration cards in the Integrated Management of Public Distribution System (IMPDS) should be done away with, as it leads to exclusion of a large section of beneficiaries. The initial experience of the scheme has raised some serious questions about the operational aspects, e.g. lack of clarity on how the consistency between list of items and pricing will be ensured between the home-State and the host-State. The concerns are also regarding how the ‘split’ households going to be benefited with the divided ration quantity.
Khera, Reetika and Somanchi, Anmol. 2020. A review of the coverage of PDS. Ideas for India. August. https://www.ideasforindia.in/topics/poverty-inequality/a-review-of-the-coverage-of-pds.html
- Prof. Shamsher Singh, Assistant Professor - Sociology