Recently, the Supreme Court did well to set a deadline of July 31 for states to implement the One Nation One Ration Card system. Considering the sheer scale of the migrant crisis that unfolded last year — foodgrains were distributed to a staggering 2.8 crore migrants under the government’s Aatma Nirbhar Bharat scheme — and the still precarious financial position of households, especially of migrant labourers working in the informal economy, the Court has rightly reminded states of the urgency of implementing this scheme. Citizens must not be denied basic welfare benefits simply because they have migrated beyond state boundaries.
The concept of One Nation One Ration Card revolves around the idea that citizens should be able to avail of their entitlements irrespective of where they reside in the country. In this framework, migrant workers can access the subsidised foodgrains under the National Food Security Act from any of the 5.4 lakh fair price shops across the country, and not be bound to the fair price shop near the place where their ration card is registered.
But there are several issues that require careful consideration.
First, shifting to such an architecture will also require continuous and real-time information on migration across the country. But there has been little progress on this front. The Court recently chastised the Centre for the delay in setting up a portal to register migrant and unorganised workers.
Second, foodgrain allocations across states will need to be more flexible in nature, taking into account seasonal fluctuations in migration.Thus the information technology infrastructure needs to be robust to ensure effective inventory and stock management.
Third, as entitlements tend to vary across states, migrants will not be able to access the full benefits available to them in their home states, unless those costs are borne by the states. But this would require integrated, regularly updated, dynamic systems.
Fourth, not all the 5.4 lakh fair price shops have installed ePoS machines. For instance, as reported in this paper, Delhi is yet to start using ePoS in fair price shops.
Fifth, there is also the issue of allowing for the updation of household member details on the ration card, and seeding of ration cards with Aadhaar only in the home state.
To incentivise states to shift to this architecture, last year, the central government had made states’ additional borrowings conditional on the successful implementation of the One Nation One Ration Card system. More such measures may be needed to ensure a quick and effective rollout of this scheme.
The migrant crisis last year threw into sharp relief not only their precarious economic situation, but also the absence of comprehensive safety nets to fall back on. Shifting to this new framework would be a step towards strengthening existing social security nets whose glaring holes have been exposed by the pandemic.
What is the ‘One Nation, One Ration Card’ system?
Under the National Food Security Act, 2013, about 81 crore persons are entitled to buy subsidized foodgrain — rice at Rs 3/kg, wheat at Rs 2/kg, and coarse grains at Re 1/kg — from their designated Fair Price Shops (FPS) of the Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS). Currently, about 23 crore ration cards have been issued to nearly 80 crore beneficiaries of NFSA in all states and UTs.
In the present system, a ration cardholder can buy foodgrains only from an FPS that has been assigned to her in the locality in which she lives. However, this will change once the ‘One Nation, One Ration Card’ system becomes operational nationally. This is how it will work:
Suppose a beneficiary lives in the district of Basti in Uttar Pradesh and migrates to Mumbai for work. Currently, she is no longer able to purchase subsidised foodgrains from a PDS shop in her new locality in Mumbai. However, under the ‘One Nation, One Ration Card’ system, the beneficiary will be able to buy subsidised foodgrains from any FPS across the country.
The new system, based on a technological solution, will identify a beneficiary through biometric authentication on electronic Point of Sale (ePoS) devices installed at the FPSs, and enable that person to purchase the quantity of foodgrains to which she is entitled under the NFSA.
How will the system of ration card portability work?
Ration card portability is aimed at providing intra-state as well as inter-state portability of ration cards.
While the Integrated Management of Public Distribution System (IM-PDS) portal provides the technological platform for the inter-state portability of ration cards, enabling a migrant worker to buy foodgrains from any FPS across the country, the other portal (annavitran.nic.in) hosts the data of distribution of foodgrains through E-PoS devices within a state.
The Annavitran portal enables a migrant worker or his family to avail the benefits of PDS outside their district but within their state. While a person can buy her share of foodgrains as per her entitlement under the NFSA, wherever she is based, the rest of her family members can purchase subsidised foodgrains from their ration dealer back home.