The public distribution system (PDS) constitutes a major thrust of India’s socio-economic policy, even before Independence. It stems from the effective accountability of the government to ensure that its citizens have access to food through its vast network of fair price shops.
The recent decision by the Union government to roll out `One Nation One Ration Card (ONORC)’ is an excellent initiative in that direction.
This pan-India portability scheme seeks to enable PDS beneficiaries to get their quota of food grain from any ration shop of their choice across the country seamlessly.
States like Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Haryana, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Kerala, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Telangana and Tripura have already executed the facilities for ration cardholders to shop anywhere across the state.
The government seeks to achieve the important objective of food security for its citizens through the PDS at affordable prices, since providing food security to people stems from the concept of the welfare state, as enshrined in the Constitution of India.
India, like many countries, subsidises the consumption of certain food and non-food items for the poor through a huge network of ration shops. Trouble is locational heterogeneity and complexity of social relations, which often create barriers to access PDS in India.
The quality of services available in the PDS network is substantially inferior, riddled with corruption, pilferage, adulteration of grains, longer waiting time, sometimes even verbal abuse in the queue and so on.
The PDS cries for urgent reforms both in terms of structural and administrative changes. The ONORC is one such reformative measure, which purports to shift the bargaining power from the PDS dealer to the beneficiaries since ONORC allows the latter to choose the PDS shop of his or her choice.
India has the distinction of having the world’s largest food security programme. The government supplies five kg of subsidised food grain to each person per month to over 81 crore people via 5,00,000 ration shops across the country, costing the exchequer about Rs 1.4 lakh crore annually.
Curiously, the present PDS system is location-linked, which often acts as a barrier to access food entitlements, especially, for migrant workers/families. The ONORC is expected to be far more inclusive and offer barrier-free access to food entitlements for the beneficiaries through the proposed ration card portability.
The migrant workers are one of the largest groups (about 38% of India’s population), which face the artificial barrier of access to the PDS system and plethora of other social security schemes run by the Union and state governments.
‘One Nation, One Ration Card’ is governed by twin principles, i.e. linkage with Aadhar and digitalisation of ration cards to reach out to the real beneficiaries.
However, the fear of exclusion of genuine beneficiaries due to the new system looms large, especially the migrators and their families or the left-behind families who stay back at the village.
It is imperative that the ONORC should take its cue from the government’s National Health Insurance Scheme, which has a Unique Insurance Card to take care of the health care needs of both migrants as well as those left behind.
The linkage of a ration card with a particular shop poses a major challenge for migrant workers, even though many states have allowed intra-state portability, which permits beneficiaries to buy rations from any fair price shops within that state. The ORORC, expected to launch throughout India by June 2020, is expected to address the portability issue.
Even though it is a laudable initiative, it is going to face certain difficulties like lack of concrete data on migrant population/households, in so far as interstate migration is concerned.
The archaic, domicile-based legislations governing access to social welfare schemes rolled out by the government, need to be amended to keep pace with the objectives of those schemes. The allocation of food grain needs to be made dynamic, commensurate with the flow of migrant population.
Another issue likely to adversely affect the beneficiaries is differential entitlements offered by the states as well as the Union government. For example, many states are averse to the idea of granting equal benefits to the migrant population/families, like those granted to domiciled beneficiaries.
Another pertinent issue could come up if members of a single household are split between two different locations. The guidelines of the scheme only permit the purchase of half the subsidised grain at one time in an effort to prevent one member of the household taking the entire ration for the month, thereby depriving rations to family members living in different locations.
Policy makers and civil society have welcomed the move despite some bottlenecks palpably tagged with the system. There are multiple social security schemes, welfare-oriented schemes, food and poverty alleviation schemes implemented by the government, but the migrant labourers, SC/ST, and women remain the most vulnerable groups that are regularly being deprived of the benefits of the scheme.
It is, therefore, imperative that the “One Nation One Ration Card” scheme needs to be more inclusive and offer better access to food at PDS destinations.
This scheme also needs to be more technology-driven in place of the old manual method of record keeping. There is no contrarian point to argue the laudable vision of the grand scheme, but the operational complexities and the speculation of a threat to the federal structure, as raised by some political leaders, need to be ironed out systematically.