The ‘One Nation One Ration Card’ Scheme: An Evaluation
Authored by: Naina Gupta
Edited by: Kausumi Saha
In 2019, the Department of Food and Public Distribution launched the Integrated Management of Public Distribution System (IM-PDS) scheme, more commonly known as the One Nation One Ration Card scheme. The One Nation One Ration Card scheme aims to improve the portability of food distribution, by enabling ration card holders to collect their entitled rations from any fair price shop in the country with a single card . Before the COVID-19 lockdown, ONORC was in line to be made effective across India from 1st June 2020, after being implemented first in 12 states . However, following the huge upsurge in migration in response to the lockdown, the Supreme Court directed the Central Government to temporarily implement the scheme earlier, so as to ensure that migrant workers and economically weaker sections of the population have access to foodgrains .
The Public Distribution System (PDS), originally established in 1944, provides for citizens below the poverty line to acquire food items like rice, wheat, oil, and pulses at subsidised rates through ration cards. However, the failure of the PDS to eliminate hunger in the country, coupled with malpractices such as illegal diversion of foodgrains, hoarding and black marketing necessitated major changes in the existing system, leading to the One Nation one Ration Card scheme as a possible solution . But more importantly, the ONORC scheme was recognised as a need due to the high rate of migration in the country, with the Census 2011 recording that every third person in India is a migrant. The current Public Distribution System allows every ration card holder to collect their rations from only one designated fair price shop. Interstate migrants, therefore, require a second ration card for the destination state. This situation becomes more complicated for migrant labourers, who often migrate to major urban centres to join the informal labour force without their families, and hence are not eligible for ration cards at their state of employment.
Most recently, the nationwide lockdown due to the Coronavirus pandemic saw lakhs of migrants attempting to leave major cities for their native homes, with one of the most important reasons being the lack of availability of rations, thus uncovering the sheer scale of the failure of the country’s food distribution system . The new policy, therefore, hopes to help in that direction by making food security benefits portable between different states.
THE PARTICULARS OF ONE NATION, ONE RATION CARD
The ONORC scheme requires the installation of Electronic Point of Sale (EPoS) machines in all fair price shops. EPoS machines, along with Aadhaar-linked ration cards use biometric identification at the time of delivery of food items to ensure fair allocation of food grains and to update the information of the beneficiary on the central online repository of information called Integrated Management of Public Distribution System (IMPDS). IMPDS is an online database to keep records of all ration card holders along with their biometric details so that all EPoS machines can be connected to the server of this database .
The scheme hopes to make food security benefits more accessible, bringing India a few notches higher from its current ranking of 102 out of 117 qualifying countries on the Global Hunger Index 2019 . The expected benefit is for 23 crore ration card holders and 45.36 crore internal migrants as per the 2011 Census data . It also hopes to curb malpractices and weed out fake ration cards by necessitating the need for digitisation of ration cards.
CHALLENGES OF IMPLEMENTATION
While the One Nation One Ration Card scheme has several intended benefits, there are major issues still plaguing its implementation.
1. Technological glitches:
Under the new scheme, Aadhaar-ration card linkage is necessary to access the benefits because the service would be delivered only after biometric/Aadhaar authentication on the e-PoS machine being installed in every ration shop. A little over 85.41% of ration cards have been linked to Aadhaar up until August 2019, still leaving out a significant number . Even if it seems possible to achieve 100% Aadhaar linkage in the coming few months, the challenge lies in the technological aspect of the digital mechanism. This aspect consists of two main components - the electronic Point of Sale (ePoS) machines and high-speed internet connectivity.
As per the data on the Annavitran portal, out of total 79,050, only 37,392 fair price shops have E-PoS machines as of January 2020 . In Bihar and West Bengal, two states with some of the highest out-migration rates in India, only 62 out of 41,483 and 366 out of 20,806 fair price shops have an e-PoS machine installed, respectively. Furthermore, E-PoS machines require internet connectivity to enable all machines to stay linked to the server of the IMPDS database. However, internet penetration remains low in India, especially in rural India with only 25% people having internet connections as of 2018 . Therefore, the speed at which digital infrastructure, especially High-Speed Fibre network is being developed needs to be geared up.
2. Poor quality of rural-electrification:
Running the E-PoS machine under the new scheme requires a steady source of electrical power. As per the Saubhagya dashboard on the website of the Ministry of Power, electrification has been successful in 99.99% of rural households in the country . But having electrical connection alone cannot call for celebration if the quality of electricity supply in terms of hours per day is low. The nationwide village survey by the Ministry of Rural Development in 2017 indicates that only half of all villages get more than 12 hours of supply, with power failures being rampant .
3. Huge gap in data on patterns of domestic migration:
Under ONORC, a migrant worker and his/her family is expected to get subsidised rations from different ration shops under a single card with the help of biometric authentication of every household member. However, the huge gap in data with respect to shifting patterns of existing migrant workers will challenge the state governments in making appropriate quantities of rationed commodities available for the masses. The Economic Survey 2016-17 highlights this dearth of data while also suggesting options for using innovative sources and methods for estimating human mobility in the country . Also, as of 2018, India has the highest number of people displaced by disasters and extreme weather events in the world, reaching a figure of 2.68 million, with Odisha being one of the most important states of distress migration almost every year . This unplanned distressed migration can further make it difficult to tackle the problem at hand.
4. Centre-State relations:
In the past, certain central government legislations have directly infringed upon subjects that are in the domain of state legislatures, like several anti-terrorist laws, the Lokpal Bill, GST and Aadhaar-related laws, etc. The initial apprehension of the Tamil Nadu government to participate in the ONORC scheme was based on the fact that efforts to align the different state implementation policies on food security may be an encroachment on the state subjects . While the go-ahead on this scheme was essential for the larger good, the concern of the Tamil Nadu government is not completely baseless as it creates room for mistrust between the state and central governments and could potentially contribute to challenging the very idea of cooperative federalism.
5. Problem of integration across states and disincentivising provisions for local food habits and needs:
Another issue that arises when a law is made on a subject in the concurrent list is that it calls for uniformity across states which are very diverse. This is especially true for a country like India. For example, the Land Acquisition and Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill (2013) introduced in the Parliament is a concurrent list subject and states may also make laws on this topic as long as those laws do not contradict the central enactment . The higher the extent of detail in the central law, lower will be the freedom for states to tailor the law to their local conditions.
Under One Nation One Ration Card, particular quantities of certain food items are to be allocated to every individual in the country with respect to their socioeconomic category. In the current system, over and above the central government’s allocations, some states distribute additional food items such as iodised salt, spices, and pulses, among others, as per their capacity and local needs. Since the burden of eligible beneficiaries will be different for every state (depending on the levels of in- and out-migration in each state), the new system may disincentivise states from burdening themselves with the task of diversifying the diets of the local people based on their food habits and local weather conditions. A mere allocation of wheat, rice, kerosene and sugar might not be sufficient to provide good quality nutrition to the underprivileged.
The ONORC scheme has to cross multiple hurdles to be implemented successfully. Even successful implementation has its disadvantages, by possibly leading to breakdown of centre-state relations or disincentivising states from providing rations appropriate to their populations. Nevertheless, the scheme, if implemented properly, has the potential to achieve increased access to subsidised food by the most vulnerable sections of the population. It can prove to be instrumental in bringing the country closer to achieving its Sustainable Development Goal 2 of Zero Hunger in India by 2030. Finally, following successful implementation, crises such as that seen during the migration post the lockdown can potentially be averted by increasing food security for the country’s huge migrant population.
 According to Mr Ram Vilas Paswan, Minister of State for Consumer Affairs, Food, and PDS in an answer to an unstarred question in the Rajya Sabha. https://pib.gov.in/PressReleaseIframePage.aspx?PRID=1581675