Key Scheme For Migrants’ Food Security Could Stumble For Lack Of Data

New Delhi: The ‘One Nation, One Ration Card’ programme to be launched in June 2020 aims to provide subsidised food to India’s 450 million itinerant workers anywhere in the country. To implement it, some basic conditions must be met--states must have accurate migrant numbers, currently not available, and thousands of fair price shops would need electronic point-of-sale (PoS) machines for flawless biometric authentication of a beneficiary’s identity, experts said.

Poor urban migrants are more undernourished than the rest of the population, but are unable to access subsidised food benefits when they migrate for work. The forthcoming programme aims at making food rations available to them everywhere through the public distribution system. 

Indian interstate and intrastate migrants make for about 37% of the country’s total population, according to the 2011 Census. But the government does not have accurate state-wise numbers for migrants. More than a quarter of fair price shops (28%) do not have PoS machines, showed data submitted in the Lok Sabha (lower house of the parliament). 

Presently, the central government supplies subsidised food grains under the National Food Security Act, 2013, at Rs 1-3/kg, to more than 800 million people through 500,000 ‘ration’ shops. The allocation to each family depends on the number of members, and is marked in the ration card issued by the state government to the head of the family. This card is digitally linked to Aadhaar, a 12-digit unique identification number used to verify the identity of Indian citizens.

Under the existing system, once a beneficiary of the food ration scheme migrates, he or she has to apply for a fresh ration card at the new place. But the ‘One Nation, One Ration Card’ system — also linked to Aadhaar — would eliminate the need for a new card. This way, it aims to deliver the promise of Aadhaar–portability of government benefits without the need for any other proof of identity.

After the government made it mandatory for welfare beneficiaries to link their Aadhaar with their ration cards, several people were reportedly denied food grains due to malfunctioning of the biometric authentication system, IndiaSpend reported on August 11, 2018. Experts said the same could happen with the new scheme. 

“All the problems that are faced by beneficiaries in Aadhaar authentication will be faced in the ‘One Nation, One Ration Card’ scheme as well,” said Sameet Panda, state convener, Odisha, Right to Food Campaign, (RTF), an advocacy group. “If one’s Aadhaar is not seeded or the biometric authentication fails due to any of several possible reasons, one will not receive ration no matter where [they are].”

Pilot schemes show up challenges

The Odisha government began implementing a pilot of the ‘One Nation One Ration’ system on September 1, 2019, for its intrastate migrants. Out of 32 million beneficiaries, 1.8 million (6%) could not get their Aadhaar linked with their ration card before September 15, 2019, the deadline mandated by the Odisha government, The New Indian Express reported on September 17, 2019.

Up to 35% of households did not have Aadhaar-seeded ration cards, an October 2019 study of 348 households in Nabarangpur, Nuapada and Malkangiri districts of Odisha had found. Of these, 31% had children under 10 years of age. Upto 12.42% individuals did not have an Aadhaar number while 19% submitted it but could not not get it linked to their ration card, the study by the Khadya Adhikar Abhiyan (Odisha chapter of the RTF) had found.

Earlier, in August 2019, the central government had trialled interstate portability of ration cards as a pilot project in two state groups: Andhra Pradesh-Telangana and Gujarat-Maharashtra. This would have enabled migrants in each cluster to avail of ration from the partner state.

“Gujarat has both intrastate migrants from the eastern tribal belt and interstate migrants from Maharashtra working in the diamond cutting industry,” said Sejal Dand, state convener, Annasuraksha Adhikar Abhiyan, an advocacy group working on food security in Gujarat. “We have not seen a single  beneficiary who has migrated to Gujarat and been able to procure ration in the state.”

Tribal communities in Gujarat have reported not being able to get ration due to poor internet connectivity even in their own villages, Dand said. “The government should make the data public as to how many people availed the ration,” she added.

Seasonal migrant workers not tracked

The exact number of mig­rant workers within India is not easy to establish, especially at the state level, as we mentioned earlier. The latest publically available data comes from the 2011 Census.

“Migration patterns across the country will have to be studied as the fair price shops–both in the home state as well as in the state he/she has migrated to–will need information on the inflow and outflow of migrants,” said Panda of the Right to Food Campaign. “Allocation of ration to each state will have to be made much more dynamically depending on the migration patterns.”

The central government allots food grains to the state, according to the district-wise requirement based on the number of ration card holders and previous year’s allocation.

“As per our understanding, [the cost of] providing subsidised ration to seasonal migrants will be borne by the states. We are yet to get any clarity about how a particular state subsidy will be implemented in another state,” said A S S Ramarao, the south zone (Chennai) general manager of sales and procurement at the Food Corporation of India.

Electronic PoS machines

For the ‘One Nation, One Ration Card’ programme, all fair price shops offering subsidised grains would have to install electronic PoS machines and all ration cards would have to be linked with the beneficiary’s Aadhaar number, as we said earlier.

Source: Lok Sabha

By February 2019, 72% of fair price shops (388,012 of 533,165) across the country had installed electronic PoS machines, data from the Lok Sabha showed.

Bihar, which had the least number of devices installed, had the second highest number of immigrants in the country after Uttar Pradesh, according to the 2011 Census.

“The transactions based on electronic PoS machines are beneficial as the dealers at the fair price shops do not have to manually keep the records of every beneficiary anymore. The device also checks for duplication of ration card holders,” adds Ramarao.

(Ali is a reporting fellow with IndiaSpend.)

Courtesy: India Spend



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