Context: Restructuring PDS to meet goals of ‘One Nation, one Ration Card’.
‘One nation-one ration card’ scheme:
- The government rolled out nation-wide portability for an estimated 23 crore ration card holders by June 1, 2020.
- The key aim in introducing of nation-wide ration card portability under the National Food Security Act, 2013 is to facilitate ration card holders lifting their foodgrains from any of the 5.4 lakh fair price shops (FPS) of their choice, without needing to obtain new ration card.
- The key focus of the scheme is ensuring that beneficiaries covered under NFSA are not denied their rations because of inter-state migration.
- Currently, in four states i.e, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Gujarat, and Maharashtra both intra-state and inter-state portability of ration card is being implemented.
- Seven other states, Haryana, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Kerala, Punjab, Rajasthan and Tripura are, at present, testing intra-state portability that would allow beneficiaries to lift their quota of ration from any FPS store within that state.
Need for one ration card:
- Migration: The mobility of the poor inside the country for employment is quite complex and multifaceted. A majority of poor households practice temporary or seasonal migration in India. The Economic Survey 2017 estimated that over nine million Indians change their state every year.
- Moreover, most of the anti-poverty, rural employment, welfare and food security schemes were historically based on domicile-based access and restricted people to access government social security, welfare and food entitlements at their place of origin.
- Bargaining power: Given the quintessential low bargaining power associated with the fact of being a migrant, the costs are generally steeper for migrant families.
- One Nation One Ration Card (ONORC), by doing away with duplication and eligibility-related cost escalations, will benefit them significantly.
- Failure of legislations: Although there are provisions under the Inter State Migrant Workers Act of 1979 to register inter-state migrant workers, state governments have failed to register such workers and create databases about them, either at source and destination.
- Discrimination: the experience with PDS depends considerably on the last node of delivery-the fair price shop (FPS). Across the three researched States Bihar, Odisha and Uttar Pradesh beneficiaries complained about discrimination by the dealers, especially against women and in terms of providing quality services.
- ONORC will give the beneficiaries the opportunity to opt for the dealer of their choice. If any dealer misbehaves or misallocates, the beneficiary can switch to another FPS shop instantly. A study by researchers at the Indian School of Business (ISB) found that over 25 per cent of Public Distribution System (PDS) beneficiaries in the Andhra Pradesh (interoperability at local level is in effect since October 2015) now use portability.
- Entitlement: There is widespread denial of entitlement, with households not getting the quantity or paying the price that they are entitled to. ONORC can shift the bargaining power from the PDS dealer towards beneficiaries. ONORC lets the beneficiaries choose the PDS shop that best delivers on the attributes.
Restructuring PDS: The State of Aadhaar Survey 2017-18 found that nearly 6.5 per cent of PDS beneficiaries in Rajasthan were denied ration because the shop owner claimed to be out of food grain. This translates to over 3.5 million people in Rajasthan alone.
Prior to a roll out of nationwide interoperability of ration cards, the government needs to focus on the following:
- Ensuring accountability: As happened in Rajasthan, a beneficiary has no mechanism to question whether the shop owner is telling the truth or diverting rations. There is need to redesign fundamental processes related to the PDS to empower every individual. Lessons from Andhra Pradesh:
- The state government collects feedback in real time through a mobile-based system.
- The central government should use this opportunity to make PDS more user-centric.
- It should track denial of service on a real-time basis through mobile-based surveys.
- It should commission research on the experiences of particularly vulnerable groups such as the elderly, migrants, disabled and tribals to modify the process where needed.
- It should enable beneficiaries to track the amount of food at nearby ration shops using their mobile phones.
- Strengthening Operational Backbone: States should be brought together on a national platform that is based on the same technical standards and can therefore interoperate so that portability works seamlessly across states. The system should enable real time tracking of inventories and rapid response to low stock situations.
- Tackling Authentication Failures: Studies by Indian School of Business (ISB) in multiple states point to a 1-3 per cent failure rate, potentially affecting 8-24 million people at a national scale. To prevent denial of service, the government should ensure availability of non-biometric means of authentication (such as OTP or PIN), as well as manual overrides.
- Addressing privacy concerns: While leveraging the power of Aadhaar for PDS, the government should actively address privacy and exclusion risks that the use of Aadhaar and a centralised PDS platform can lead to.
Conclusion: ‘One Nation-One Ration Card’ has the potential to improve outcomes particularly for the subaltern groups, like any delivery mechanism. However, the entire value chain of making the system work needs to be closely monitored and backed by infrastructure. The government should start by encouraging all states to roll out within-state portability. This will also increase their operational and technical capacity.