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What is ration card portability? How will the ‘One Nation One Ration Card’ scheme be carried out? What are the challenges? (Relevant for GS Prelims & Mains Paper III; Economics)

The Bharatiya Janata Party government is showcasing the rollout of the ‘One Nation One Ration Card’ scheme as one of the biggest achievements of its first 100 days in power. The launch of the nationwide food security net is scheduled for June 2020, but several challenges remain before migrants can take advantage of full portability.

What is the scheme about?
India runs the world’s largest food security programme, distributing more than 600 lakh tonnes of subsidised food grain to more than 81 crore beneficiaries every year. This is done through a vast network of more than five lakh ration or fair price shops. Under the National Food Security Act (NFSA), each beneficiary is eligible for five kg of subsidised grains per month at the rate of Rs. 3/kg for rice, Rs. 2/kg for wheat and Rs. 1/kg of coarse cereals.

However, until recently, this has been a location-linked benefit, leaving crores of migrant workers and families out of the food safety net. Each household’s ration card is linked to a specific fair price shop and can only be used to buy rations in that particular shop. Over the last few years, 10 States (partially in one) have implemented the Integrated Management of Public Distribution System, which allows beneficiaries to buy rations from any fair price shop within that State.

The Centre is now in the process of expanding these efforts into a nationwide portability network which is called the ‘One Nation One Ration Card’ scheme. It is scheduled to come into full effect by June 2020, after which a ration card holder can buy subsidised grain at any fair price shop in the country.

What are the benefits? Who will gain the most?
The main beneficiaries of the scheme are the country’s migrant workers. According to data from the Census 2011, there are more than 45 crore internal migrants in India, of whom more than half have not completed primary education, while 80% have not completed secondary education. Lower levels of education are linked to lower income, which would make a large percentage of these migrants eligible for NFSA benefits.Apart from this, field studies estimate that four crore to ten crore people are short-term migrants, often working in cities, but not moving there permanently. Women who change locations after marriage also find it difficult to start accessing ration benefits using a new household’s card.

The Centre hopes that allowing ration card portability will also curb corruption and improve access and service quality by removing monopolies. Under the old system, beneficiaries were dependent on a single fair price shop and subject to the whims of its dealer. Under the new system, if they are denied service or face corruption or poor quality in one shop, they are free to head to a different shop.

The scheme is also driving the faster implementation of initiatives to digitise and integrate the food storage and public distribution system.

What is needed to make it work?
The scheme involves the creation of a central repository of NFSA beneficiaries and ration cards, which will integrate the existing databases maintained by States, Union Territories and the Centre. Aadhaar seeding is also important as the unique biometric ID will be used to authenticate and track the usage of ration by beneficiaries anywhere in the country.

Currently, it is estimated that around 85% of ration cards are linked to Aadhaar numbers.

For the scheme to work, it is critical that all fair price shops are equipped with electronic point-of-sale machines (ePoS), replacing the old method of manual record-keeping of transactions with a digital real-time record. On the back-end, the Food Corporation of India’s Depot Online System is integrating all warehouses and godowns storing subsidised grain in an attempt to create a seamless flow of online information from procurement until distribution.

What is the progress so far?
Two pairs of States — Andhra Pradesh-Telangana and Maharashtra-Gujarat — became the first to begin implementing portability between their States last month. From October 1, two more pairs — Kerala-Karnataka and Rajasthan-Haryana — will join the experiment. By January, all eight States and at least three others which already implement intra-State portability will form the first national grid for the ‘One Nation One Ration Card’ scheme.

What are the difficulties ahead?
There are only 4.32 lakh ePoS machines which have been installed in more than 5.3 lakh fair price shops.

In some States, the challenge comes from the difference between ration benefits offered by the State in comparison to the Central entitlement. Tamil Nadu, for example, offers 20 kg of free rice per month to almost 2 crore ration card holders, as well as subsidised sugar, pulses and oil, over and above the NFSA benefits. The State government has made it clear that it will not be offering these benefits to migrant workers, as the Centre will cover the costs of NFSA benefits only.

Another issue could arise if the members of a single household are split between two different locations. The scheme’s guidelines only permit 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, leaving family members in a different location stranded without food.

The biggest challenge may lie in the lack of any concrete data on inter-State migration trends, especially short-term migration. The allocation of food grains to States will have to be dynamic to allow for quick additional delivery to cover any shortfalls in States with large migrant populations. Currently, Food Corporation of India godowns stock grains up to three months in advance. Food Ministry officials acknowledged that there is a “steep learning curve” ahead to ensure that movement of grain matches migration flows.

Source: The Hindu



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