A prominent consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic was an increase in food insecurity globally, particularly in underdeveloped nations where hunger and malnutrition are epidemics. Middle class workers, the destitute and the downtrodden were affected the worst due to the collapse of livelihood opportunities and consequent exodus from urban regions. The inability to obtain local ration cards, which could be used to receive government subsidized commodities through the Public Distribution System, was one of the key reasons for the rising food insecurity among these groups. Millions of migrants who did not ‘belong’ to their workplace lacked documentation that would have allowed them to receive PDS rations and other social security benefits.
The One Nation, One Ration Card (ONORC) scheme is thought to be a ‘citizen-centric’ reform. It seeks to guarantee that beneficiaries, particularly migrant workers and their families have access to rations under the National Food Security Act (NFSA) and other welfare schemes at any Fair Price Store (FPS) across the nation. The ONORC has been intended to expand the access to PDS benefits by NFSA recipients, by allowing them to use the benefits even if they were allocated to a different FPS. Prior to the ONORC, ration card holders could only obtain their entitlements at a Fair Price Shop (FPS) or ration shop where they were enrolled. As a result, a migrant worker who relocated to another city or town typically had little choice except to forego PDS rationing. Individuals had to shell out extra money from their own pockets to buy food grains from grocery stores at open market prices, rather than obtaining food grains from FPS at subsidized costs.
While causing a public-health crisis, the COVID-19 epidemic caused havoc on the working classes, inducing unemployment and extreme poverty. As a result of the abrupt lockdowns, many people were left without work, homes or even food. As a result, a substantial number of migratory workers began to return to their hometowns, where they may still be eligible for PDS benefits. With limited transportation options and rising poverty, many people set out on long, hard trips on foot and some died along the way. There was an essential necessity for subsidies and incentives. ONORC was intended to be an interstate program, but the COVID-19 epidemic highlighted the critical necessity for its nationwide adoption. As a result, the Government announced its countrywide roll-out as part of the economic relief initiatives in March 2021. At present, thirty-two states and union territories have completed the scheme’s formalities, which include connecting recipients’ ration cards to their Aadhaar IDs and installing e-Point of Sale (e-POS) machines in each FPS. This flexibility of choice is a significant value-added service to each NFSA recipient. Portability is implemented at two levels: intra-state (inter-district or intra-district) and inter-state. The complete mobility of food subsidies under the National Food Security Act (NFSA) of 2013 is dependent on the digitization of the Public Distribution System (PDS), which is a network of over 5,00,000 fair-price stores (FPS).
The process of accessing the PDS is influenced by one’s social identities (caste, gender and class) and other surrounding variables (Public Distribution System). Migrant labourers account for almost 37% of the Indian population. The ONORC initiative guarantees the right to food for all Indian citizens, regardless of their geographical location. As a result, this programme is critical for all those who regularly migrate from one location to another, ensuring food security to one-third of the country’s population. Despite previously permitting the right to food, One Nation One Ration Card (ONORC) envisions removing the demographic barrier to enabling the right to food. The One Nation, One Ration Card scheme, on the other hand, benefits underprivileged people, notably women. Deduplication is a core component of the ONORC system. This would also decrease leakage and ensures that a person is not identified as a beneficiary in two phases. Furthermore, this plan is coupled with biometrics such as Aadhaar, which would prevent corruption to some level, while also lowering system leakages.
Since, it is the responsibility of the States/UTs to disseminate foodgrains to TPDS beneficiaries, they have been primarily entrusted with undertaking publicity and awareness generation campaigning for the initiative in respective States/UTs, as well as enabling a dedicated 14445 toll-free number for ONORC operations. Many practical issues are anticipated to arise throughout the scheme’s implementation. PDS around the country differs in terms of the commodities offered through fair price shops to Below-Poverty-Line (BPL) cardholders due to historical, political and differing consumption trends. Even the number and price of products offered differs by state.
The following points discuss the challenges associated with the One Nation, One Ration Card scheme:
PDS (Public Distribution System) digitalization has been well covered by Aadhaar-linked ration cards and other smart cards, thereby minimizing leaks. The ONORC is only accessible if the Aadhaar-based authentication is successful. Unfortunately, the extent to which Aadhaar is seeded on ration cards varies in every state. According to several studies, e-PoS (electronic point-of-sale machine)-based ONORC transactions fail frequently, owing to biometric authentication or network failure. However, we may detect an increase in exclusion mistakes following Aadhaar seeding. Some segments of society continue to lack access to Aadhaar Cards. As a result, certain segments of society are deprived of food security.
PDS around the country differs in terms of the commodities offered through fair price shops to Below-Poverty-Line (BPL) cardholders, due to historical, political and differing consumption trends. Even the quantity and cost of items offered differs by state. The majority of states supply rice and wheat. However, few states supply solely wheat to BPL households and even fewer provide only rice. Price variations for the commodities offered across states may make things tough and confusing for the floating population that choose ration portability. Clarity is required on the things obtained by a migrant labourer from fair price shops.
The FPS receives a monthly ration of food grains as per the number of ration cards linked with it, after prior approval of concerned official from the department and One Nation One Ration Card programme will completely destabilize FPS. Some FPSs may have to cater a greater number of ration cards than others which can wreak even more havoc on FPSs. Several reports reveal that e-PoS are distributed unevenly across the country, with a few states lagging well behind the others. This demonstrates the challenge of implementing automation in remote places with challenging terrain. The absence of automation in several states contributes to the region’s generally weak implementation of ONORC.
The ‘One Nation, One Ration Card’ initiative implies integrating current PDS systems or portals of states and UTs with those of the Centre under a single repository of all NFSA ration cards and beneficiaries. The Central Repository must assure that there are no duplicate ration cards or beneficiaries in any state or territory.
The quality of food grains supplied by FPS might vary both within and across states. In some states, the PDS basket has more goods or a greater amount of an item, but in others, the basket contains only a few things. The quality of services is also significantly lower for subaltern groups, with implicit discriminatory strategies, such as lack of information, mixing of poorer grains, longer waiting periods and, at times, verbal abuse.
Another significant task for the Government would be to investigate the seasonality of migration, in order to ensure that recipients do not lose their benefits. The Centre can provide foodgrains to various states under the NFSA based on the flawless automation of PDS across the country. The use of technology such as the complete installation of sufficient e-PoS devices at FPSs and the computerization of supply chain management of FCI activities will aid in enhancing overall process efficiency, while maintaining transparency and reducing corruption.
Recommendations for Effective Implementation
Beneficiaries must be informed about the availability of portability via their chosen channels, which include PDS distributors and the associated press. Priority categories, such as migrant construction workers and marginalized women should be addressed specifically through tailored awareness campaigns. Furthermore, PDS dealers must be advised that beneficiaries are eligible for inter-state mobility. Raising awareness can help the estimated 1 million families that are not aware of the campaign.
FPS’s technology must be updated to allow for greater connectivity, which will lower the risk of connectivity-induced transaction failures. Furthermore, unambiguous exception-handling procedures should be provided and followed in letter and spirit for cases when authentication fails. When inadequate connectivity or authentication failures delay the process, State Governments may be able to formulate guidelines for providing rations to consumers. These regulations should then be conveyed to PDS dealers and beneficiaries so that all parties involved are aware of the procedure that must be followed in the event of a transaction failure. Allowing PDS dealers to requisition flexible supplies when they run low will allow them to satisfy variable demand.
Furthermore, using data analytics to spot trends and fluctuations in portability acceptance helps enhance demand planning and more precisely estimate demand. As a result, ration purchase, allocation, storage and distribution may be more successfully handled. These methods have the potential to lessen PDS dealers’ fear of stock-outs, which is now a substantial barrier to offering their services to clients.
Furthermore, portability empowers regular PDS consumers by allowing them to avoid stock-outs or prejudice by obtaining rations from any FPS of their choice. However, the aforementioned significant deficiencies must be solved in order to fully realize ONORC’s potential.
While ONORC has the ability to improve achievements, particularly for ethnocultural tribes, the entire value chain of making the system operate must be continuously monitored and supported by infrastructure. The availability and operation of point of sale (PoS) systems at PDS outlets must be assured to prevent compromises in entitlements. Because of unemployment, migration is certain to resume. Before moving to a new location, people must have their PDS cards, which are valid across India. ONORC is the most significant change of the public distribution ecology since the implementation of Food Security Act. It would give food security to jobless migrants and contribute to the achievement of SDG 2: Putting an end to hunger by 2030.
Note: (The Opinions expressed by the Author in this article are based on a review of secondary data available & research carried out by researchers. It has nothing to do with the organization he works for.)
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