While the unprecedented COVID-19 crisis has had a calamitous impact on all of us, the poorest of the poor have been the worst sufferers. The daily wage workers in India who migrate from the remote parts of the country to economically advanced cities in search of better opportunities were stripped of their economic security in the blink of an eye. Businesses crashed and all activities came to a complete standstill because of the nationwide lockdown. The lockdown put a full stop on all kinds of mobility and discontinued modes of transport. The public was in a state of frenzy, even the well-off strata was apprehensive about the supply of necessities and hence started hoarding. The government assured a continual supply of essential commodities to us but what about the migrant workers, were they given any certainty? In the absence of food security and of any means to commute, along with no pennies in their pocket, they indulged in reverse migration, back to their families.
Food security refers to ensuring adequate food supply for people, especially those who are deprived of basic nutrition, the bare minimum. There are 195 million undernourished people in India, adding up to a quarter of the global hunger burden, as per UN-India. Furthermore, India has recently been ranked 94 out of 107 countries in the Global Hunger Index and has been placed in the ‘serious’ hunger category. As an attempt to alleviate the ill effects of the hunger crisis, the National Food Security Act (NFSA) came into force in 2013. Economist Jean Dreze called this bill an “investment in human capital”. According to the NFSA, 810 million people are entitled to subsidised food grains. The prices of rice, wheat and coarse grain have been set at ₹3, ₹2, and ₹1 per kg respectively. About 235 million ration cards have been issued to nearly 810 million beneficiaries.
These ration card holders can lift their share of the food grains from the designated Fair Price Shop (FPS) in their locality, where they reside. For instance, if a family resides in Bastar in Chhattisgarh and a few members move to Delhi to work on a construction site, they will no longer be able to purchase their quota of food at subsidised rates from a Public Distribution Shop (PDS) shop in Delhi. This limitation of the existing system divests a large migratory population of their allotted proportion of ration. The national rollout of ‘One Nation, One Ration Card’ is a welcome move in this light. Under this scheme, the beneficiaries can get their share from any of the 540,000 fair price shops across the length and breadth of India. This reform is expected to attain success at a pan-India level by March 31, 2021. However, two prerequisites for the same are 100% installation of Electronic Point of Sale (ePoS) devices and 100% Aadhaar seeding.
The technological solution to the problem posed by the earlier system entails identification through biometric authentication on ePoS devices installed at the FPSs. A question might pop up: What is an ePoS? It is a device that electronically records the distribution of ration to different ration cardholders. Connectivity issues are stated as one major bottleneck in the seamless functioning of the framework. However, ePoS also works in offline mode, according to officials. It will most certainly reduce the manual recording of transactions in registers by the dealers. 90% of the PDS shops have been equipped with these devices. As far as the linkage of ration cards with Aadhaar number is concerned, 90% of the 235 million ration cards issued have been seeded.
Integrated Management of Public Distribution System (IMPDS) and Annavitran are two portals that will help in smooth facilitation of the process at the inter and intra-state level correspondingly. Talking about one more intricacy, the card will now be in a bilingual format, one of the languages will be the local one and the other can either be Hindi or English. This is because when the recipient is not in his/her native place, there should be ease in comprehending the details and uniformity should be maintained.
Critical challenges in realising the goal are studying and record-keeping of labour migration patterns. If a family is scattered in two locations, reconciling data at both locations would be a major task. Food Corporation of India (FCI) godowns and other storage facilities need to function parallel to the demand for grains created by the immigration/emigration of the labour force. Just a recent illustration of the change in demand for goods because of reverse migration is that of the Flipkart and Amazon festive sale. Sales doubled up in the first two days when compared to the 2019 edition. In the wake of discounts, an upswing in new shoppers from Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities has been witnessed.
Currently, the interstate ration card portability cluster is 28 states and union territories strong. Some states with an influx of labour are still laggards in the instalment of ePoS and undertaking biometric authentication. States like West Bengal and Assam, which are still not on board need to be pushed to complete the necessary requirements for true integration of state portals to that of the centre. Computerisation of the supply network of FCI will boost the efficacy and help translate the chalked down scheme into a wholesome reality. Once fully implemented, the scheme is sure to uplift the country in the Global Hunger Index. Will it mitigate the suffering of the downtrodden section dying, helplessly walking miles trying to shelter themselves, unable to feed themselves, let alone two but even one square meal? Let us choose to be optimistic in this regard. Even a step forward in the right direction is progress for humankind.
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