One Nation, One Ration Card and the hurdles ahead

While this scheme would bring perceptible changes to the lives of India’s internal migrant workers, challenges lie ahead in designing and implementing it

By Umi Daniel
Published: Friday 12 July 2019
A labourer takes a nap in Mumbai. Photo: Getty Images
A labourer takes a nap in Mumbai. Photo: Getty Images A labourer takes a nap in Mumbai. Photo: Getty Images

The Union Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution recently announced that the One Nation, One Ration Card scheme would be introduced from July 1, 2020.

The scheme seeks to facilitate portability of subsidised food grains for internal migrant workers, provided their ration card is digitalised and linked with Aadhar.

According to Union Minister of Consumer Affairs, Ram Vilas Paswan, intra-state access to the Public Distribution System (PDS) under the Integrated Management of Public Distribution System (IMPDS), an online database of ration cards, is already in practice in a few states like Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Haryana, Jharkhand, Karnataka and Kerala.

As a result of the programme, universal access to PDS food grains has been accessible to people within these states.

‘One Nation, One Ration Card’ will bring perceptible changes in the lives of vulnerable migrant workers in India. The food rationing and PDS system was begun during the famine of 1940, and was revived in 1970 as a universal food entitlement programme for Indian citizens.

Post-liberalisation, in 1997, the universal food scheme was made a targeted one, covering poor and vulnerable people. Later, in 2013, due to civil society and judicial influence, the landmark National Food Security Act (NFSA) was passed by Parliament. It made the right to food a legal entitlement for two-thirds of poor households in India.

From the inception of the food rationing system in India, a series of reforms have been carried out to identify legitimate beneficiaries, fix per capita food grain, include the most vulnerable people, digitalise and authenticate, in order to improve its target and efficiency.

India has been on the move. 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.

According to some academic estimation, the seasonal rural-to-urban migration in India is somewhere around 10 crore people, who work as informal workers in urban areas.

The incidence of mobility of poor people from poor and backward states is rising mostly due to the current agrarian crisis, unemployment, poverty and vulnerability resulting out of natural disasters.

Among poor households, a large number prefer their male members to migrate whereas some migrate with their families. The key sectors which are accommodating migrating workers are construction, brick kilns, plantations, agriculture, manufacturing, services and other informal sectors.

Usually, the migrant workers in these sectors are excluded from accessing PDS at their place of work. 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.  

That internal migration in India is huge is evident from the 2011 Census data. It indicates that 45.36 crore people or 37 per cent of the total population of India are migrants. On the other hand, migration for work and employment accounted for 10.22 per cent, which is about 4.3 crore people.

Migration data on people engaged in informal work within the state and inter-state destinations is yet to be captured through any systematic survey or enumeration.

Similarly, capturing information on the patterns of migration and especially seasonal or circular migration is hardly being done either at the state or national level.

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.  

To further understand the issue of migration for employment, sample the 64th round National Sample Survey Organisation data for 2007-08. It suggests that nearly 55 per cent of rural households and 67 per cent of urban ones had migrated for employment-related reasons.

A cohort-based estimation of inter-state migration was attempted in the 2017 National Economic Survey. It recorded that close to nine million people move from and to different locations for employment.

Furthermore, the working group on Migration formed by the Union Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation made a number of recommendations for inclusion of migrant workers through special migrant, caste-based enumeration and argued for inter-state portability of PDS.

Challenges of design and implementation

The ‘One Nation, One Ration Card’ will mostly assist seasonal and circular migrant workers to have better access to PDS, both, at source and destination. The authorities can be expected to encounter hard-hitting ground realities for designing and implementing the scheme.

The first hurdles will be to have exact data on the mobility of poor households migrating to work, locating intra- and inter-state destinations and sectors employing the workers.

Secondly, the domicile-based legislation for accessing government schemes and social security needs serious rethinking before making ‘One Nation, One Ration Card’ portable.

NFSA defines food security as nutritional security. Therefore, portability of Integrated Child Development Services, Mid-Day Meals, immunisation, health care and other facilities for poor migrant households can’t be neglected and should be made portable.

Thirdly, the ‘One Nation, One Ration Card’ is based on two important guiding principles: Aadhar and digitalisation of ration cards. It is feared that both Aadhar and digital ration card may exclude either a person who migrates alone, or migrates with his family or the left-behind vulnerable family member who stays back in the village.

The Rastriya Sawthya Bima Yojna (RSBY), the national health insurance scheme of the Indian government, had an interesting component of splitting the unique insurance card to help both migrants and those left behind.

This component from RSBY may be adopted in devising PDS access to both migrants and those left behind. Moreover, Aadhar seeding and the biometric authentication of eligible migrant workers at the destination may create obstacles for hassle-free access to PDS both, at source and destination.

Finally, there are multiple social security, welfare, food and anti-poverty schemes in India, in addition to an array of labour laws.

On the other hand, the poor and vulnerable population is more mobile today in searching for better livelihoods, wages and opportunities for their families beyond their native villages.

They certainly need a better access to both, welfare and labour laws to protect their rights and entitlements.

Therefore, the ‘One Nation, One Ration Card’ should create inclusion in food schemes, both, at source and destination, without negating the very spirit of ensuring household food security of the migrant family.

Umi Daniel is Director, migration and education, Aide et Action International

Subscribe to Weekly Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.