The drastic economic fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic has fast-tracked an ongoing Indian government effort to digitalise its food security system and introduce portability for its beneficiaries.
Launched as a pilot in August last year, the One Nation One Ration Card (ONORC) scheme allowing individuals to receive subsidised food rations anywhere in India has received greater impetus as it could help the government draw migrant workers back to cities and revive the country’s economy.
The lockdown imposed in March because of the coronavirus – cases of which surged past the two-million mark this week – had forced many daily wage workers to return to their villages as they found themselves stranded in the cities with no means of earning a living.
ONORC allows its beneficiaries to get their rations from a fair-price shop anywhere in India by providing their ration card number and thumbprint or a scan of the iris, which are verified against the country’s national Aadhaar database.
Prior to this, beneficiaries could receive food rations only where their cards were registered.
Minister for Food and Public Distribution Ram Vilas Paswan tweeted last Saturday that the ONORC network had been expanded to cover 24 states, a move that would benefit more than 650 million individuals, including inter-state migrant workers.
Once all the states are linked to this scheme – officially expected by March 31 next year – it will cover more than 800 million people registered under the world’s biggest food security programme.
The 2013 National Food Security Act (NFSA) mandates that the federal government supply 5kg of foodgrains per person each month, at heavily subsidised prices, to 75 per cent of the population in rural areas and 50 per cent of the population in urban areas – which works out to around 67 per cent of the total population.
While the move to speed up portability has been widely welcomed, there have been demands to universalise access to subsidised foodgrains as a temporary measure, given the prolonged economic downturn as well as abundant stocks of foodgrains in government granaries.
“There is an urgency to this issue because there are so many field reports that indicate food consumption has gone down among people,” said Assistant Professor Dipa Sinha of the School of Liberal Studies at Ambedkar University Delhi.
She said the ONORC scheme is “absolutely not” a solution to the current hunger crisis, although it is being pushed as one. “Even if it works really smoothly and according to plan, it won’t be ready before another year,” she said.
One Nation One Ration Card allows its beneficiaries to get their rations from a fair-price shop anywhere in India by providing their ration card number and thumbprint or a scan of the iris, which are verified against the country’s national Aadhaar database.
There are also numerous challenges that the government will have to overcome so that the ONORC system works effectively. These include ensuring supply networks are able to respond to a sudden increase in demand for foodgrains at any one location because of an increased influx of migrant workers.
Associate Professor Reetika Khera of the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi told The Straits Times that the ONORC system could even enable corruption.
A dealer in a city, for instance, could give a migrant worker only his individual share of foodgrains but may also record the share of his other family members back in the village in the transaction, she said. “That kind of obfuscation and cheating by the dealer is something that this technology can enable.”
There also are concerns that millions of potential beneficiaries remain excluded from the public distribution system, according to an April study by Prof Khera and fellow academics Jean Dreze and Meghana Mungikar.
This is because the government still uses the decennial 2011 Census population figure of 1.21 billion to calculate beneficiaries covered by the NFSA.
However, the population now stands at 1.37 billion. A 67 per cent share of this amounts to 922 million, which means that over 100 million people entitled to food rations are not getting them.
Even registered beneficiaries have trouble accessing rations because of unreliable Internet access in rural areas as well as instances when thumb impressions become unreadable. Fingerprints are known to fade because of age and manual labour. Moreover, seniors or people with disabilities are unable to walk to the distribution sites to verify their identities.
“Portability will ride on Aadhaar, which, as we know, is a tool of exclusion, not inclusion,” said Prof Khera. “The ONORC is the new avatar of the old Aadhaar menace.”
There have been suggestions to instead adopt smart cards that would take away vulnerabilities that come from the use of biometrics as well as the need for real-time Internet access to conduct transactions.