In his sixth address to the nation since the coronavirus lockdown began in March, Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Tuesday announced that India would move towards a “one nation, one ration card” system to help the poor across the country. The announcement comes at a time when the NDA-ruled Centre has been facing flak for its alleged mismanagement of the exodus of guest workers triggered by the lockdown.
“In the coming times, for all of India, there will be one single ration card, which will benefit those poor workers who are living in other states,” the prime minister said.
The PM also announced that the supply of free foodgrain to the poor, a scheme named PM Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana (PMGKAY) that began three months ago, will continue until the end of November. This will entail an additional expenditure of Rs 90,000 crore to provide free grain to around 80 crore people, in addition to the Rs 60,000 crore already spent.
“Until November 2020, we will continue to provide five kilos of free rice or wheat as well as one kilo of free chana (lentil) to feed 80 crore poor under the PM Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana (PMGKAY),” the prime minister said and added that Rs 31,000 crore have been deposited in the bank accounts of 20 crore people in the last three months.
The one nation, one ration card system will enable guest workers and their families to access PDS benefits from any fair price shop (FPS) in the country. In the present system, a ration card holder can only access the PDS from the FPS in his or her locality. Under the new system, he or she can buy subsidised grain from an FPS in another state too. This will be made possible through biometric authentication on electronic Point of Sale (ePoS) devices.
By January 2020, at least 12 states joined the “one nation, one ration card” initiative; eight more joined by June 1. While announcing her second trench of the Aatmanirbhar package, finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman had said that 67 crore people will be covered under the policy by August this year. The government aims to make it pan-India by March next year.
Today's address to the nation was an attempt by the PM to put speed on his next project of bringing the entire country under one welfare umbrella over which the central government would have a greater say unlike in the present system where welfare disbursement is largely left to the states. The great distress felt by guest workers immediately after the corona lockdown serves as a ready rationale for bringing in this move at this jucnture. A single ration card system would reduce the chances of large-scale migration during a crisis like the lockdown.
But there will, however, be issues. Biometric authentication will obviously involve Aadhar, which has been under the scanner for issues like privacy and fake cards. An IndiaSpend report has noted 164 Aadhar-related frauds – including forged IDs – between 2011 and 2018.
An IIM professor has also pointed out that biometric ePoS can cause community transmission of coronavirus. “The Centre must stop Aadhaar-based biometric authentication (ABBA) immediately because of the risk of transmission,” Professor Ritika Khera wrote in an article published on a website. She argued that ABBA would lead to more transaction costs and exclusion of the needy.
Then there is the logistics of making grain availability uniform across states, factoring for ups and downs, and the need to secure these supply lines and make them all-weather.
Another loophole is technical: A 2019 guideline stated that only half the subsidised grains can be bought at one time. If a large migrant family is split in different areas, then things can get difficult. The poor connectivity and coverage of ePoS in states like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh – big source pools of migration – would hamper the noble intentions of a portable ration card.
The issue also brings the issue of federalism into question. PDS is a concurrent subject; the Centre is primarily associated with maintaining the Food Corporation of India warehouses, while states are solely responsible for identifying eligible families, ration cards and supervising FPSs. In the new system, states hosting migrants – like Gujarat or Maharashtra – will face additional burden of feeding them. In addition, inter-state migration data is poorly maintained in India. The Centre could turn into an arbitrator, making the Union government more powerful.
The repeated failure of the Centre to release states’ GST dues on time and the financial burden due to the lockdown does not help matters. As per the GST Act, the states will be compensated for revenue losses until 2022. However, poor tax collections have only piled up the dues while states look towards the Centre for relief. A 2019 research suggested that states will face a Rs 1.2 lakh revenue gap after the five-year period is over.
With the lockdown straining the state governments and GST figures likely to take a hit, the fiscal weakening of states is likely to continue. In this context, the PM talking about increasing spending under the PMGKAY only pointed towards the tightening of Centre’s grip over welfarism.