By Sandip Das
The government has made a ‘soft launch’ for rolling out nation-wide portability for an estimated 23 crore ration card holders by June 1, 2020. The key aim in introducing of nation-wide ration card portability under the National Food Security Act, 2013 is to facilitate ration card holders lifting their foodgrains from any of the 5.4 lakh fair price shops (FPS) of their choice, without needing to obtain new ration card. According to food ministry officials, the key focus of the scheme is ensuring that beneficiaries covered under NFSA are not denied their rations because of inter-state migration.
Currently, a large chunk of the labour force mostly covered under NFSA travels from states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, etc, to more economically advanced states, such as Punjab, Haryana, Maharashtra, in search of livelihood. This migration pattern is seasonal, especially at the beginning of the sowing of rabi and kharif crops, and during their harvesting.
Often, few members of a family migrate to other states, thus depriving them of subsidised foodgrain entitlements under NFSA. Along with inter-state migration, there is migration within states for economic reasons as well.
“This initiative shall be helpful for the large migratory population of the country, who migrate from one part of the country to another in search of job or employment, marriage, or any other reason, and find difficulty in accessing subsidised foodgrains in the present system,” food minister Ram Vilas Paswan has said recently, after launching the inter-state portability in two clusters of adjoining states—Andhra Pradesh & Telangana, and Gujarat & Maharashtra. This would enable beneficiaries from either state’s cluster to avail the NFSA benefits from any of the two states.
Currently, in four states—Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Gujarat, and Maharashtra—both intra-state and inter-state portability of ration card is being implemented. Seven other states—Haryana, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Kerala, Punjab, Rajasthan and Tripura—are, at present, testing intra-state portability that would allow beneficiaries to lift their quota of ration from any FPS store within that state.
Food Secretary, Ravi Kant, has said that inter-state portability of ration card will be implemented in these 11 states by January 2020: “By January 2020, these 11 states will be formed as one grid, where ration card will be made portable. It means beneficiaries can buy ration from any one of these 11 states.”
The ‘one nation, one ration card’ entails integration of the existing PDS systems or portals of states and UTs with those of the Centre under a central repository of all NFSA ration cards and beneficiaries. The central repository also ensures that no duplicate ration cards and beneficiaries exist in any state or UT.
However, a critical factor which would impact the country-wide roll out of this initiative is studying, recording and regularly updating labour migration patterns. Especially, when a few members of a family that owns a ration card migrates for few months, reconciling the data at both locations would be a critical challenge. “The allocation of the foodgrains to states would have to be dynamic, based on the lifting of foodgrains captured on a monthly basis across states,” an official stated. On the storage distribution front, Food Corporation of India (FCI) godowns have to operate in tandem, considering the needs arising in particular states. Presently, FCI godowns store three months’ stock in advance, keeping in mind demand from a state or region.
Another challenge is that currently, around 77% of FPSs—4.12 lakh of the 5.34 lakh operating across the country—have installed electronic Point of Sale (ePoS) machines. Two key states—West Bengal and Bihar—that witness huge labour emigration, have been laggards in this regard. According to data presented by the food ministry in the Lok Sabha recently, Bihar has installed ePoS devices at only 62 of its 41,483 FPSs. In West Bengal, only 366 FPSs out of the total 20,806 have ePoS machines.
Food ministry officials said that ePoS devices serve to authenticate of beneficiaries and electronically record subsidised foodgrain distribution to them. “As compared to earlier practice of manual record-keeping of the transactions, the ePoS-based transactions have the advantage that the FPS dealers are not required to manually make separate entries of foodgrain distribution in registers and ration cards of the beneficiaries,” the official said. While officials admitted that ePoS machines do experience some connectivity issues, these devices can also work in offline mode.
According to the food ministry, more than than 4.1 lakh ePoS devices are already operational across the country; 25 states/UTs have either completed the installation in all FPSs or have made significant progress in this area. (see graphic). More than 85% of the total 23 crore ration cards (at least one member) in the country have been seeded with the Aadhaar numbers of the beneficiaries.
For rolling out the one nation, one ration card move pan-India, all PDS shops should install ePoS machines and all ration cards have to be seeded with Aadhaar numbers. Thus, much depends on the two states of Bihar and West Bengal, where 1.54 crore and 5.62 crore individual ration cards, respectively, have to be seeded with Aadhar cards, and ePoS machines installed at all the FPSs, over the next few months.
Another key challenge for the government would be studying seasonality of migration so that beneficiaries are not deprived of their entitlements. Based on seamless automation of PDS across the country, the Centre can allocate foodgrains under NFSA to respective states. At present, around 61 million tonnes of mostly rice and wheat are stored at warehouses of FCI, Central Wearhousing Corporation, State Wearhousing Corporations and private godowns, and are distributed among 81 crore beneficiaries annually.
Use of technologies like installation of ePoS machines at FPSs and computerisation of supply chain management of FCI operations would help in increasing the overall efficiency of the entire process, while maintaining transparency and curbing corruption.
All states have to be on-board in terms of adoption of technologies so that beneficiaries across the country are provided with subsidised foodgrains under NFSA.
The author is Senior consultant with ICRIER
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