India fast-tracks digitalisation of its food security programme amid economic downturn

A man distributes food to homeless people during a day-long complete Covid-19 lockdown imposed by the state government in Kolkata on Aug 5, 2020.
A man distributes food to homeless people during a day-long complete Covid-19 lockdown imposed by the state government in Kolkata on Aug 5, 2020.PHOTO: AFP

NEW DELHI - 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 had forced many daily wage workers to return to their villages as they found themselves stranded with no means to earn a living. A continuing labour shortage in cities has hampered resumption of industrial activity as workers stay away fearing a repeat of their bitter experience in March. Many districts also continue to impose localised lockdowns to curb the spread of Covid-19, which has surged past two million cases this week.

The ONORC allows its beneficiaries to draw their share of food grains from a fair-price shop anywhere in India by providing their ration card number, and thumb impression or a scan of the iris, that is verified against the country’s national Aadhaar database. 

Beneficiaries, prior to this, could receive food rations only where their cards were registered.

Minister for Food and Public Distribution Ram Vilas Paswan tweeted on Aug 1 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 food grains 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. This 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 food grains as a short-term temporary measure, given the prolonged economic downturn due to the pandemic, as well as abundant stocks of food grains 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 Dr Dipa Sinha, an assistant professor at the School of Liberal Studies at Ambedkar University Delhi.

She told The Straits Times the ONORC scheme is not a solution to the current hunger crisis even though it is being pushed as one.

"That it is not at all, absolutely not. Even if it works really smoothly and according to plan, it won't be ready before another year," Dr Sinha added.

There are also numerous challenges the government will have to overcome so that the ONORC system works effectively. This includes ensuring supply networks are able to respond to a sudden increase in demand for food grains at any one location because of an increased influx of migrant workers.

 
 
 

Dr Reetika Khera, an associate professor of economics at the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, told ST 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 food grains but may record the share of his other family members back in the village also in the transaction. "That kind of obfuscation and cheating by the dealer is something that this technology can enable," she said.

Countering such instances of leakages from the public distribution network requires awareness and empowerment of beneficiaries, as well as setting up an effective grievance redressal mechanism, according to Dr Khera. "These are the first-order issues with India's public distribution system that the government is not working on."

There also are concerns that millions of potential beneficiaries remain excluded from the public distribution system, according to an April study by academics Jean Drèze, Reetika Khera 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 - 813 million individuals,

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 also manual labour. Moreover, the elderly or disabled 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," Dr Khera added. "The ONORC is the new avatar of the old Aadhaar menace."

There have been suggestions instead to adopt smart cards that would take away vulnerabilities that come in from the use of biometrics, and the need for real-time Internet access to conduct transactions.