Since March 22, the day of the “janata curfew”, mainstream media in India has foregrounded the situation of urban workers like never before. Mainstream and social media has been flooded with videos and images of people walking as well as of urban workers who were stuck in hostile cities without food, even water and shelter at times.

An exhausted child being wheeled on a suitcase; another one playing with his mother’s shawl that unbeknown to the child was being used as a shroud for her; 12-year-old Jamalo, a chilly plantation worker in Andhra Pradesh, who died a few kilometres short of her village in Chhattisgarh – these are people we are unlikely to forget in a hurry.

The exodus has shaken many. Even among well-to-do Indians there is a sense that something must be done for urban workers. Few are able to comprehend how it could be that urban workers felt that walking hundreds of kilometres in the scorching sun was a better option than sitting out the lockdown, of uncertain length, in the city.

In response, the government recently announced that it would implement “One Nation, One Ration” in the Public Distribution System. It is widely believed that had “One Nation, One Ration” been in place during the lockdown, it would have ensured that migrant workers did not go hungry.

The PDS provides access to subsidised foodgrain through a network of ration outlets. The National Food Security Act, 2013, mandates that two-thirds of the population be given ration cards to access to the PDS. When the NFSA was rolled out, the Central government used 2011 population figures to fix coverage or the number of people who would be entitled to subsidised foodgrain. Due to increase in population, the Central government now covers closer to 60% (not 67%): around 81 crore Indians out of more than 130 crores today.

Persons entitled to subsidised grain under NFSA are issued either a “priority” (entitled to 5 kg per person per month) or “Antyodaya” (entitled to 35 kg per family per month) ration card . Some states extend PDS coverage beyond coverage caps imposed by NFSA, and issue their own non-NFSA ration cards. All such people are tied to a particular PDS outlet in their neighbourhood or village. Each PDS outlet serves a fixed number of ration cards, and it receives ration supplies from the Food Corporation of India based on the number it serves.

What does “One Nation, One Ration” seek to do? Details are awaited, but the idea is that for those who have access to it, PDS benefits will become “portable”. Portability means that a migrant worker from Bihar can draw their rations in the city that they work in, say, Delhi or Mumbai. At first sight, “One Nation, One Ration” sounds exactly like what we needed to deal with the current situation. The truth, however, is somewhat more complicated.

Four concerns

For one, of all the urban workers who we hope “One Nation, One Ration” would help, do we know how many have ration cards at all? Because “One Nation, One Ration” can only help if those who have access to the PDS. The announcement under the Atmanirbhar Bharat package to include eight crore migrants in the PDS suggests that many did not have ration cards.

Second, many urban workers migrate to the cities without their families. In such cases, they are likely to leave their ration card behind for the family to use at home. Today, in most states (barring, say, West Bengal), the PDS ration card is a family card, not an individual card. With today’s family-card based system either one (in the city) or the other (in the village) can use the ration card. Even if we use technology to fix this issue, one must be alert to the possibility of the PDS outlet in the city fraudulently recording the full family’s sales to the city-dweller. When family members back home go to buy rations they will then be told that their monthly ration has been lifted already. Another option would be to switch to an individual-card based system. This would be a non-trivial rejigging of the current system.

A queue for rations in Delhi. Credit: Supriya Sharma

The third issue of concern relates to inter-state arrangements under “One Nation, One Ration”. For instance, states like Tamil Nadu, Chhattisgarh and Himachal Pradesh run a universal or near-universal PDS, going well beyond the central government’s PDS coverage ratios, by using state resources. These states also give more commodities – for instance, dal and edible oil – at a subsidised price than the central government, which only covers the cost of wheat and rice. Some states provide extra price subsidy, over and above the central government’s subsidy – for instance, rice is free in Tamil Nadu instead of being given at the central price of Rs 3 per kg.

So, if a Bihari worker goes to Tamil Nadu to work, would he get free rice, and also get dal and oil? Or will the worker be denied these extra commodities? For a Himachali working in Chandigarh, will he stop getting subsidised dal and oil? There is the further matter of taste as well: will a rice-eating Jharkhandi worker be compelled to survive on wheat if he goes to work in Jaipur, Rajasthan, where the state government supplies only wheat through the PDS? These inter-state issues are not a simple matter because not only are there financial implications for the states and Centre, but there are logistical issues as well.

Indeed, the fourth issue to think about is related to supply logistics. As was mentioned earlier, today’s logistics are designed to supply a fixed quantity to each PDS outlet once a month, based on the number of people it serves. “One Nation, One Ration” would mean that the number of people served by a PDS outlet will fluctuate each month, so the supply logistics would have to be rejigged as well.

If 20 migrant workers from Madhya Pradesh show up at a ration outlet in Delhi, and are given their due, the outlet will have less grain for the regular PDS ration card holders. Reworking supply logistics to accommodate fluctuating sales is a major reform, fraught with difficulties, which could derail a system that today functions reasonably well – indeed, has demonstrably been a life-saver for millions through this crisis.

Scaling up disruption

“One Nation, One Ration” is technologically possible, but the real question is whether it is implementable. Aadhaar is the user-end technology that going to be used for “One Nation, One Ration”. It is now widely documented that the imposition of Aadhaar in the PDS has led to “pain without gain”: exclusion, hardship and higher transaction costs for the poor, without any benefits. States understand this: suspension of Aadhaar-based biometric authentication was among the early relief measures announced by several state governments during the lockdown.

The big worry about “One Nation, One Ration” is that the Aadhaar-enabled model of disruption will be scaled up nationally. Any policy or technology is only as good as its implementation.

Aadhaar biometric scanner at ration shop in Ajmer. Credit: Anumeha Yadav

From setting up community kitchens and providing dry ration kits to universalising the PDS, there are far more effective and obvious measures that the government could implement for urban workers. Universalising the PDS means extending central food subsidy to those, of the 50-odd crore people who are currently out of it, who want it. Some states, including Tamil Nadu, Himachal Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Odisha, already cover such people to varying extent using state resources.

A universal PDS is much better than having an arbitrary cap on coverage at 67% imposed by the NFSA. That the government chose to announce “One Nation, One Ration” over these reforms, suggests it is yet another attempt to deflect attention from actual solutions.