When 48-year-old Milan Kumar Jha read about the Modi government’s ‘One Nation One Ration’ scheme in a newspaper in February, he immediately rushed to the nearest government ration shop.

In the 30 years that he had been working in Mumbai, initially as a labourer and then as a rickshaw puller, Jha had not been able to access subsidised foodgrain in city ration shops, even though he and his family are enrolled in the public distribution system back home in their village in Bihar’s Madhubani district.

This is because, until recently, ration beneficiaries in India could only draw grain from the ration shop where they are registered, usually the one closest to their native homes. As a result, rural migrants, who come to work in cities and lack documentation to register in the urban public distribution system, are unable to access food support even during crises like the coronavirus lockdown.

But the newspaper report that Jha read in February claimed that all this had changed with One Nation One Ration, a scheme launched by the Central government in 2019, which was being implemented by states. Under the scheme, as long as an individual was enrolled under the National Food Security Act, they could access subsidised foodgrains from any ration shop anywhere in India.

For Jha, this was good news as his earnings barely crossed Rs 200 per day, making it difficult for him to feed himself and support his family. However, when he tried to access food rations in Mumbai, he was turned away by four ration shop dealers. “They kept telling me that it is a loss for them to give me grains,” Jha said.

Last week, taking note of the large-scale food distress in the wake of pandemic-induced lockdowns, the Supreme Court passed a wide-ranging order asking both the Central and state governments to shore up food support to migrant workers. One of its instructions was that all states should implement the One Nation One Ration scheme by the end of July. States like Delhi, West Bengal and Chhattisgarh are yet to implement the scheme.

But the poor coverage isn’t a result of implementation delays alone. Even in states like Maharashtra and Karnataka where the scheme became operational last year itself, few families had accessed the grains. Across India, this year till July 4, only 87,569 beneficiaries had received grains through the scheme, according to data from the Integrated Management of Public Distribution System portal.

State officials blamed the low off take on the lockdown. “Unfortunately the lockdown last year was a setback for this programme,” said K Rameshwarapa, deputy director of food and civil supplies in Karnataka. “All the people who came to Karnataka from other states, they left, and a majority have not come back.” Vilas Patil, secretary of food and civil supplies in Maharashtra, attributed the low numbers to the lack of awareness among migrant workers.

But conversations with ration card holders and shop dealers suggest the low coverage might have to do with deeper problems with the architecture of the scheme.

The use of Aadhaar

India has had a long-running public distribution system, which acquired legal muscle in 2013 when the country passed the National Food Security Act. The law mandates that the Central government supply 5 kg of foodgrains every month at subsidised prices to three-quarters of the rural population and half the urban population, which translates into food support for 67% of all Indians as per the 2011 census.

The Centre purchases grains from farmers and supplies them to state governments, which identify beneficiaries in every village and town and supervise ration shops that distribute the grains in fixed quotas at nominal prices.

In most states, the ration shops are run by private dealers for a small commission. Earlier, they were expected to maintain distribution logs through physical books. However, in recent years, several states have installed Aadhaar-enabled Point of Sale machines in ration shops, which scan the fingerprints of beneficiaries and electronically verify them using the centralised Aadhaar database – a process called Aadhaar-enabled biometric authentication. Only after this process is complete, does the dealer give the beneficiary their quota of grains.

Proponents of Aadhaar have pushed this as a technological solution to the alleged fudging of records and pilferage of grains by ration dealers. But critics point out that the use of fingerprint authentication in ration shops has been disruptive: many needy people have been unable to access their food entitlements either because their fingerprints are worn out, or because of patchy internet and machine failure to connect to the database.

These concerns prompted some states like Delhi to discontinue the use of Aadhaar-enabled biometric authentication in the public distribution system. However, the One Nation One Ration scheme is built on this technological model, and therefore, states like Delhi will have to reintroduce Aadhaar in ration shops.

Until now, states like Delhi, West Bengal, Assam and Chhattisgarh, which have not fully integrated Aadhaar into their public distribution system, have not registered any transactions in the scheme so far. In fact, 10% of ration shops in India – mostly in these states – are still to be equipped with Aadhaar-based point of sale machines.

In Chhattisgarh, the government allowed ration shop dealers to take photographs of beneficiaries instead of scanning their fingerprints using Aadhaar-enabled machines. Photo: Anumeha Yadav

Single migrant, family cards

The imagination driving the use of Aadhaar in One Nation One Ration is this: if a rural migrant from Bihar goes to a ration shop in Mumbai, Aadhaar authentication would allow them to establish their identity as a beneficiary under the National Food Security Act, even if they aren’t enrolled in the local public distribution system. Aadhaar authentication would also leave an electronic record of the transaction, making it impossible for the same beneficiary to draw grain in the same month from another outlet.

But Right to Food activists point out that the problem is that most rural migrants working in cities are single men whose families continue to live in the villages. Before the passage of the food security law, food entitlements were determined per family. But now, they are fixed at 5 kg per individual.

However, remnants of the old system continue in the form of family ration cards. Usually, one member of the family goes to the ration shop with the card to draw grains for the entire household every month. Often, they are the only ones in the family whose Aadhaar number has been seeded into the public distribution system to enable them to make the transaction.

This creates a major challenge for the One Nation One Ration scheme: how to ensure that a family split across two places is able to withdraw grain in both locations? Not only would this require that multiple members of the family have their Aadhaar numbers entered in the public distribution system, but also that the migrant and their family back home coordinate the withdrawal of grain.

“You will have to inform your family how much you took [from the shop in the city],” said Ravi Ramji Gupta, a fair price shop dealer in Chembur, Mumbai. “Otherwise they will think that their dealer is giving them less ration.”

At present, there is nothing to stop a migrant worker in a city from using Aadhaar authentication to withdraw all the grain allocated by the government to their family, leaving those back home without any – or vice versa. While such family disputes aren’t likely to be a major problem, the lack of a transparent mechanism is a recipe for confusion, Right to Food activists say.

Jitendra Vasudev Kanojia, a ration dealer in Annabhau Sathe Nagar in Thane, said a migrant worker took half of his family’s entitlement from his shop, and left the remaining for his brother who lives in the village. The dealer in the village, however, said he would only give his brother the full entitlement or nothing. “If the other dealer is not giving ration then what can I do?” he asked.

“One Nation One Ration sounds good on paper but can be very complicated to implement,” said Dipa Sinha of the Right to Food movement.

More takers for intrastate portability

Maharashtra is one of the first states to experiment with ration portability. Even before the One Nation One Ration scheme was introduced nationally, it had implemented intrastate portability – that is, a beneficiary registered in its public distribution system could access rations from any shop within the state.

While very few migrants from other states have made use of ration portability in Maharashtra – just 3,055 transactions had been registered as of June – the number of interstate transactions is an impressive 7.2 lakh. Officials attribute the difference to the fact that they started portability within the state in 2018.

Even ration dealers say they see migrant families from within the state more often. “We see more of those who come from districts like Raigad and Ratnagiri,” said Darshan, a dealer in Dadar, Mumbai. “A lot of the [inter-state] migrants are single, male, and most of them leave the rations for their families back home and eat out.”

But activists say there could be more to the high number of intrastate transactions. “There is a possibility of people using portability more for quality [of foodgrains at fair price shops] than for the purpose of migration,” said Sinha. By this, she meant that instead of accessing grains from the ration shop in their neighbourhood, beneficiaries might be visiting a ration shop in another part of their city or town, where they believe the quality of grains or the service is better.

Conversations with dealers in Maharashtra suggests this might be happening – many expressed concern about their customers drifting away to other shops. “If cardholders on my list do not come to me then I will be at a loss,” said Ramesh Saiya, a 61-year old dealer in Kurla, East Mumbai. “There are times when the quality of grains we get is bad but that is not our fault.”

A photograph taken in April 2020 shows bags and utensils placed by migrant workers outside a school in Delhi where the government was distributing rations during the coronavirus lockdown. Photo: Supriya Sharma

The reluctance of dealers

While ration portability creating more choice for beneficiaries isn’t a bad outcome, their actual experiences suggest a messier reality on the ground.

Ratanlal Giri, a rickshaw puller, got a ration card made in Goregaon, Mumbai, way back in 1998. When he moved from Goregaon to the nearby suburb of Malad in 2019, he went to a fair price shop in his new neighbourhood, hoping that he would be able to withdraw his quota of grains using the new Aadhaar-based system of ration portability. But he was shocked to find his quota of foodgrains had already been lifted from Goregaon.

“I do not live there and no one I know lives there either,” said Giri, who hails from Jaunpur district in Uttar Pradesh and has lived in Mumbai for over 40 years. Phone calls and visits to the ration officer in both Malad and Goregaon were futile, he said. “It has been a year since I got my ration.” Scroll.in was unable to speak to the dealer to understand the reasons for this breakdown.

Milan Kumar Jha, the rickshaw puller from Bihar who read about One Nation, One Ration in a newspaper in February, said fair price shop dealers in his neighbourhood in Mankhurd turned him away when he made inquiries about the scheme. They claimed the scheme had not yet been implemented.

In April, he found two dealers willing to give him subsidised grains but on a condition. “They wanted me to give them 7 kgs of the 20 kgs as a bribe,” he alleged. They claimed they would run a loss otherwise.

Finally, in May, a shop agreed to give him his rations after he made the dealer speak to the local corporator on the phone. “The corporator explained to him that the scheme has been implemented and people like me are eligible,” said Jha.

Activists said it was impossible for migrant workers to get rations unless they were accompanied by social workers. For instance, a dealer in Jogeshwari, Mumbai, refused to give rations to Mohammad Irfan, a worker from Siddharthnagar, Uttar Pradesh. “He said he did not have any extra grains,” Irfan recalled. Only after a local activist intervened did Irfan get some food rations. “They know I am a pardesi who is new and alone,” he said.

Said Ulka Mahajan of the Anna Adhikaar Abhiyan: “There are no proper instructions given at fair price shops or any grievance redressal mechanism.”

State officials are not unaware of these hurdles. “The dealers can also misbehave and sometimes they may say that portability is not possible because they get grains only according to their quota,” said Kailas Pagare, controller of rationing and director of civil supplies in Maharashtra.

Before ration portability was allowed, there was a predictability to the quantity of grain the state government needed to supply to every ration shop based on the number of beneficiaries registered in its area. But now, the supply needs to become more dynamic to accommodate the possibility that a ration shop could end up distributing grain to a larger set of beneficiaries.

Pagare insisted that this was not a problem yet – most shopkeepers were left with 7% to 10% excess food grains at the end of the month which could be used for the One Nation, One Ration scheme. But it was challenging to convince dealers to adapt to this system, he said.

Not a solution to hunger

Even if it were to work smoothly, One Nation, One ration is unlikely to be a panacea for the intensifying food distress in India, say researchers. This is because the National Food Security Act covers barely 67% of the population based on the 2011 census and has not been updated since. This leaves at least 45% of the population – over 100 million Indians – out of the food safety net, according to calculations by economists.

What is needed more urgently is the universalisation of the public distribution system, economist Reetika Khera has argued. A universalised system would also include those who do not have ration cards.

The Supreme Court acknowledged this complexity and directed the Centre to review and update the coverage under the food security law. It also directed the government to bring in a scheme to distribute dry rations to migrant workers and operate community kitchens so that no one went hungry during the pandemic.