E-PDS could have helped migrants, but scheme still lacks the scale
The plight of thousands of workers fleeing cities, facing hunger and distress in the aftermath of the coronavirus lockdown, could have been eased by a federal programme launched last year to make subsidised rations portable for migrants. But the programme hasn’t gained the scale and reach to be a mitigating factor, analysts said.
A digitised, portable public distribution system (PDS) was to be a boon for beneficiaries of the National Food Security Act who lose out on their monthly quota of subsidised food when they migrate. The programme, known as “one nation, one ration card”, still remains a work in progress.
The scheme is still not fully geared for seamless inter-state transactions. Inter-state portability, whereby a migrant draws subsidised food in a state other than his own, is being tried on select “clusters” of 12 “contiguous” states. This means the system is capable of serving only migrants who move to a bordering state in those chosen clusters.
“There is also the issue that many migrants are single men who might have their ration cards with their families back in the village. So, with this kind of portability, they would not get rations,” said Dipa Sinha, a professor with Ambedkar University.
The government needed a far more high-tech system where every member of a migrant family had individual electronic ration cards, since the ration quota under the National Food Security Act is designed on a per capita basis. Under the law, the poor receive 5kg of foodgrain per person per month at a subsidised rate of Rs2-3 per kg, which has been now increased to 7kg due to the pandemic.
“The government is on course to make portability fully operational countrywide by June, 2020,” an official of the consumer affairs ministry said, asking not to be named. Given the pandemic, it might face some delay, he said.
Experts say the programme’s design doesn’t account for the scale of internal migration. The Economic Survey 2016-17 used some new metrics to give updated data on migration. It suggested an annual inter-state migration flow of close to 9 million from 2011 to 2016 in a “circular” fashion based on data from railways.
The first portability trials were done by September 2018 in clusters in six states. By January 2020, 12 states—Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Gujarat, Maharasthra, Haryana, Rajasthan, Karnataka, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Goa, Jharkhand and Tripura—were in.
The system essentially allowed for “state-level portability”, meaning ration-card holders could draw rations from any electronically linked fair price shops within their “district or state”.
A novel cohort-based migration metric, a statistical tool developed by former chief economic adviser Arvind Subramanian, revealed an annual “inter-state migrant population of about 60 million and an inter-district migration as high as 80 million” between 2001 and 2011. Subramanian had called for full portability of all welfare doles.
“The government’s initiative to start portability of ration cards is a right step, but it requires scale,” said Asit Upadhyay of the Right to Food Campaign.
According to Chinmay Tumbe, the author of “India Moving - A History of Migration” and faculty at the Indian Institute of Management (Ahmedabad), India’s migration is circular in the sense that people keep moving from city to city until they return home at one point before moving out again.
This means a portable food distribution system has to be capable of continually tracking migrant workers, who make up 29% of the nation’s workforce.
Construction is the single largest source of employment for migrant workers in India. According to National Sample Survey Office data, 33.3 million people moved out of farming to the construction sector between 2004-05 and 2011-12.
Inter-state portability is on in eight states in contiguous clusters of adjoining Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. Other clusters comprise Gujarat and Maharashtra, Haryana and Rajasthan and Karnataka and Kerala, all contiguous states. Madhya Pradesh, Goa, Jharkhand and Tripura joined these eight states from January 1, 2020, to make a single national cluster, the official said.
Full national portability could have rescued a large number of migrants fleeing the Covid-19 lockdown.