The problem of hunger, they say, is not because of the shortage of food, but because of the inequality that manipulates food distribution.
India, like many countries across the world, subsidises consumption of certain food and non-food items for its poor through a network of ration shops across the country. For the purpose, ration cards are provided by all state governments to its citizens for purchasing subsidised provisions.
The Centre has now proposed ‘One Nation One Ration Card’ system aiming at enabling beneficiaries, especially migrants, to get their quota of foodgrain from any ration shop across the country. The states and Union Territories have been given time till June 30, 2020, to roll out one public distribution system (PDS).
According to Union Food Minister Ram Vilas Paswan, the “biggest beneficiary of this will be migrant labourers who move to other states to seek better job opportunities and will ensure their food security”.
While simplifying the percolation of state benefits seems like an achievable step on paper, many feel the proposed move would result in undesirable consequences. The anxiety is particularly palpable in non-BJP ruled states like Tamil Nadu and West Bengal where non-NDA regional parties are up in arms against the proposal.
Does one size fit all?
In Tamil Nadu, DMK president MK Stalin says the move strikes at the federal structure of the country. According to Stalin, the proposal was brought in with a hidden agenda to stop the distribution of rice and pulses in rural parts of the country. “The BJP government attempting to distribute even rice and pulses in villages in the name of integrated management in PDS is akin to making a mockery of Centre-state relations,’’ he said in a statement, adding that declaring the common ration card scheme would be enforced by June 2020 is heights of unilateral autocracy.
But concerns over the new policy “striking at the heart of federalism” alone is not the problem.
For instance, the immediate point of contention between the West Bengal government and the Centre is the mandatory seeding of ration cards with Aadhaar — something that the TMC-ruled state has been opposing. Back in 2017, the Mamata Banerjee-led Bengal government moved the Supreme Court against the Centre’s move to make Aadhaar mandatory for availing the benefits of various social welfare schemes.
While over 40 per cent of the ration cards in the state (as per a data tabled in the Rajya Sabha in 2016) are not seeded with Aadhaar, it would become mandatory once the One Nation One Ration Card system is rolled out.
Secondly, what happens to the state-run special schemes — Rajya Khadya Suraksha Yojna I and II? Even though West Bengal, much like Tamil Nadu, ‘accepted’ to implement the National Food security policy in 2016, the state did not scrap its two special schemes. So, will a migrant from Bengal be eligible for the same benefits in any other state as well?
There are more concerns. While Centre’s National Food Security Mission (NFSM) provides rice at ₹3 a kg, wheat at ₹2 a kg and coarse grain at ₹1 a kg, the Bengal government provides an additional subsidy of ₹1 a kg on rice, reducing the price of subsidised rice to ₹2 per kg in the state. Going a step further, the Tamil Nadu government provides rice free of cost to its citizens.
Apart from interfering in the state’s rights, political leaders and experts in Tamil Nadu believe the new system will disrupt the state’s successful model of universal PDS.
According to V Rajendran, state co-ordinator of Tamil Nadu Ration Shop Employees Union, the state follows a mechanism in distributing PDS products that would collapse if the inter-state portable system comes in place.
“Maintaining stock for intra-state portability of PDS itself would be a big problem without proper data on number of migrant ration card holders. In fact, for cities like Tirupur, Coimbatore and Chennai, even the intra-state migrant population is quite high. The existing mechanism functions in such a way that no extra foodgrain can be taken out of the godown and no extra food can be stored in the ration shops than the required quantity,” he explains.
While ration shop employees are worried over the disruption of the existing mechanism, CPI(M) state secretariat member K Kanagaraj says the state will be forced to adhere to the National Food Security policy and will have to stop supplying any other foodgrain apart from rice, sugar and millet.
Back in November, 2016, while the then CM J Jayalalithaa fell seriously ill and was hospitalised, the state government ‘accepted’ to implement the National Food Security Act. Incidentally, Jayalalithaa had opposed the National Food Security Act since it was proposed by the UPA government.
“Though the AIADMK government may say that it has adopted it only on papers and it still follows the universal PDS system, in the longer run, it will be forced to adopt it and stop distributing other foodgrain apart from the mandated ones,” Kanakaraj claims.
In Tamil Nadu, citizens can avail between 12 kg and 20 kg of rice per month depending on the number of adults and children — 4 kg per adult and 2 kg per child.
The rice distributed through the PDS in Tamil Nadu is completely free and the cost is borne by the state government. However, according to the National Food Security policy, a person is entitled to get 5 kg of rice per month at ₹3 per kg.
Similarly, state government provides 2 kg sugar to a card holder irrespective of “priority category” at a subsidised rate of ₹13 per kg against the Centre’s norm of 1 kg at ₹18 per kg for one ration card.
The Tamil Nadu government also provides wheat, wheat products and pulses that are not covered under the National Food Security policy.
Kanakaraj says the new policy may have an ill-effect as people under the non-priority category are likely to be denied essential commodities by ration shops once the new system is implemented.
“Although not all people are solely dependent on ration cards for all kinds of food items, they still use them. But, if the scheme is implemented, it would come to a standstill.”
In Tamil Nadu, the PDS is universal, but in other states it is mostly for people below poverty line and in areas where malnutrition is high.
Kanakaraj’s fears don’t seem completely unfounded. The neighbouring state of Karnataka has cut down the distribution of pulses after the National Food Security Policy was implemented in the state.
According to sources, under the Siddaramaiah-led Congress government, the state tried to distribute Ragi in South Karnataka and Jowar and wheat in North Karnataka by reducing the quantum of rice.
“It was based on the consumption pattern in the state and the government did not have to wait for allocation for these two crops. But now the government provides 7 kg of rice per family member under the Anna Bhagya scheme and has cut down distribution of pulses,” says an official on condition of anonymity.
There was huge outrage in the state and leaders, including DC Thammanna, NH Shivashankar Reddy and revenue minister RV Deshpande, appealed to the chief minister to reintroduce ragi and jowar.
Back in Tamil Nadu, Thirumurugan Gandhi, coordinator of May 17 Movement, says the move to centralise the PDS system is aimed at taking over ration shops and shutting them down in the near future.
“The Centre has been trying to take over the ration shops and it was evident from their actions. First, they stopped the distribution of kerosene, later they reduced the subsidy for sugar and introduced the Food Security Act. While nothing worked out for them so far, if they manage to bring ‘one nation, one ration card’, they can change anything at any point in time,” Thirumurugan Gandhi fears.
However, Gandhi has another big worry apart from the usual ‘North-South divide — the food habits of people.
“People in every state have their own food habits and generalising it across the country would lead to denial of their needs as the PDS system itself was established based on the food habits, nutrition level of the people and their life and livelihood.”
Cutting some slack, economist Venkatesh Athreya welcomes the move but cautions that the right over distribution, procurement and the choice of foodgrain should not be snatched away from the state government.
“Allowing beneficiaries inter-state portability to buy foodgrain would really benefit the migrant workers. But, the choice of foodgrain that is supposed to be distributed through the shops should be left to state governments,” he says.
Athreya’s main concern, however, is — who would bear the additional cost (of migrant labourers)? The state or the Centre?
Asked about it, state food and civil supplies minister R Kamaraj says all migrant workers with the ration cards won’t be eligible to avail foodgrain from ration shops. “Only migrants with ‘Priority Household’ card and the ration cards under Antyodaya Anna Yojana Scheme (AAY) will be given foodgrain through ration shops,” he says, adding that discussions are on with an expert committee on implementing the scheme without affecting the existing system.
But unlike Tamil Nadu, other southern states — Kerala, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana — have welcomed the move. If official sources are to be believed, inter-state portability of ration card is already being implemented between Andhra Pradesh and Telangana on a trial basis.
“We have already put in place the portability mechanism that allows a cardholder to access benefits from any ration shop in the state,” an official of the Telangana Civil Supplies Department said. A similar system is in place in Andhra Pradesh as well.
An Integrated Management of PDS (IMPDS) system is also operational in both the two Telugu states. Under this system, a beneficiary can avail his or her share of foodgrain from any district in the state. Rice, wheat and sugar are being supplied in the two states through ration shops.
Since the portability platform is already available, it would not be a difficult task to upgrade it for the purpose of implementing ‘One Nation, One Ration Card’ scheme, officials claim.
Also unlike Tamil Nadu, in Telangana, the state has laid down restrictions on subsidised rice. While a family in rural area with a yearly income of not above ₹1.5 lakh is entitled to buy subsidised rice, for those in urban areas the income ceiling is ₹2 lakh per annum.
Politics on the plate
Even though state governments have been incurring substantial expenditures with customised subsidisation of rice and other commodities at prices much lower than that fixed by the Centre, there has been clear political benefits.
In the last Assembly elections in West Bengal, subsidised foodgrain proved to be a major game-changer for the TMC. Political observers in Bengal say the state government’s subsidised rice scheme was one of the main factors that led to Mamata Banerjee’s second victory in the state Assembly elections.
Behind the success story of universal PDS in Tamil Nadu also lies the tale of poll promises and politcal gains. During the 2006 elections, the DMK — much to the chagrin of Jayalalithaa and Vaiko — promised to supply rice under PDS at ₹2 per kg. After the party came to power, one of the first things it did was was to fulfil that promise. By September 2008, the price was brought down to ₹1 a kg.
Naturally, the poor want to have food on their plate and tend to reward parties which promise to provide that. This is one reason why many regional leaders feel the ‘one nation, one ration card’ is nothing but the BJP-led central government’s ploy to usurp the credit for good work from state governments.