How the One Nation One Ration Card scheme threatens India's poor?

How the One Nation One Ration Card scheme threatens India’s poor?

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An 11-year-old Dalit girl, Santoshi, died in Jharkhand on September 28th 2017, after starving for eight days because her family’s ration cards were cancelled due to non-linking with biometric-based Aadhaar data. The fair price shop (FPS) from where Santoshi’s family used to get their subsidised food grains under the public distribution system (PDS), denied them their ration. More than 30m ration cards are reportedly cancelled in the country due to the non-linking of Aadhaar with them. As Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government is stream rolling the One Nation One Ration Card scheme, India may experience a grotesque famine, causing starvation deaths, displacement and can even render people stateless.

What’s the One Nation One Ration Card scheme?

According to the Modi regime, the One Nation One Ration Card scheme is a plan for nation-wide portability of the existing ration cards under the National Food Security Act (NFSA), which aims to empower all beneficiaries, especially the migrant workers, to seamlessly access their PDS/NFSA food grains from any FPS. Though the One Nation One Ration Card scheme was conceptualised in July 2019, it came to the limelight after the Modi regime started marketing it as a solution to the migrant labourers’ reverse migration to villages during the first three months of the stringent 2020 lockdown.

It’s claimed that the One Nation One Ration Card scheme will benefit the migrant workers who lose access to their NFSA-allocated food grain as their ration cards are linked with a particular neighbourhood FPS. This new system will allow the cardholder to collect their ration from any FPS of their choice and even the food grain can be collected on a pro-rata basis by different members of the family living in different parts of the country.

To enjoy the One Nation One Ration Card scheme, the ration cardholders must have their Aadhaar linked with their ration cards at their FPS. The linking process will not just be cumbersome but can also render the ration card owners “ineligible” for NFSA, ie, will add them to the 30m whose ration cards are cancelled.

What is the current state of the One Nation One Ration Card scheme?

According to the government, 813.40m people benefit from the NFSA. Around 75% of the rural population and around 50% of the urban population benefit from the NFSA. This is 67% of the total Indian population as per the 2011 Census. Now, nearly 690m, or 86% of the total beneficiaries of the NFSA, have been brought under the One Nation One Ration Card scheme.

While 59.76% PDS distributions in May 2020 took place with Aadhaar-based biometric authentication in 27 states, in May 2021 it increased to 75.22% in 30 states. However, at the same time, while the total food allocation in May 2020 for 27 states was 36,34,440.85 MT, it marginally increased to 38,35,917.09 MT for 30 states in May 2021. This means while on an average 134,608 MT per state was allocated in May 2020, it fell to 127,863.90 MT in May 2021.

The Union Ministry of Finance and the Department of Food & Public Distribution have aimed to implement the scheme in 32 states and union territories. To lure States into the One Nation One Ration Card scheme, the Modi regime is allowing them an additional borrowing of 0.25% of their GSDP. So far, 17 states have reportedly implemented the One Nation One Ration Card scheme and have got an additional borrowing of Rs 376bn.

Now, as Modi failed to cajole a few of the states, not ruled by his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), to join the One Nation One Ration Card scheme, the Supreme Court has come to its rescue. Ironically, after showing reluctance to accept a public interest litigation against the denial of ration to 30m people whose ration cards have been cancelled due to non-linking with Aadhaar, the apex court has accepted it. But it has also been forcing the States to implement the One Nation One Ration Card scheme, which will additionally delink many ration cards and deny the poor their right to food.

The Supreme Court insisted that the Government of West Bengal must implement the One Nation One Ration Card scheme. West Bengal earlier argued that its Khadyasathi (food partner) scheme is better than the central scheme, but the special bench of Justice MR Shah and Justice Ashok Bhushan didn’t pay heed to it.

Will the migrant workers benefit from the One Nation One Ration Card scheme?

Millions of migrant workers walked hundreds of miles to return to their native villages when Modi arbitrarily declared a lockdown in March 2020. Many of them could have received free food grains, transport facility and even accommodation from the Modi regime, but they were denied such benefits. Many died on the streets, either hit by trains or mowed down by trucks, but Modi didn’t come to their rescue.

Though the Modi regime projects the One Nation One Ration Card scheme as a beneficial one for the migrant workers, this exercise will cause trouble for them as they must link their ration cards with their biometric information, failing which they will be ignored their right to food. If the government was concerned about the wellbeing of the migrant labourers, then it wouldn’t have advocated the Aadhaar linking with the ration cards. Rather, the government would’ve made the existing cards portable.

What’s the Modi regime’s plan regarding the PDS?

The Modi regime has been using the PDS for political gimmicks so far. Under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana (PMGKAY), the Modi regime is providing 5kg of extra food grains to all NFSA beneficiaries in May and June 2021. Earlier, this scheme, which was started during the 2020 lockdown, was extended till the Bihar Assembly elections to garner support for the BJP.

For running the PMGKAY, the Modi regime must foot an extra Rs 260bn subsidy bill over the usual Rs 1.8trn PDS bill for the financial year (FY) 2021-22. The Modi regime is keen to cut this cost without compromising on the political gimmick part. The NITI Aayog, the government’s neo-liberal economic thinktank has proposed a massive cut in the number of beneficiaries of the NFSA to save money.

Under the One Nation One Ration Card scheme, the NITI Aayog is planning to dilute the PDS altogether. The NITI Aayog, in a paper circulated among different government departments, has recommended reducing the number of rural beneficiaries under the NFSA from 75% to 60% and the urban beneficiaries from 50% to 40%. The NITI Aayog claimed that this will eventually help the government save Rs 472.29bn annually.

This plan to reduce the number of beneficiaries of PDS will be done by figuring out “ineligible” cardholders. It’s the same model that was used to cancel 23.3m ration cards from 2013-2016, which later reached 30m. The government will also use the Census 2021 data to determine food subsidy for the poorest of the poor. This will eventually help Modi link the Aadhaar-seeding information of the ration cards with the National Population Register (NPR) exercise. The NPR is the first step towards the National Register of Citizens (NRC), which will disenfranchise millions of Indians. At present, the NPR is being prepared digitally with an allocation of Rs 39.41bn. The “ineligible” list will be of immense importance in the days to come.

The big picture: how the One Nation One Ration Card will aggravate food crisis and hunger?

The Modi regime passed two farm laws and amended the Essential Commodities Act, 1955, in 2020, which paved the way for total corporate domination over agriculture and essential food grain trade. This was done as per the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) diktat. Millions of farmers of states like Haryana, Punjab and western Uttar Pradesh are agitating against these three anti-farmer laws for the last seven months at the borders of Delhi, demanding their repealing.

The farmers allege that these laws will destroy India’s agriculture and food security as corporates will get immense power to decide what to cultivate, how much to cultivate, and create artificial shortage by hiking the prices of the food grains. They demand a legal guarantee of minimum support price (MSP) and the government’s procurement from the farmers. The farmers claim that they can’t survive without the MSP and government procurement, and will eventually lose their land, rendered displaced.

With the plan of One Nation One Ration Card scheme, as the government is planning to reduce the number of beneficiaries and reduce spending, it’s evident that the Food Corporation of India (FCI), which procures crops from farmers at MSP, albeit in a few states, will significantly reduce procurement of crops. The corporates will sneak in due to the vacuum created by FCI’s absence and the farmers will have to sell their crops below the MSP.

Moreover, as the FCI will reduce procurement for the PDS, corporate buying will increase. The big corporates will use the Essential Commodity (Amendment) Act, 2020, to hoard food grains in large quantity and create a shortage in the market, allowing up to a 50% increase in prices. This will eventually fuel food price inflation and increase hunger in the country, fulfilling the World Bank’s 1997 vision of ending PDS in India, which forced the Indian government to dilute the system since the late 1990s.

India had 186.2 kg per capita food availability in 1991, which dropped to 179.6 kg in 2019. According to the 2020 Global Hunger Index, India ranks 94th among 107 countries, with a serious hunger score. The reduction in the food quantity can be blamed on the shrinking of the PDS coverage as well as the increase in exports of food grains, from a total of 988,182.51 MT, worth $515.09m in 1990-91 to 18,182,232.50 MT, worth $16.13trn in 2019-20. There will be a significant increase in cash crop production and exports if corporate-controlled contract farming gets a free hand in India under the new laws.

The One Nation One Ration Card scheme won’t just deny the poor their right to food, it won’t just help the Modi regime in the NRC project, it will also severely impact India’s agriculture, its farmers and destroy its food security, aggravating the hunger crisis severely. While the world looks at alleviating poverty and hunger, the Modi regime is pushing millions into the realm of hunger and destitution through the One Nation One Ration Card scheme, that too without an iota of opposition.

An avid reader and a merciless political analyst. When not writing then either reading something, debating something or sipping espresso with a dash of cream. Street photographer. Tweets as @la_muckraker

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