New Delhi, Gurugram and Bengaluru: In the peak of Gurugram's summer in mid-June, 27-year-old Lalita Devi, a Bihari migrant in Sikandarpur Ghosi, has waited for nearly seven hours in a women’s queue only to be denied her full ration entitlement of 5 kg of wheat per person for five family members.

Humara finger nahi kaam kiya [fingerprint biometric was not working],” Lalita Devi told IndiaSpend, complaining that she had not even cooked for her family because she was expecting to be back home soon. “How is this possible? I have been getting grain for a year.” Her husband, who runs a tea stall, had to shut the stall and rush to authenticate Aadhaar biometrics seeded to the ration card.

As a beneficiary of the decade-old National Food Security Act, 2013 (NFSA)--which provides more than 800 million people subsidised foodgrains--Lalita Devi procures grains in Haryana once a month for four of the five members registered on the ration card through the ration card portability scheme, One Nation One Ration Card (ONORC) launched in August 2019. But she is tired of the “matha pacchi (hassle)that she has to deal with to get her rations.

Lalita Devi, with her neighbour Asha, in her Gurugram home which she shares with her husband and three children, photographed June 15, 2023.

IndiaSpend spoke to interstate migrants in Delhi NCR, who said that there are problems with accessing rations under the portability scheme. This includes not knowing when shops open, long queues and delays, not receiving full quota, low quality of rations provided, and issues with Aadhaar seeding and biometrics.

In 2019, the Union government said that the ONORC will “be very helpful for the large migratory population….in accessing subsidised foodgrains in the present system.” Of the 450 million internal migrants in India, 12% (54 million) were interstate migrants according to the 2011 Census, while in 2001 it was estimated to be 13% (41 million).

The “completely technology driven” ONORC allows intrastate (inter- and intra-district) and interstate transactions by enabling beneficiaries of NFSA to use Aadhaar-seeded ration cards at electronic point of sale (ePOS) machines to access foodgrains at any fair-price shop (FPS) in the country. The ePoS servers are supported by a central repository. It has been setup for “seamless exchange of ration cards/beneficiaries’ information”, using an Aadhaar-based process.

Since its launch, all 36 states and UTs have implemented ONORC. But intrastate transactions are reported to be much larger than expected when compared to interstate transactions. The government’s Integrated Management of Public Distribution System’s (IMPDS) interstate data showed only 1.4 million transactions annually, on average, from 2019-20 to 2022-23, while there were more than 171 million transactions within states, on average. The majority, that is at least two in three interstate transactions, have been in Delhi since July 2021, and most of the transactions there were by migrants from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

Experts working on food security and with migrants told IndiaSpend that it was not clear why Delhi was showing a higher number of interstate ONORC transactions despite other destination cities in Maharashtra, Gujarat or Kerala attracting millions of migrants. They say that the lack of awareness and information about ration card portability among migrants and officials, and a lack of clarity of allocation of stock for locals and migrants at FPS, may be reasons.

Delhi overwhelms interstate transactions

India’s Public Distribution System (PDS) is one of the biggest welfare programmes of the government, and food subsidy is the largest expenditure of the Department of Food and Public Distribution. The NFSA has ensured that food security moved from a “welfare approach to a rights-based approach”, said the September 2015 report of the National Council of Applied Economic Research.

Subsidised rations in the PDS are available to India's poor households by using Aadhaar-based biometrics like fingerprints or iris scanners. More than 97% ePOS transactions at FPSs in 2022-23 were Aadhaar-authenticated, the most since 2019.

ONORC was implemented in two clusters of adjoining states--Maharashtra-Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh-Telangana--in August 2019..

According to IndiaSpend’s analysis, in the first six months, that is until the end of financial year 2019-20, 11 states had implemented ONORC, and there were 6,417 interstate transactions. By the end of 2020-21 it had increased nearly four times to nearly 32,000, and by the end of the next year it had clocked 1.6 million transactions. With Assam implementing it in June 2022, all states are reported to have ration card portability.

Delhi, which had only started implementing ONORC in July 2021, reported 67% of the interstate transactions by the end of the financial year of 2021-22. The trend continued in 2022-23 when it recorded 70% of 3.7 million transactions, and in the first three months of 2023-24 it has reported two in three of the 968,000 interstate transactions.

In 2022-23, at least three in four of the interstate transactions in India were reported by migrants from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, and this was the case even in Delhi. More than three in four persons in both Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are covered under NFSA.

A senior official in the Department of Food and Public Distribution who did not want to be identified told IndiaSpend that there could be a combination of factors for Delhi's higher interstate transactions. These include higher awareness in Delhi due to the government’s efforts, and more migrant families moving in due to lower housing costs compared to Mumbai or Bengaluru.

“They avail [rations through] ONORC here,” said the official. “Often migrants do not want to transfer their ration card from their home state to Delhi despite having lived there for years. A ration card is like a passport for poor people.”

Although there are glitches in the system, Delhi has reported a much larger uptake for the scheme compared to other states that attract migrants in large numbers. This could be because there is better information dissemination in Delhi and because migrants networks are able to better inform through word of mouth.

There are a host of issues including the fact that most people do not know about ONORC, said Benoy Peter, executive director of Ernakulam-based non-profit Centre of Migration and Inclusive Development (CMID) which works with migrants. “It is the responsibility of source and destination states to ensure mass awareness about schemes particularly for migrants,” he said. “....interstate migration is a central subject and the Union government also is responsible for ONORC information dissemination.”

There were critical gaps in the ONORC system, according to an April 2022 Dalberg report based on a study in five states. These include the lack of beneficiary and dealer awareness on how ONORC works, biometric authentication failures, lack of clear offline exception handling guidelines, and inadequate backend systems to manage the dynamic demand introduced by portability, it said.

IndiaSpend has asked the secretaries of the Department of Food, Supplies and Consumer Affairs, Government of NCT of Delhi and the Food, Civil Supplies and Consumer Protection Department of the Government of Maharashtra, and the Government of Haryana about the steps taken to popularise ONORC among out-of-state migrants and FPS owners. This story will be updated when they respond.

Excluded migrants and unorganised workers must be given ration cards

India had witnessed widespread migrant distress in the weeks following the Covid-19-induced lockdown. Mumbai and Surat had protests and rioting by migrants, when more than 11 million people across the country returned home. The government has said that it did not have data on migrants.

In April 2023, the Supreme Court, following a 2020 petition highlighting the problems faced by migrants, asked the government to ensure that, by September 2023, 80 million unorganised workers and migrants who were registered on the government's eShram portal and did not have ration cards must “be issued the ration cards and that their names are registered on ration card data”.

The NFSA beneficiaries are decided on the basis of 2011 census population data. Given that the census has been delayed and the data are more than a decade old, there are exclusions that impact the welfare of millions of beneficiaries, particularly in the PDS.

According to calculations made by migration researchers S. I. Rajan and R. B. Bhagat, in the absence of a reliable estimate until 2021, there is an estimated migrant population of 600 million in India.

In a July 2022 order, the Supreme Court said that the Census data have not been updated and “Union government may look into the same by considering the figures/projection of population increase during the decade 2011-2021, which would be on an assessment of increase in population”.

These are the numbers that would help central and state governments keep adequate stock of foodgrains for those who are eligible, and issue ration cards to them.

The whole idea of the PDS is to ensure no one goes hungry in a welfare state like India, said Anjali Bhardwaj, transparency activist, founder of the Delhi-based Satark Nagrik Sangathan (SNS), and member of the Right to Food Campaign. “Portability is important given that we do not have universal PDS, and it is welcome for those with ration cards,” she said. “But there are better ways of implementing it than using Aadhaar and ePOS which can face connectivity issues and problems with Aadhaar biometrics.”

Maharashtra, which is an important migrant corridor, reported around 170,000 interstate transactions in 2022-23, while Delhi reported more than 160,000 transactions in the month of April 2022 alone. Similarly Gujarat, another migrant workers’ destination, reported more than 100,000, which was around 3% of all transactions nationwide. In contrast, Haryana has been reporting nearly one in eight transactions in India over the last two years, the most after Delhi.

Kanhu C. Pradhan, Associate Fellow at Centre for Policy Research, a public policy think-tank, is surprised to see a low level of interstate portability including in the Odisha-Surat migrant corridor. “...only 152 transactions from Odisha have taken ration in Surat district in May 2023. It is hard to understand why Maharashtra also has low transactions,” said Pradhan. “There is variation among states. The higher intrastate portability is expected as most migration happens within the state border. But, the low level of inter-state portability is surprising.”

According to the Union government’s Annavirtan website reports, between 2019-20 and 2022-23, there have been 686 million intrastate transactions, of which 93% are within the district. At least one in four of all intrastate transactions were reported in Bihar since 2020-21.

The ONORC data show that it has not taken off much, and the transactions are low compared to the total beneficiaries under the PDS, particularly interstate, said Dipa Sinha, economist at Ambedkar University. “The intrastate transactions are more, which may even be due to people choosing more convenient FPS shops and not due to migration.”

The reason for more transactions from Bihar and UP--both significant outmigration states--is most likely because there are more cardholders in these states because of their population size and higher coverage ratios, added Sinha. “It could also be possible that because of a word of mouth network that creates greater awareness, the transactions from certain states are more in particular locations.”

A December 2022 analysis of ONORC in Economic and Political Weekly said that despite all states being technologically equipped to facilitate full portability of PDS entitlement, not all migrants seem to be benefiting from it. “At the all-India level a small proportion of FPS carry out the bulk of the transactions; however, in Delhi most FPS cater to interstate migrants,” it said.

Manual entries in IMPDS for interstate migrant rations

Rakesh*, for nearly two years since the pandemic, had been working with various FPS shops, resolving and assisting with ePOS and technology updates. According to him, the Delhi ePOS parameters prompt options for rations for locals, and the IMPDS for interstate migrants under portability scheme. The details of local beneficiaries are retrieved automatically. Even if there is low connectivity, there are no problems with loading details, he said.

But with IMPDS, this is not the case. The IMPDS does not autofill details on quantity. Although it is designed in that manner so that multiple people at different locations can lift grains, this can create problems when server or connectivity is slow in the final stage of disbursal, said Rakesh. The ration may be deducted but it may not complete the transactions--like in the case of online purchases. The FPS dealer does not know if the transaction is accounted for, and may not give out rations.

Further, each state portal for IMPDS opens at different times in a month. Usually Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan open their portals earlier in the month and the respective state migrants take grains. Uttar Pradesh, which distributes its rations twice, before the 15th of a month and after, is the last. Haryana does not have a clear schedule. We have asked the Haryana government for the reason behind this and will update the story when they respond.

A board outside a closed ration shop in Kapashera in southwest Delhi which says that the UP government’s portal for ONORC is working (June 19, 2023)

States are responsible to enrol or remove beneficiaries and update cards under NFSA, Rakesh said. Any change can only be done at home states, which means discrepancies in cards or Aadhaar can be corrected only back in the migrants’ home states. This creates logistical problems for migrants who will have to return home to fix the problem which impacts their work and income.

The government official from the Department of Food and Public Distribution said that the issue faced by migrants where the distribution in the home state and destination state open at different times was a problem last year. “This has been 100% resolved. Now irrespective of the distribution cycle, beneficiary’s ration will be accounted for in the cycle of the home state,” said the official.

IndiaSpend asked NITI Aayog for its comments on ONORC and the effectiveness of ration card portability. The office of Suman Bery, vice chairman, NITI Aayog said that “there is a clear division of responsibility between NITI Aayog and Line Ministries, where execution of the scheme is the responsibility of Line Ministry and in this case, “Ministry of Food”. Given that, accurate information can be supplied by Ministries.”

Glitches and lack of information

Lalita Devi was not happy with the quality and quantity of rations. As a migrant from Bihar’s Madhubani, she prefers rice. Haryana usually provides only wheat, bajra occasionally, and a kilogram of sugar for below-poverty-line (BPL) families. While complaining of this “matha pacchi”, she said that the quality of wheat was poor compared to that in Bihar where she received more commodities.

“They [FPS] deducted our share and gave me only 18 kg. My daughter’s share was not given because her Aadhaar is not linked to the ration card, so the portal does not show her name,” said Lalita Devi. “For the last two months, I did not go to the shop because I was in Bihar. Does that mean my finger[print] will stop working?”

A screenshot of the “Mera Ration” app which shows that there are no ration shops within a 10-km radius of Lalita’s home (June 15, 2023).

The entitlements in ONORC are different from what the state governments may be giving to their beneficiaries, said Sinha. “Many states, particularly destination states which are better off, often have higher quantities or lower prices and more commodities,” she said. “There is no uniformity, which adds to the confusion.”

Much like Lalita, Mansoor Ahmed, 35, a migrant worker from Uttar Pradesh’s Amethi in Gurugram’s Sikandarpur, finds the rations inadequate. Ahmed, a tailor, and his wife are persons with disabilities. He has lived with his brother for over a decade, and has a young child. They prefer rice as it is faster to cook. But only wheat is available, which he did not want because finding space for drying and grinding is cumbersome. “I get 9 kg wheat [of the entitled 10 kg] here; what good is that? How do I survive on that? My shop barely makes any money. I spend Rs 8,000 on rent alone for my house and this shop,” said Ahmed.

The Uttar Pradesh portal does not work sometimes when he goes to the ration shop in Gurugram, said Ahmed. Due to his disability, he has to seek help from neighbours who inform him about the status of the UP website. When he is in Amethi, his ration card works properly and he receives rice, wheat, dal, salt, and mirch (chilli powder).

“For the last three days, the website has been working but I could not go because there is no direct rickshaw and I have to change it twice and walk a little distance in between stops, which is impossible for me,” said Ahmed. He was spared the long queue at the shop where he was taken by a friend, but it took Ahmed half an hour to get his ration because the server went down.

The government's Mera Ration application, launched in March 2021, provides information about Aadhaar seeding, eligibility, ration entitlements, nearby fair price shops among others. Ahmed said that there were no shops within 10 km listed on the app, even though there was one around 6 km away from his home.

Agrasar, a Gurugram-based NGO working with migrant families in Delhi NCR, analysed data from August 2021 until May 2023 of around 500 families on ONORC underutilisation. It found that 29% complained about non-functional IMPDS site; Aadhaar was not linked with ration card in 27% of the cases; 20% blamed the inconsistent opening of ration shops; ration depots preferred giving to locals in 14% of the cases; and there were missing ration details on IMPDS in 10% of the cases.

Prerit Rana, Agrasar’s co-founder and CEO, says that ONORC is a good initiative as there is demand for ration portability, but there is a gap in information. “Even officials are not aware of the process and guidelines. There is no proper documentation due to which there is inadequate training,” he added.

His colleague Neelam Gupta, a project coordinator, who has been working on ground in Gurugram’s migrant pockets since mid 2021, said that initially FPS dealers did not know about the scheme. Lack of awareness is a reason that contributes to lower uptake among interstate migrants.

Migrant men working in cities tend to buy from the market and not FPS as they prefer that their families back home use the ration facilities. “The system allows an option to choose listed dependents whose ration can be used,” said Gupta. “But FPS dealers may not inform them, or may not even know about this option. There is a lack of awareness.”

The problem of lack of information was echoed in Pune too.

Shriram Padmanabhan, a consultant with Aajeevika Bureau, who works with migrant workers in Pune, said that there is no official procedure document with state governments on ONORC except for a few press releases. “Officials are not aware of procedural issues like stocks for migrants, and the dealers do not know about the scheme.”

The district reported 591 interstate transactions from January to June 2023, with January reporting the most at 138.

“Ration shop dealers have not been told about ONORC nor have the training or orientation,” said Padmanabhan. “As FPS dealers are locals, it is difficult for migrants to feel empowered to demand their entitlements.”

Improving awareness is the responsibility of the state and the Union. “As far as ONORC is concerned it is [responsibility] mostly of the Union governments because we are maintaining interstate data,” said the government official who did not want to be identified. The official added that the government has started media campaigns via SMSs and outdoor campaigns.

The government allocated Rs 3.7 crore ($450,000) for generating awareness amongst Targeted PDS beneficiaries in 2023-24, the same as last year.

“We are trying our best, but there is a limited budget to manage [ONORC] in a big nation.”

FPS dealers are apprehensive

Due to the lack of information and inadequate training for dealers, there is concern about running out of stock. The Dalberg report found that 18% of PDS dealers reported they were unable to serve one or more portability customers in the month preceding the survey. Overall, 76% of dealers who could not serve portability customers counted technology failures among the reasons, and one in three ran out of stocks or feared that they would run out, said the report.

The system is not working seamlessly as expected, said Padmanabhan of Aajeevika Bureau. “Dealers [in Pune] are saying that the quota is allocated for the local population and not adjusted for migrants,” he said “To accommodate migrants, an additional list has to be provided which then increases the quota. But in Pune’s experience, I do not think there is an automatic allocation by the system online.”

Migrant data are not monitored or collated regularly by the government and dealers may not be able to respond to demand. “...only 8% of FPS conducted 80% of the transactions involving interstate migrants,” said the EPW analysis.

There is an option in the ePOS to request extra food grains for the FPS shop, said the government official from the Department of Food and Public Distribution. “In many states it is not operational. We have written to them to make it operational which will make it available immediately.”

What needs to be done

There is consensus among experts that information and awareness is required to understand the problems and why utilisation of ration card portability among interstate migrants is limited.

“If ONORC has to work well, ration cards have to be individual, not at the household level. This will allow lifting grains at different locations,” said Peter of CMID, adding that there must be systematic training of the civil supplies ecosystem on ONORC.

Sinha feels that there is a need to explore if Aadhaar linkage, due to the exclusions it causes, is worth it, and concurrent and independent studies are needed to understand migration patterns and needs of migrants around ONORC, destination and source entitlements-related patterns etc.

Even if alternatives like smart cards are used instead of Aadhaar, there are aspects like grain stocks, how the Union government will allocate to states dynamically, and clear guidelines for states to follow that need to be worked upon. “This will help in understanding the pattern, and then the tweaks can be made,” said Sinha.

The Dalberg report recommended that implementation of alternatives for portability transactions when biometric authentication does not work, better connectivity for FPS, flexible stock requisition for PDS dealers, and improved awareness among high priority groups such as women and migrant construction workers.

*Name has been changed to protect the person’s identity

Nupur Maley, an intern at IndiaSpend, helped with data collation for the story.

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