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Towards food for all, no questions asked

Subir Roy | Updated on April 16, 2020

During times of crisis like Covid-19, the needy shouldn’t be asked to furnish ID proof to get subsidised food

The plight of migrant workers streaming across the country, on foot or whichever way, in order to get home to avoid starvation (because of the lockdown they had lost job, income and often a place to stay) has been temporarily mitigated by different States putting them in camps where they have food, shelter and medical supervision. In return they cannot go home, thus preventing the spread of the coronavirus epidemic.

But the temporary nature of the arrangement can be gauged from three reported instances of group violence. Two of the three incidents took place in Surat, both before the lockdown ended. In one the outburst by construction workers was along predictable lines.

They had neither food nor money. In the other more serious incident, migrant workers, in the textiles and embroidery industry, went on the rampage as they had both a roof over their heads and food but had not been paid their wages. They just wanted permission to go home.

Key issue

In the latest incident on Tuesday, the day the lockdown should have ended, hundreds of workers assembled near Mumbai’s Bandra station, deeply unhappy with the extension of the lockdown and demanding arrangements to go back home.

When they refused to disperse the police resorted to a lathi charge. As a State minister said, “They don’t want food or shelter, they want to go back home.”

This brings us to the key issue. Will the system be able to take care of the issues that are bound to crop us as the nation sets out to go through a period of intermittent lockdowns, continued restrictions from having to maintain social distancing and in individual cases quarantine.

What is most serious is that a lot of the time there will be no income for a chunk of those at the bottom of the pyramid because the economy will be far from returning to normal.

This is because handling migrant workers who want to go home is one thing but add to it the plight of daily wagers and the urban poor and you have a situation that cuts across a swathe of the social fabric.

When daily wagers are without jobs and the urban poor have absolutely nothing to fall back upon, you are back to the most basic issue — ensuring that they have enough food.

Self-selection

In this situation, one idea born within the system which has managed to break many conventional barriers of thinking is how you can make food available to absolutely everybody who needs it but have not the means to acquire it at market prices. Such thinking has been prompted by the fact that many of the poor do not have ration cards.

The textbook solution to this is to adopt the principle of self-selection, as is done in the case of the rural employment guarantee programme: you will be a part of it if you come forward to ask for it. The idea is that the programme will successfully self-target as a middle class person will be embarrassed to join in a queue for subsidised food alongside domestic servants and cycle rickshaw-wallas.

Besides, even the poor will not come too frequently as each purchase will mean expending a couple of hours of wage earning time standing in a queue.

In a country of 1.3 billion people where the poor need subsidised food even during normal times and the National Food Security Act has been designed to cover 800 million, there are 230 million ration card holders and 140 million migrants, of whom, according to the Economic Survey, around 100 million are migrant workers. And the key reality about them is that many leave their ration cards behind at home for the family to survive.

The idea is that for a person to qualify for subsidised food under the just announced ₹1.7 lakh crore post coronavirus programme targeted at 800 million people, no ID proof should be necessary.

There is enough food in the godowns of the Food Corporation of India. Those within the administration working for top approval of the idea of doing away with ID proof for getting subsidised food point to the fact that the Delhi government has already done away with the need to produce a ration card.

If the foregoing is for exceptional times like the present, there is already an administrative effort that seeks to address the problem of migrant labour who needs to leave behind the ration card at home (also the card has to be used close to the declared place of residence) even in normal times.

One nation one card

This is the project to make the ration card portable across the country — one nation one card — under which your card, which will be linked to your Aadhaar identity, will be usable anywhere in the country.

As with doing away with the proof of ID, a beginning has already been made in this regard. Inter-State portability for the ration card is working between Karnataka and Kerala, Gujarat and Maharashtra, and Haryana and Rajasthan.

But there is a catch here. The one nation one ration card system can work only with authentication through the Aadhaar database for which you need connectivity for every ration shop in every corner of the country who have all to use a point of sale device.

But is every ration shop in the country connected and for how many hours in a day is there power and how often is the UID or Aadhaar database system down? Progress there is, but one halting step at a time.

The writer is a senior journalist

Published on April 16, 2020

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