Indian workers deserve more than Food Security

The Supreme Court order has ordered the Centre to increase coverage ratios under the National Food Security Act. The Centre must now determine beneficiaries based on the projected 2021 population and not the 2011 Census. More generous PDS coverage is the first step to remedy the unpardonable neglect of India’s working poor, writes REETIKA KHERA. 


AS we dealt with the nightmarish second wave of Covid-19, the trauma of workers stranded in our cities last year without food, water, work or shelter quietly faded from public memory. One year later, the 29 June order of the Supreme Court brought back memories of those gut-wrenching times.

The Supreme Court “strongly disapproved” of the government’s “non-action” and termed it “unpardonable”. The Court’s strong indictment is a belated acknowledgement of the injustice to India’s working poor.

In terms of tangible relief to workers, beyond chastising the government, the order is slightly disappointing. The court issued seven directions: to set up community kitchens until the pandemic continues, prepare a National Database for Unorganized Workers (NDUW) in a timebound manner, for states to frame a scheme for migrant workers and the Centre to provide additional grains to states for such schemes, to implement “one nation, one ration card”, to register contractors and establishments to ensure they fulfill their obligations to workers.

No Card, No Ration

One direction is worth reproducing verbatim: “The central government may undertake exercise under section 9 of the National Food Security Act, 2013, to re-determine the total number of persons to be covered under the rural and urban areas of the state.”

Also read: First coronavirus, now starvation: hunger stalks millions of Indians plunged into extreme poverty 

Section 9 of the National Food Security Act (NFSA) requires the Public Distribution System (PDS) to cover 50% of India’s urban population and 75% of the rural population as per the “latest published census” (Census 2011 at present). Thus, today, the NFSA covers just over 80 crore people out of a total population of 135 crores.

Also read: Do the Math: India’s Covid-19 Relief Package for the Poor

A minimalist interpretation of this order requires that the rural-urban coverage ratios should be applied to the projected population in 2021 (Census 2021 is awaited). Doing so would provide access to an additional 10 crore people, bringing the total coverage to over 90 crores.

The order is important because research over the past few years shows that the NFSA coverage ratios are inadequate. Food insecurity is more widespread than was recognised when the NFSA was passed and many families vulnerable to hunger remained outside the PDS. 

Mass exclusions have been the basis of the demand for a universal PDS (at least in rural areas and urban slums). The consequences of such exclusions became clear during the lockdown in 2020.

The Delhi government’s attempt during last year’s lockdown to reach those without access to the PDS is relevant here. The Delhi High Court recently pulled up the Delhi government for setting an arbitrary cap of 20 lakh beneficiaries for this relief measure. This applies to the NFSA coverage ratios: they are also arbitrary.

Thus, the spirit of the Supreme Court order requires that the Centre increase the NFSA coverage ratios and apply them to the projected 2021 population. More generous PDS coverage is the first step to remedy to unpardonable neglect of India’s working poor. Contrary to this, as recently as in March 2021, the NITI Aayog and other government advisors were recommending a reduction in coverage.

Also read: To cut subsidy bill, Niti paper says lower coverage of food security law

One Nation, One Ration?

Curiously, media attention focussed on the order about One Nation, One Ration Card or ONOR. What does ONOR mean? In theory, it is meant to make the PDS “portable”, i.e., those who have ration cards will be able to draw their rations anywhere in the country instead of being tied to their local PDS dealer. The obvious point that portability can only “help” if a migrant worker has a ration card has been overlooked in the congratulatory commentary.

That ONOR will help those who have PDS ration cards is also not a foregone conclusion. Portability, as envisioned by the government, will ride on the Aadhaar platform and the use of ePOS machines. These are exclusionary, as repeatedly demonstrated. A Lokniti survey from 2019 shows that 28% of respondents were denied rations due to Aadhaar at least once since Aadhaar was linked to the PDS.

Also read: A year since ‘One Nation, One Ration’ was implemented, why hasn’t it taken off?

In theory, family members who stay back can draw their entitlements at the local ration shop. Today, we know that Aadhaar-based biometric authentication does not protect against quantity fraud (i.e., entering more grain in the ePOS than is given). These fraudulent practices can hurt migrants too: when the worker goes to draw his share of rations in the city, the PDS dealer can digitally record selling the entire family’s quota, leaving the family in the village with nothing.

Aadhaar has been a tragedy of errors wherever it has been used—failed Aadhaar-linking, server and network issues, biometric authentication failures, lost Aadhaar cards/numbers, the list of problems is endless. 

Things were so bad in 2018 in Delhi when Aadhaar was scaled up to all PDS outlets, that the Delhi government discontinued Aadhaar-based biometric authentication within a month. Yet, better technologies such as non-biometric smart cards are not even being discussed.

Besides the technology, there are other well-known difficulties. For instance, the PDS in Tamil Nadu supplies pulses and oil along with free rice. Will the Tamil Nadu government provide these commodities to, say, the migrant workers from Bihar? What about the converse: will Tamil workers get dal and oil in Bihar? 

Similarly, different states charge different prices—in some, the NFSA-mandated prices are charged (Rs. 3/kg for rice) but others give it free or with an additional price subsidy from the state government. ONOR poses significant risks of derailing a system of social support that even its harshest critics have slowly learnt to appreciate.

Beyond Building Databases

Food security measures in the court’s order, for example, to expand the PDS and community kitchens are important and feasible. The Food Corporation of India (FCI) is sitting over 100mt of foodgrains, 2.5 times the amount required as buffer stocks. Several states have demonstrated that community kitchens are welcomed by urban workers, especially those on the move during the day (e.g., riders for couriers, food deliveries, autorickshaw drivers, etc.). 

However, in a situation where people are struggling for livelihoods, making them queue up for each meal is unfair and can be stigmatising. Weekly dry ration kits (including food grain, oil, dal, spices, etc.) provided by some state governments were preferred by urban workers with cooking facilities, but this does not feature among the court’s directions.

Also read: Death by digital exclusion? On faulty public distribution system in Jharkhand

The court also said nothing about restoring livelihoods. For instance, the government’s response to the proposal to create earning opportunities through “Decentralised Urban Employment and Training” (DUET), an urban avatar of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) could have been requested.

On cash relief, it said, “No direction can be issued by this court” as it is in the domain of the state government. Further, it noted, “It is only after the registration of workers that the states and the Centre shall be able to extend the benefits of welfare schemes to them.”

The Supreme Court emphasised the completion of the National Database of Unorganised Workers, seemingly confusing registration of workers (an existing but weakly implemented right) with the creation of a centralised database. 

As the policy space has been captured by technocrats, our imagination is enslaved by databasing. One expensive, centralised, error-ridden database follows the next. The government has spent Rs.45 crores on the NDUW, but protection to workers under existing labour laws is barely enforced.

(Reetika Khera is a development economist and associate professor at IIT-Delhi. The views expressed are personal.)