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Home >Opinion >Columns >The idea & promise of the One Nation One Ration Card

On 2 October, coincidentally the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, the biggest champion of the poor, Uttar Pradesh completed the reform process in the public distribution system or PDS, to implement the One Nation One Ration Card system.

By its sheer size—the largest state with a population of 200 million—brings the country that much closer to implementing this key economic reform.

For the uninitiated, the One Nation One Ration Card is the audacious government programme enabling portability of PDS benefits—access to subsidized food—both within the state and inter-state. Seemingly simple in concept, but the political economy of it is a potential game changer.

This is because making the entitlement portable inverts the power dynamics. It empowers the beneficiary—in this instance, the poor and not so well-off. Not only will the programme encourage migration as the benefits travel with them, the Fair Price Shop Owners (a fiefdom in themselves) will find their assumed powers clipped as beneficiaries can now vote with their feet.

It will also ensure that only legit beneficiaries access these subsidies, prevent pilferage and diversion (as stock movements can be monitored in real time) and, most importantly, reduce wrongful exclusion.

The scale of the task can be grasped from two facts.

One, it is a project which has its genesis in 2011—when the then finance minister Pranab Mukherjee created a task force under the chairmanship of Nandan Nilekani to work out the modalities of direct cash transfers of subsidies. Subsequently, the terms of reference of the committee were expanded to include creating an information technology (IT) strategy for the PDS—the findings of which were submitted in October 2011. It has taken almost nine years for this reform to move from the drawing board to reality; political resistance succeeded in only delaying the inevitable. Understandable, given that in the five years ended 2018, 29.8 million beneficiaries were found to be ineligible and removed.

Two, the sheer number of the beneficiaries to be serviced is staggering. For example, the Goods and Services Tax (GST) Network, the IT backbone powering the GST infrastructure, serves 12.9 million taxpayers.

The list of PDS beneficiaries, on the other hand, is estimated at about 750 million—almost two-thirds of India’s population—and spread out across states and Union territories. It is something like the portability of our debit cards, but with a fundamental difference: it is not cash, but food that needs to be dispensed.

The IT backbone powering this is the Integrated Management of Public Distribution System. I am unable to capture the exact status of this ambitious project, as a message to the secretary in the department of food requesting an interview remained unanswered. Regardless, with Uttar Pradesh—only the sixth state to complete the ration card portability reform—making the cut, the project has achieved critical mass.

A remarkable spin-off is the fact that in the process the government has created yet another massive data network. The earlier one, also championed by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance (though ideated in the previous regime, was the network created to enable the cooking gas subsidy. It did so by successfully seeding Aadhaar, or the unique identity number, of consumers, the LPG connection and the consumer’s bank account.

Yes, at this stage, a big shout-out to the privacy warriors, given that the promised privacy law is still working its way through Parliament—the Personal Data Protection Bill 2019 is still being examined by the joint parliamentary committee. Assuming the privacy concerns are indeed addressed, then the opportunity provided by the two IT networks in place connecting bulk of the population is enormous. It is akin to building a highway—once developed, any vehicle of choice can be driven on it.

In short, the One Nation One Ration Card is an idea whose time has come.

Anil Padmanabhan is managing editor of Mint.Comments are welcome at anil.p@livemint.com

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