Reverse migration during COVID-19 lockdown exposes chinks in PDS

Updated - April 05, 2020 09:37 pm IST

Published - April 05, 2020 08:26 pm IST - Bengaluru

Citizens waiting to collect ration during the lockdown in Bengaluru.

Citizens waiting to collect ration during the lockdown in Bengaluru.

The panic return of migrant labourers working in Bengaluru to their homes in north Karnataka soon after the COVID-19 lockdown was announced has exposed some of the issues in the Public Distribution System (PDS). Even portability of ration cards — which means ration can be bought from any of the nearly 20,000 shops in the State — could not stop migrants from travelling back to their villages in fear of job loss and starvation.

For, according to the Food and Civil Supplies Department website, on an average, a mere 0.02% of 1.47 crore family ration cards have been used to get monthly ration from a shop that was not the closest one to the registered address in 2020. Ration card portability within the State came into effect in 2018.

If one thought this system would ensure migrants remained where they were by assuring food security, the current situation has proved otherwise. This is at least partly because ration can be taken by a whole family from only one place. “Which means that if one part of the family, say husband and wife, is in Bengaluru, leaving children and aged parents back in their village, ration can be taken at only one place. In such cases, the ration collection point is normally in the village. Portability works well only when the entire family is in one place,” an official said.

This has forced officials of the Food and Civil Supplies Department to think about alternatives during this situation of unexpected challenge. A large number of migrations involve a single earning member moving to Bengaluru, leaving the rest of his or her family in the village. In hundreds of villages across Raichur, Yadgir and Bagalkot districts, from where a lot of migration happens to Bengaluru, the rest of the family remains behind. “In such cases, ration is bought at the village level and the migrant brings a part of it to the city when he or she travels here. That link is now severed,” a source said.

According to a senior official, the number of families that have utilised the portability option since its launch is about five lakh. “Portability has given freedom to cardholders. The department was in the process of popularising it when the COVID-19 scare arrived. This has shown us the need to further streamline it.”

Benefits of portability

The Union government, under ‘One Nation, One Ration Card’, is implementing ration card portability across the country. In the first three months of 2020, families with ration cards issued in Karnataka used the service in Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Maharashtra, and Telangana. In all, 135 purchases have been done using Karnataka-issued ration cards in other States. Similarly, those with ration cards issued in Andhra Pradesh and Kerala have bought ration in Karnataka.

The road ahead

Discussions have begun informally within the Food and Civil Supplies Department to see if partial portability for ration cards — that is, allowing a split of benefits on a single card — can be allowed, and if so by what means. “There is a need to split the benefits of ration cards per family member or per beneficiary, depending on the scheme. This is considering the challenges thrown up by the COVID-19 situation, where a single family is split between two places. The government cannot issue two ration cards to overcome the challenge. We have talked about it, but more discussions are needed,” a top department official said.

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