By Nikhila Natarajan
New York, June 30 (IANS) A centrally hosted public distribution system, Aadhaar numbers linked to a single beneficiary list and each transaction marked on a common ledger will be the essential technological ingredients for the ‘One Nation One Ration Card (ON-ORC) “dream” touted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his address to the nation Tuesday, according to India’s top technology scientists.
“We envisioned a dream for the entire country. We are working on ‘One Nation, One Ration Card’. The biggest beneficiaries will be the migrant labourers who leave their hometowns to find work in other places,” Modi said in his 17-minute speech centered around food security for India’s poor.
Over the last two months, millions of impoverished migrant workers made gruelling and dangerous trips back to their hometowns, with most public transport including trains halted during the nationwide lockdown at the time. Their journeys exposed cracks in the social safety net, especially their lack of access to food while on the move.
Experts on ON-ORC assess the scope of the project to include nearly 800 million consumers, more than half a million ration shops and 54 million tonnes of food grains per year on a single platform.
Speaking to IANS, technology architects working on population scale digital infrastructure explained the high level building blocks for a project of this scale.
The Aadhaar card and India’s evolving digital infrastructure layers popularly called India Stack, they said, will be the crucial components for ON-ORC. Food distribution will likely be virtualised much in the same way the country’s core banking system moved away from branch based banking, according to digital infrastructure mavens.
For the emergent need, a central ledger using which a beneficiary can get food anywhere in the country should work just fine, technical experts said. This structure would connect back to the immediate goal — it would solve for access and affordability without physical location being a limiting factor.
Beyond the immediate scenario, technologists suggest that converting the system into food coupons or a food wallet that can run on the rails of the Unified Payment Interface (UPI) to take the promise of ON-ORC up a few notches. Just as a context, the UPI is the world’s most advanced public payments system, it revolutionised digital payments in India.
A food wallet, experts say, will give food choice for the people by being redeemable for food items in any shop, anywhere in the country rather than merely ration shops.
Former chairman of Unique Identification Authority of India, Nandan Nilekani, reportedly “explicitly recommended” ration card portability riding on Aadhaar, way back in 2011. Nilekani has been pushing for ON-ORC via his commentary on social platforms.
“One Nation One Ration Card is an opportunity to provide a reliable social protection backbone to migrants, who are the backbone of our economy,” he wrote in late May, days before the original June 2020 rollout timeline for ON-ORC.
The Modi government committed to a national rollout of ON-ORC by June 2020, which later got pushed back to March 2021.
Reports suggest that inter-state PDS portability has lagged, based on pilots in about a dozen states.
On Tuesday, Modi announced that more than 800 million Indians will get five-kg of wheat or rice free until November. Each family unit will also be given one kilo of lentils free each month, in view of the upcoming festival season as well as the ongoing Covid-19 outbreak.