In a judgment on Tuesday, June 29, the Supreme Court directed the Centre, states and Union Territories (UT) to complete the implementation of the scheme of One Nation One Ration Card (ONORC) by 31st July.
The ONORC scheme was launched in 2019 by the Union Government in four states on a pilot basis. This scheme aims to ensure that all beneficiaries, specifically the migrant labourers, are able to get access to subsidised ration (wheat, rice and other food grains) across the country from any Public Distribution System (PDS) fair price shop (FPS).
Later, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 when the migrant labourers were faced with dire consequences, many lost their jobs and were deprived of job opportunities, many could not go back to their home towns due to lack of the transportation owing to the nationwide lockdown, the Union Government decided to extend this scheme to the whole of India. As part of the Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan, the COVID-19 economic relief or stimulus package, the government announced the nationwide rollout of ONORC in all the states and Union Territories by March 2021.
As yet, 32 states and Union Territories have been brought under the national portability of ration cards under the banner of ONORC, covering about 69 crore beneficiaries of NFSA who now have an option of lifting their food grains from any FPS of their choice in any of these 32 states/UTs.
Four states of Assam, Chhattisgarh, Delhi and West Bengal are yet to implement this ONORC scheme. The reasons behind this are technical and political. Delhi government has not started the use of ePoS (electronic Points of Sale) in FPSs, which is a technical prerequisite for the implementation of ONORC. While the West Bengal government has demanded that the non-NFSA ration card holders i.e., ration cards issued by the state government, should also be covered under the ONORC.
The Supreme Court passed the judgement following the largescale outrage in the country about the hardships faced by the migrant labourers in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic be it due to job loss or lack of transportation facilities, which caught the attention of many.
A bench of Justices Ashok Bhushan and MR Shah in their 80-page judgment observed that,
“Both, in the first and the second wave of the pandemic, migrant workers had been exposed to financial and other forms of hardships due to their limited access and claim to the welfare resources offered by the States/Union Territories. Migrant labourers are particularly vulnerable to the economic regression.”Re. Problems and Miseries of Migrant Labourers [SMWP(C) 6/2020] LL 2021 SC 274
The Supreme Court reminded the Centre and the states that towards the migrant workers, who have made “considerable contributions” to the nation’s economic growth and progress, they have their “bounden duty” to make sure that those labourers do not remain hungry and underfed due to the pandemic.
The Justices also stated in their judgment that a government is dutybound to feed migrant labourers, especially so during the time of a pandemic of such nature. Just because they do not have proper ration cards the government cannot “abdicate” its duty. While observing the same the Apex Court stated, “There is a large number of such migrants who do not possess any card. Their above disability is due to their poverty and lack of education. The State cannot abdicate its duty towards such persons, especially in the wake of the pandemic where large numbers of migrant workers are not able to get jobs which may satisfy their basic needs”.Re. Problems and Miseries of Migrant Labourers [SMWP(C) 6/2020] LL 2021 SC 274
As we know that the implementation and distribution is primarily in the hands of the state governments, the Court ordered the “states that have not implemented the scheme must do the same before July 31”. The Court also added that the centre should supply whatever additional quantity of food grains a state may require.
The Bench also directed the union government to “redetermine” the NFSA beneficiaries in both the urban and rural areas by undertaking an exercise under Section 9 of the National Food Security Act, 2013.
The Court also asked the States and UTs to set up community kitchens in prominent places to feed migrant workers who does not have sufficient means to procure two square meals a day and continue to run them throughout the pandemic, and provide additional food grains to them.
The Apex Court also rapped and came down heavily on the Ministry of Labour for being unable to complete the process for setting up the portal of National Database for Unorganised Workers (NDUW), which the Court asked the government to finalise in 2018 and termed it an “unpardonable apathy”. It further directed the Centre to get the portal ready by July 31. The Court asked all the concerned States and UTs and the Licence Holders and Contractors and others to cooperate with the Central Government to complete the process of registration of migrant workers and unorganized labourers by December 31 this year. This portal is being built to ensure the benefits of various welfare schemes announced by Centre and States to the migrant workers and unorganized labourers.
And finally, the Court asked the States and Union Territories to register all establishments and license all contractors under the Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979 and ensure that they provided the authorities with complete details of the workers employed by them.
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