The Indian Supreme Court on Friday asked the West Bengal government to implement the One Nation One Ration Card scheme "immediately" to help beneficiaries, especially migrant workers, to avail of subsidised food commodities from anywhere in the country.
While the counsel for the state government flagged the issue of seeding ration cards with Aadhaar, the top court was emphatic that "no excuse will be considered" and that West Bengal must make the scheme functional.
"In fact, all states must implement this scheme so that migrant workers can benefit," remarked the bench of justices Ashok Bhushan and MR Shah, which was hearing a suo motu (registered on its own motion) case pertaining to "problems and miseries of migrant workers".
The scheme is currently functional in 32 states and Union territories and allows eligible beneficiaries to get food grain under the National Food Security Act from fair price shops across India without securing a new ration card. Apart from West Bengal, Assam, Chhattisgarh and Delhi are the other states yet to implement it, according to Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, who was representing the Centre. The Delhi government, however, submitted in court on Friday that it will implement the scheme.
Reserving its order on issuing further directives in the case, the bench asked counsel for all state governments to submit a brief note on the implementation of the scheme and other policy measures taken to ensure supply of sufficient dry ration and provision of transportation facilities to migrant workers.
During the hearing, the court also asked the Union government whether the Pradhan Mantri Atmanirbhar Scheme could be extended to migrant workers who did not have the ration cards since the other scheme for distributing free grain, the Pradhan Mantri Gareeb Kalyan Anna Yojana , which has been extended till November, may not cover those not having ration cards.
Senior advocates Dushyant Dave, Colin Gonsalves and Anand Grover, appearing for several applicants in the matter, expressed concern that around 30 million workers in the unorganised sector could be left out for want of ration cards.
In response, solicitor general Tushar Mehta and additional solicitor general Aishwarya Bhati, who represented the Union government, emphasised that PM Garib Kalyan Yojana had identified around 800 million people for distribution of free food grain amid the coronavirus crisis.
Stating that 8 lakh metric tonnes of food grain has been given to the states, the law officers added that it is now for the respective state governments to frame suitable schemes to make certain the supplies received under the Garib Kalyan Yojana reach all the beneficiaries.
The bench, however, told the Union government that it should consider extending Garib Kalyan Yojana temporarily to even those who did not have the ration cards. SG Mehta said that he would need to take instructions regarding this from the competent authority.
Meanwhile, the court also expressed its displeasure that the creation of a national portal or database to register unrecognised workers has moved slowly and that the Union government was asking for four more months just to create a module.
"This project began in August 2020 and not even a module is ready. What is this? ₹417 crore has been released so far but there is nothing done till date and you are asking for 3-4 months more just to create a module," the bench asked the S-G.
Mehta responded that the National Informatics Centre (NIC) has taken over the project and that he will seek instructions on expediting the process.
"This cannot be left to the bureaucracy anymore. Your officers have been doing nothing. Just because your director says they do not have time, this cannot be put on hold forever. Identification and registration are the first steps in ensuring benefits reach migrant workers," said the court, indicating it will also issue some directions regarding the timeline for the national portal to register such workers.
On the last date of hearing on May 24, the bench underlined that registration of unorganised workers should be completed as early as possible and there should be a common national database created with the coordination of the state governments.
"We also impress upon the Central government and the state governments to complete the process of registration of organised workers at an early date so that unorganised workers are able to reap the benefit of different schemes of the Centre and the states, which, without proper registration and identity card seems to be difficult to implement on the ground," it said while asking for the status of the national portal.
During that hearing, the court directed that migrant workers be provided with dry ration under any suitable scheme of the Centre or state government.