Why A Supreme Court Order To Provide Subsidised Food To 80 Million Workers May Not Help Them

15 May 2023 12 min read  Share

On 20 April, the Supreme Court ordered all states and union territories to provide ration cards to 80 million migrants—nearly the population of Germany—registered on a national database, so they could buy subsidised food. The e-shram database was created after the court pushed a reluctant union government. But even if ration cards are issued, the website does not let migratory workers register alternate addresses, preventing access to not just cheap food but 20 other promised benefits, such as insurance and old-age pension.

At the Kamgar Sanrakshan Sammaan Sangh which works out of a slum in Navi Mumbai, volunteers help workers navigate the e-shram website, which they must register on to receive subsidised food, insurance and other government benefits. Photo courtesy: Kamgar Sanrakshan Sammaan Sangh

Kolkata: When Rekha Manore*, a domestic worker in Navi Mumbai, registered on what the union government calls the e-shram website— India’s national database of unorganised-sector workers—in late 2021, she hoped it would help her life easier. 

She hoped the benefits promised would give her access to cheap food accident insurance of Rs 200,000, pension, housing and other welfare entitlements that could be accessed anywhere in India, allowing union and state governments to directly deliver relief during a crisis, such as the Covid-19 pandemic.

To Rekha, daily life itself is a bit of a crisis.

A native of Karnataka’s northern district of Kalaburagi, Rekha, 27, moved to Navi Mumbai in 2010 after her marriage with Subhash Manore*, a housekeeper in a call centre. Subhash had a ration card, which allowed him access to five kilos of subsidised food grains every month.

To this day, the card does not include the names of Rekha and their two children, aged nine and six, who study at a local government school.

The family lives in a tenement in Chinchpada, a slum in Navi Mumbai’s Airoli suburb. Rekha and Subash Manore’s combined income of approximately Rs 10,000 per month placed them above Maharashtra’s official poverty line, but it was not enough to get by.

So, the Manores took loans from relatives and moneylenders, mostly ranging Rs 5,000 to 15,000, which they repaid on a monthly basis. 

Having access to subsidised food grain would have been a huge help, said Rekha, a  domestic worker. “But we did not know whom to approach to add our names to the ration card,” she said. “Besides, with our jobs and the children, where was the time to visit offices and submit applications?”


Great Promise, Not Realised 

Launched in August 2021, e-shram seemed to offer redress to nearly 440 million unorganised sector workers without a safety net. 

The big benefit it promised was access to India’s public distribution system (PDS), which sells subsidised food to about 800 million Indians through half a million “fair-price shops”, apart from other social-security benefits. 

On 26 August 2021, when minister for labour and employment Bhupender Yadav, launched the portal, he said it was a historic first, a database for “the nation builders of India”, workers aged 16 to 59 years and engaged in the unorganised sector. 

E-Shram was set up after a June 2021 Supreme Court order, in response to a petition on the migrant workers crisis during the national lockdown imposed during the first wave of Covid-19, but the demand for registering and enumerating informal workers was officially acknowledged well over a decade ago. 

The national commission for enterprises in the unorganised sector (constituted in 2004 by the United Progressive Alliance government and dissolved in 2013) compiled multiple reports (here and here) on social security measures for informal workers, emphasising the need to enumerate and measure the informal sector’s contribution. 

The e-shram database would be seeded with India’s national identity database, the Aadhaar system, and would include many details, such as  the worker’s name, occupation, address, educational qualification, skill types and family details, the minister said.

Experts were unanimous that the e-Shram was a good start, but flagged a series of problems. 

Making Aadhaar mandatory for registering left millions of the most vulnerable unorganised workers out of the system; there were technology-related problems that stymied efforts to register the large numbers of workers; and these technical and language barriers led to over-reliance on the Common Service Centers (CSCs) and unofficial middle-persons who were reported to be over-charging workers to help them register.  


‘I Don’t Know If We’ll Ever Get Rations’

As Article 14 reported in February 2022, the e-shram database was not working as the government promised, with widespread problems of identity and linkages. 

Rekha’s experiences show that these problems endure. 

On 20 April 2023, the Supreme Court ordered all states and union territories to provide ration cards within three months to 286 million workers registered on e-shram. By 7 May 2023, that number had gone up to 288 million.

After Rekha received her e-shram card in January 2022, she visited the local fair-price shop several times. The shop owner said her name was still not on the ration card, so she could not buy the cheap food on offer. 

She said she had also heard of other instances of e-shram card holders, including her neighbours in a slum called Ganesh Nagar in Navi Mumbai’s Airoli suburb, being refused ration and insurance claims. 

“We had pinned a lot of hope on e-shram earlier, but it all came crashing down,” said Rekha. “I don’t know if the court order will change anything, and if we will ever get rations.”

E-Shram Ignores Migration

Other workers, government officials and independent experts shared Rekha’s cynicism.

They welcomed the court’s directive to provide ration cards to registered workers, but drew attention to issues that compromised access to subsidised food grains and needed urgent resolution. 

For instance, though the website offers a number of insurance and pension and old-age programmes, nearly all of them require a premium payment, which most workers cannot afford. It is also not clear to most how to sign up for these benefits  

Some experts said they doubted if the e-shram website could ever realise its promise of cheap food and other social security benefits, primarily because the database did not factor in the migratory nature of the majority of unorganised sector workers.

“A majority of workers are likely to have the address of their native village on e-shram, even if they live and work in another state. So the list is best suited for portable benefits such as cash transfers into the bank accounts of workers and food rations under the One Nation One Ration scheme. Whether portable or non-portable, some caution is required with non-contributory benefits since e-shram is an unverified self-declared list initially intended for contributory benefits such as accident insurance," well-known economist Jean Dreze told Article 14.

Concerns regarding lack of verification were also raised by two labour commissioners who requested anonymity.  

The e-shram website does not provide for an additional worksite address, necessary to access benefits anywhere in the country the worker might be.

There is no definite data on what proportion of the unorganised sector comprises migrant workers. Some reports place the number of internal migrants in India at 400 million, but it is not clear if/how many are part of the unorganised sector.

Supreme Court Pushes A Reluctant Govt

The 20 April Supreme Court was meant to bring all unorganised-sector workers under the protection of the National Food Security Act 2013, which entitles up to 75% of the rural population and 50% of the urban population to subsidised foodgrain through the PDS.

A bench of Justices M R Shah and C T Ravikumar passed the order after a petition filed by activists Harsh Mander, Anjali Bharadwaj and Jagdeep Chhokar claimed the union government had not obeyed a June 2021 Supreme Court order to open community kitchens for migrant workers. 

This was not the first time the government had ignored a Supreme Court order. In 2018, the court directed chief secretaries of all states to start registering India’s unorganised workers, in response to a petition dating back to 2012.

Yet, a day before Modi announced a nationwide lockdown to stall the spread of Covid-19 cases, the government told Parliament, in response to a member’s question asking if the government had a record of migrant workers, unskilled and agricultural labourers in the country, that “no such register” was maintained. 

In its June 2021 order, the Supreme Court said the delay in setting up this portal was “unpardonable” and reflected a “lackadaisical attitude” by the ministry of labour and employment. Since then, the court has had to push the government for progress.

In April 2023, the court noted that out of 286 million workers registered on e-shram,  the names of 80 million—or nearly the equivalent of the population of Germany—were absent from the PDS database. 

“Meaning thereby, the rest of the registrants on eShram portal are still without ration cards…,” said the April 2023 order. “Without a ration card a migrant/unorganised labourer or his family members may be deprived of the benefit of schemes and even benefits under the National Food Security Act.”

The Supreme Court has asked the union government for a status report by 3 October, the next date of hearing.

If implemented, the order could provide relief to over 288 million unorganised-sector workers registered on e-shram, such as Rekha, struggling to make ends meet after the economic devastation of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Ration Cards Are Not Enough 

Civil society groups and trade unions welcomed the Supreme Court order, but said that inclusion of e-shram registrants on ration-card rolls did not guarantee access to subsidised foodgrains.

While the Right to Food Campaign, an informal advocacy network, demanded that all states and union territories “immediately” issue ration cards, it also noted that ration-card data is based on the 2011 census, and the actual number of migrant workers who did not have ration cards was over 100 million

Others raised the issue of e-shram registrants who have ration cards that work only in their native villages and they do not get subsidised food grains in and around cities where they live and work, despite the One Nation One Ration programme, launched in 2019 to allow access to subsidised food anywhere in India.

“Ration card holders must provide their biometric details at the place of residence mentioned in ration cards to get benefits under the scheme,” said Abdul Shakeel, founder of the Basti Suraksha Manch or Slum Security Forum, an advocacy group that works with unorganised workers in and around Delhi.

 “But many workers in Delhi who have ration cards in villages in other states have not gone there in decades,” said Shakeel. “None of them is getting rations.” 


Jameela Begum, Secretary of the Kamgar Samman Sanrakshan Sangh (KSSS) or Organisation to Protect Respect for Workers, a trade union for unorganised sector workers in Maharashtra, raised similar concerns. 

“In Mumbai, even workers who have local ration cards face issues with rations due to corruption, pilferage and erratic supply,” said Begum. “Issuing new ration cards is fine, but these issues also need to be resolved urgently.”

‘Not Designed With Migrant Interests In Mind’ 

Theoretically, any worker between the age of 16 and 59 years can register on e-shram by providing an Aadhaar number and Aadhaar-linked mobile number. E-shram is linked to the Aadhaar database, and sources all information about the applicant, such as name, age, address, and bank account details, from there. 

Workers migrate to different cities and states frequently, but the address on Aadhaar is, often, the residential address. The migratory nature of their life is not recognised by e-shram, which, as we said, does not allow for an address that is different from that listed on Aadhaar.

This is especially a problem for seasonal migrants, who comprise a large part of the unorganised sector labour force and have no steady place of work or employer. 

“A key objective of e-shram is to provide social security benefits to migrant workers, including during emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic,” said a labour commissioner of one of India’s eastern states, speaking on condition of anonymity. “But the database does not reflect their status as migrants in any way—it is not designed with their interests in mind.” 

Article 14 sent emails to Bhupender Yadav, the minister of labour and employment, and Rameshwar Teli, the minister of state, seeking their responses and clarifications. Emails and reminders were also sent to the Secretary and Deputy Secretary of the Ministry of Labour and Employment, which runs e-shram. But no responses were received from the authorities.

Sushant Panigrahi, an activist from the migration-prone Kalahandi region in western Odisha, said he knew of many villagers from the region who worked in brick kilns in other states for six to eight months every year, had registered on the portal but were receiving no benefits in the states where they worked.

All those who register on e-shram get an identity card, as Rekha in Navi Mumbai does, with what is called a universal account number. “But all this is mere show,” said Panigrahi. 

“The database has no information regarding their current location, which is necessary to disburse subsidised food grains and other benefits,” said Panigrahi.

Lots Of Schemes, But Access Unclear 

The e-shram website lists more than 20 different social security and employment schemes amongst its benefits. 

These include the Pradhan Mantri Suraksha Bima Yojana, which provides compensation of up to Rs 2 lakh in cases of accidental death and full disability; the Pradhan Mantri Shram Yogi Maan-Dhan Yojana, which entitles beneficiaries to a pension of Rs 3,000 per month once they turn 60; and the Ayushman Bharat-Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Yojana, which provides health coverage of Rs 500,000 per family per year for secondary and tertiary care hospitalisation.

But registration on e-shram does not automatically provide access to these schemes. 

Instead, nearly all of them require the payment of a premium, which the website does not make clear. Registrants often discover this truth the hard way, as the Waghes from Chinchpada in Navi Mumbai’s Airoli suburb did. 

Like Rekha and Subhash Manore from the same neighbourhood, Prakash Waghe, who worked as a helper in call centres, registered on e-shram in late 2021. In January 2023, he slipped and fell outside his home and died three days later. 


His wife Vanita Waghe assumed the family was eligible for Rs 200,000 compensation for accidental death under the Pradhan Mantri Suraksha Bima Yojana, and contacted Prachi Kale, facilitator with the KSSS who had helped her husband register on the e-shram website.

“I too assumed that the family was eligible for compensation, but was at a loss about what needs to be done to claim it, as there is no information on this either on the e-shram portal or with government officials,” said Kale. 

She discussed the matter with colleagues at her union. They suggested that she and Vanita Waghe visit the bank where Prakash had an account. 

“But when we visited the bank, officials told us that no compensation could be given, as Prakash Waghe had not paid the premium,” said Kale. “But he did not even know. His wife was heartbroken, as she was hoping the money would help her and their two children make a fresh start” 

Following Prakash’s death, Vanita, who was a housewife, started a tiffin service. But the income was not enough to support her and her son and daughter, aged 16 years and 14 years, respectively. 

So in March, unable to afford the high cost of living in Mumbai, she and her children moved back to their native village along the Konkan coast in rural Maharashtra. 

The family, said Kale, had not been heard of since.

*Name changed on request 

(Aritra Bhattacharya is a journalist and researcher based in Kolkata.)

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