What happens to the 25 crore Indians who do not have Aadhaar? 

It was meant as a way of ensuring the poor get their benefits. Instead, their lives have become a nightmare with crores denied pensions and rations guaranteed by acts of Parliament

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Ashlin Mathew

The Aadhaar card was envisaged to improve India’s welfare efforts by advocating inclusion and removing intermediaries from the system. It, in fact, began as a voluntary identification card, but now it has become mandatory to avail any of the government’s policy benefits.

It has been reported that around 16 crore citizens are yet to enrol themselves for the Aadhaar card and around nine crore have been excluded for reasons unknown and unexplained.

Even the recent Supreme Court ruling on March 13, 2018, the order which extended the deadline for linking the Aadhaar card to facilities such as bank accounts and SIM cards, allowed the continued imposition of Aadhaar on social services and entitlements such as the public distribution system (PDS), the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) and social security pensions. “This order perpetuates a long-standing double standard, whereby the hardships experienced by privileged classes due to Aadhaar being made mandatory are being addressed while much greater hardships endured by poor people are ignored,” says Dipa Sinha of the Right to Food campaign.

“Aadhaar has indeed been projected as an all-round solution to corruption. In fact, it can only help to address certain forms of corruption, mainly related to identity fraud. And it turns out that identity fraud in welfare schemes is much less common than the champions of Aadhaar had claimed,” points out Jean Dreze, who is also part of the Right to Food campaign in Jharkhand.

The damage caused by Aadhaar is not limited to the Public Distribution System alone. NREGA workers, pensioners and scholarship applicants have been denied their due because of errors in the Aadhaar verification system. Pensions have been stopped because their Aadhaar numbers were not seeded, or could not be seeded; in some cases, old people whose biometrics did not match were denied their rations too.

The Aadhaar-enabled public distribution system, though considered to be efficient, has several prickly issues. If the PoS device does not function, people are denied their ration and pension, it excludes those who do not have an Aadhaar card. Even if a beneficiary has an Aadhaar card but the biometrics don’t match, then they are still denied their due.

At a recent public hearing in the New Delhi, people from 14 states testified about their difficulties with the Aadhaar card leading to hunger and unemployment in many cases. According to official data, there are 19.5 lakh ration cards in Delhi, but in January 2018 almost a quarter of them were unable to access ration due to Aadhaar-based biometric authentication failure. In 2017, about 1.15 million households were removed from Jharkhand’s PDS as their Aadhaar number was not linked with the programme database.

“Jharkhand is one of the worst affected, because it is least prepared for Aadhaar-based technologies and yet, for some mysterious reason, it was selected for accelerated deployment of these technologies some years ago. Aadhaar-based biometric authentication (ABBA) was also imposed on the public distribution system in Rajasthan, early on, with disastrous results. Uttar Pradesh, it seems, also messed up the rollout of the National Food Security Act by using online, Aadhaar-based self-declaration as the basis for distributing ration cards. These are just a few states that I happen to know something about but Aadhaar-related problems abound across the country, to varying degrees,” emphasises Dreze.

“I was a part of a fact-finding team which was to inquire about the starvation death of Amir Jahan in Moradabad (Uttar Pradesh). Her family did not know how to apply for a ration card. Her husband had to leave the work of rickshaw pulling due to tuberculosis and migrate to Pune in search of work,” said Dipa Sinha, who is a part of the Right to Food campaign.

“Of the 1,393 households in my gram panchayat in Koraput, 175 households do not have a ration card, even though they applied over a year ago,” said Debashish, a sarpanch from Koraput in Odisha.

Failure rates in Aadhaar-based biometric authentication were as high as 8-17% amongst NREGA workers in AP and Telangana

These are not isolated cases. Homeless persons from Delhi have testified that they have been unable to get an Aadhaar card and have been denied several entitlements in the absence of an identification document. In one village in Badauli block, Chhattisgarh, 124 old citizens were not able to access their pensions as the village did not have network connectivity. From September 2017 to January 2018, at least 14 persons across Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka have reportedly died of starvation due to reasons related to Aadhaar.

According to the State of the Aadhaar Report by Ronald Abraham, Elizabeth S Bennett, Noopur Sen and Neil Buddy Shah, failure rates in Aadhaar-based biometric authentication were as high as 8 to 17 per cent amongst the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) workers and social security pensioners in the states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.

Aadhaar and especially Aadhaar-based biometric authentication are creating severe exclusion problems and widespread inconvenience. “There are, in most cases, better ways of addressing identity fraud. For instance, in the case of the public distribution system, a simple smart-card system, not dependent on internet connectivity or biometrics, would work much better than Aadhaar-based biometric authentication. So, the case for imposing Aadhaar on welfare schemes is very slim,” adds Dreze.

“Given the unsuccessful experience of cash for food subsidy pilots in Puducherry, Chandigarh, Dadra and Nagar Haveli, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, and the widespread discontent amongst the ration cardholders of these areas, all such experiments need to be discontinued with immediate effect. If at all necessary, people in such pilots should be given a choice between food and cash,” pointed out Sinha.

Case Studies

Bihar: Seventy-year old Masomat Kansiya has no source of income. She is dependent on her children, who are daily wage workers. Masomat had an Antyodaya ration card which entitled her to 35kg of grains every month. Her name is however missing from the Socio-Economic Caste Census (SECC) data. As ration card lists under the National Food Security Act are based on SECC data, households whose names are missing from this data are not given ration. Masomat’s family is one of them.

Karnataka: Three Dalit brothers of Belehittala succumbed to starvation between July 2 and 13, 2017. They did not receive their PDS foodgrains for six months. Their ration card was deleted as it was not linked to Aadhaar. There was no foodgrain in the house at the time of the deaths. They together earned about Rs 11,000 a year doing odd jobs. Within days of these deaths, 80,000 ration cards not linked with Aadhaar were deleted in Mysore district.

Uttar Pradesh: Musahar families in Uttar Pradesh are entitled to a ration card under the National Food Security Act. Last year, between July and August, 225 Musahar families of Varanasi applied for a ration card to the District Supply Officer. Each family submitted the application in the prescribed format, along with their Aadhaar numbers, bank account of the head of the household and a photograph. Each application was examined by the government functionary. In the meetings of the district vigilance committee, officials repeatedly ensured action on the applications. However, the ration cards have not been issued until now.

Jharkhand: Premani Kunwar of Garhwa died of hunger and exhaustion in on December 1, 2017. After September 2017, 64-year-old Premani’s pension was redirected to someone else’s bank account though it was linked with her Aadhaar card. Premani did not receive her ration in November 2017, even though her biometric details were authenticated. She was a farm labourer, but she stopped going to work when she became weak. She has a 13-year-old son.

Madhya Pradesh: Draupadi and Thakur Prasad are adivasis. Because Thakur Prasad works in Panna’s stone quarries, he suffers from silicosis. The family has been forced to migrate in search of work. In the village, Draupadi sells wood. They don’t have a proper house. The family has been denied ration because none of the members has an Aadhaar card.

Chhattisgarh: Fifty-five-year-old Kenda lives with his wife, three sons and two daughters-in-law. They do not own any land, including the land on which their house stands. Daily wage labour is their only source of income. As a result, the family often does not have enough grain during the lean season. They had applied for a ration card several times, but it hasn’t been issued.

Fourteen-year-old Samlu Baiga of Kabirdham belongs to the “Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group” (PVTG). His family earns about Rs 6,000 a year from daily wage labour and the sale of forest produce. For the last few months, his six-member family has been denied its ration. All members of the family, except Samlu, have submitted their Aadhaar. Samlu has deformed fingers since birth.

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