Written by Jean Dreze
The Covid crisis has enhanced the dependence of poor people on social security schemes such as the public distribution system (PDS). Many of them, unfortunately, continue to have difficulties in accessing these schemes due to Aadhaar-related problems.
Startling findings on Aadhaar-related denial of foodgrain rations were reported a few days ago by Shreyas Sardesai, based on a recent Lokniti-CSDS survey. The survey, conducted in 2019, covered more than 12,000 electors across the country. Those who had a ration card (about four-fifths of all respondents) were asked whether it had ever happened that they were deprived of their foodgrain rations for lack of Aadhaar, or due to other Aadhaar-related problems such as biometric authentication glitches or failure to link their ration card with Aadhaar. The proportion of affirmative responses was as high as 28 % at the all-India level, rising to 39 % among low-income households and 40 % in the erstwhile BIMARU states.
The fact that Aadhaar-related problems often lead to denial of food rations from PDS is well known. What is new here is that they have affected so many people. This may seem puzzling, because most people have an Aadhaar card, and biometric authentication failures also tend to affect a relatively small proportion of PDS users. How, then, does one explain these staggering figures?
One plausible answer is that they reflect widespread use of the “ultimatum method” to enforce the mandatory linking of ration cards with Aadhaar. This consists of setting a deadline for Aadhaar linking, and then telling people that unless they meet the deadline their benefits — in this case food rations — will be suspended. This method has been widely applied in many states to link Aadhaar not only with ration cards but also with job cards, social security pensions, bank accounts, PAN cards, and so on. It is used mainly on poor people — the middle class tends to get softer treatment.
Jharkhand’s experience sheds some light on the risks of this approach. The ultimatum method was vigorously used there in 2017, in an effort to link all ration cards with Aadhaar. On March 27, 2017, the chief secretary stated that “all the ration cards which have not been linked with Aadhaar number will become null and void on April 5”. On September 22, 2017, the government of Jharkhand boasted of having cancelled lakhs of “fake ration cards” [sic]. Later on, however, it turned out that most of these ration cards belonged to people who were alive and eligible. Among them was the family of Santoshi Kumari, an 11-year-old Dalit girl who succumbed to prolonged hunger on September 28, 2017.
This entire process is objectionable in many ways. Linking a ration card with Aadhaar is not always easy for poor people: They may not know what to do, where to go or how to rectify incorrect details on their Aadhaar card. Assistance and safeguards are scarce. There is no verification before cancellation, the victims are not informed, they have no right to appeal, and the list of cancelled cards is not in the public domain. To this day, the Jharkhand government has failed to disclose the list, despite repeated appeals for transparency.
Quite likely, similar methods have been used across the country in the last few years to achieve near-universal linkage of ration cards with Aadhaar. Basically, people were threatened with denial of food rations or even cancellation of ration cards if they failed to link their card with Aadhaar in good time. The threat was acted on from time to time, as it must be if people are to believe it. This is one plausible reason why so many people report having been denied food rations due to Aadhaar-related problems at some point. In addition, of course, many people have been affected by other Aadhaar-related problems such as biometric authentication glitches and also connectivity failures — one of the major vulnerabilities of Aadhaar-based biometric authentication in the last few years.
Temporary denial of food rations is one thing, cancellation of ration cards is far more serious. How many cards have been cancelled for lack of Aadhaar linkage? No one really knows. In the case of Jharkhand, three lakh ration cards (about 6 % of all ration cards) is a plausible guess, based on official statements as well as independent evidence from a recent study by Karthik Muralidharan and his colleagues. For India as a whole, the food ministry stated recently in Rajya Sabha that 2.06 crore ration cards had been cancelled since 2017, but it is anyone’s guess how many of them were cancelled for lack of Aadhaar linkage. This matter is now under the Supreme Court’s scanner, following a petition by Santoshi Kumari’s family.
All this is just one part of the story. As I said, the ultimatum method has also been used in connection with other social benefits. In many states, it has led to mass cancellation of job cards, discontinuation of social security pensions, and freezing of bank accounts. This is not to deny that there are cases when cancelling a ration card or freezing a bank account may be justified. But this should be done in a fair and transparent manner. Depriving poor people of social benefits without any sort of due process (prior warning, verification, intimation, right of appeal, full disclosure, and so on) is patently unfair.