HC Pulls up Delhi Government for Improper Implementation of Food Security Act

The Delhi high court-appointed commissioner says beneficiaries are denied rations for not possessing Aadhaar and suggested that the food department pay compensation.

Food security

A labourer sifts wheat crop in a field. Credit: Reuters

The Delhi high court pulled up the Delhi government for its failure to promulgate rules under the National Food Security Act (NFSA) relating to transparency, grievance redress and accountability, after a local commissioner appointed by it in May pointed out existing lapses.

The court also directed that no deserving and eligible persons should be left out of the food security net after the commissioner, Zoheb Hossain, submitted how many families had been deprived of rations either on account of not possessing Aadhaar numbers, the quota having got filled up or because of biometric authentication issues.

The court order came following a case filed by Delhi Rozi Roti Adhikar Abhiyan, which had claimed that Aadhaar had been made mandatory for receiving rations under the NFSA. As part of its petition, the Abhiyan had also got several affidavits filed by people who had suffered on account of officials refusing to take birth certificates as identity proof and seeking Aadhaar for making ration cards.

In his report, Hossain, who had been appointed the local commissioner by the high court on May 25 to visit fair price shops in Malviya Nagar in South Delhi and to interact with the residents of Jagdamba and Lal Gumbad camps in the area on whose behalf petitions had been filed in the court, has affirmed what had been alleged by the residents.

But apart from dealing with the issues of problems in getting ration cards and those related to biometric authentication due to use of point of sale (PoS) machines, Hossain also commented on the NFSA saying, while its Section 14 requires an internal grievance redressal mechanism and rules for the same, the rules have been framed thus far. Also, he said, complaints registered with the helplines are not visible and their status cannot be tracked. And finally, while Section 28 requires periodic social audits, that has not happened even once in Delhi.

Taking exception to this, the high court directed the Delhi government to frame rules and operationalise all provisions of the law in a time-bound manner to ensure proper functioning of ration shops in Delhi. Incidentally, while rules under the law are required to be framed by the state government, the Arvind Kejriwal government has till date not promulgated any.

In his report, Hossain submitted that he visited the Jagdamba and Lal Gumbad camps in Delhi to meet the 39 families whose had filed their affidavits before the high court. He said their houses were basically “jhuggies” and that they stood excluded from the ration card and consequently the benefits under the NFSA.

Their complaints in the petition were primarily two. One, of “their names not being recorded in the ration cards of the families due to want of Aadhaar” and of “difficulty faced on account of the “PoS” machines not working because of biometric failures, especially with regard to old people”.

Hossain, who visited the camps on August 5, noted that while the residents were denied ration cards, “at the time when the applications were made by these 39 applicants, Aadhaar was not mandatory”.

Birth certificates rejected, Aadhaar sought by food department

After meeting the 39 families, he wrote that while they had all complained that “they stood excluded from the food subsidies as their names were not updated on the ration card for not supplying their Aadhaar number while making the application somewhere between the periods of September 2013 and 2015. Almost all of them have stated that they have made the applications for inclusion in the ration card with the birth certificate which was rejected by the food department of the government of Delhi on the pretext that Aadhaar card was required.”

“Subsequently,” he wrote, “almost all of the family members of the above applicants applied for Aadhaar and obtained the same”. But even that was not good enough. “Even after obtaining the Aadhaar number and after making fresh applications with their Aadhaar number they were told that their names cannot be included in the ration card because the quota for the year is over and only when the next window is open will it be done.”

62 included in ration cards due to court intervention

Stating that all the applicants had received “identical responses” from the food department, Hossain further stated that when in his meeting with the food commissioner and other senior department officials on August 26, he apprised them of the situation and told them that “there cannot be any reason to further continue to deny those family members their food subsidies under the NFSA”, an Action Taken Report was filed by Circle 50 of the department informing him that “62 out of 81 family members of the 39 families have now been included in the ration card”.

On the larger issue, Hossain while quoting a notification of the food ministry of the Central government while exercising its power under the NFSA 2013 and Section 7 of the Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Act, 2016 said it lays down “a mechanism which takes care of the fact that till Aadhaar is assigned, no person shall be denied of their entitlement.”

Observing that “it appears that not only were the applications of the family members of the 39 families wrongly rejected, their continued denial and exclusion from food subsidies is also contrary to the express provisions of the notification dated February 8, 2017 as the law itself provides that no person shall be deprived of benefits of any one member of the family has Aadhaar,” Hossain said in view of the denial of the benefit to the families despite one of their members possessing Aadhaar, the high court may also consider awarding compensation to them.

Food department should pay compensation

Citing cases of families being denied rations over the years, despite undergoing severe hardships, like families with children suffering from autism, he said “those excluded from the food subsidies have suffered hardships and may be compensated by the Food Department” of Delhi government. Referring to two Delhi government circulars which in 2014 and 2015 declared that food security was to be provided even without Aadhaar number, Hossain said thus any denial by the food department then was “ex-facie illegal, even according to their own circulars”.

Hossain also visited two fair price shops to examine the issue of problems with respect to the PoS machines. He incidentally found both the shops, one located on Mata Sundari Road, and the other at Chandni Chowk and found both shut during working hours. At the first shop, the sales manager noted that they were no longer providing food grains by way of Aadhaar based authentication since the contract for the PoS device had expired and they had returned to the old system of “sale/cash register”. The PoS device was used from 2014 till May 2017, but the manager claimed that nobody was denied rations for authentication failure as the sale register was relied on in such cases.

Poor response to PoS failure complaints

At the Chandni Chowk shop, the owner had claimed that the PoS device which was in use since October 2014 frequently developed snags and once a department official on to whom a complaint was made had said “toh hum kya karen (so what can we do)?”

Hossain said when he raised the issue with the food commissioner he was told that on August 28 an email was issued which provides for manual distribution of food grains if the PoS device is not working.

Installation of CCTVs suggested

He said the food commissioner also tried to impress upon him the benefits of Aadhaar and claimed that the “government has recorded a savings of 8% of account of Aadhaar-based authentication system”. Also, the official insisted that there was a nexus between PDS shop-keepers and ineligible beneficiaries.

But taking cognisance of the fact that the ration shops were found closed when he reached them, Hossain has suggested that the high court may direct installation of CCTVs there with an online feed directly to the website of the food department which, he hoped, “would go a long way in checking any nexus with bogus elements and shopkeepers”.

Iris authentication to be introduced

The food commissioner, Hossain said, also informed that in the future, apart from fingerprint authentication, iris based authentication would also be introduced as an alternative. However, genuine beneficiaries would not be denied benefits if even both did not work as a one time password would be sent to their registered mobile phone and used to identify them.

Referring to the pilot project undertaken by the Delhi government, Hossain said it should come out with a “comprehensive report” to reveal its performance in the last two years.

The case is now listed for hearing on September 19.

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