New Delhi: Though in order to overcome the problem of exclusions faced due to Aadhaar-linked Point of Sales (PoS) machines installed at ration shops, the Delhi cabinet today approved the scheme for doorstep delivery of rations under the Public Distribution System, food rights activists said the government is yet to issue a written order to delink Aadhaar from the system as promised by it late last month.
In the cabinet meeting, chaired by chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, the proposal for home delivery or doorstep delivery of rations under the targeted Public Distribution System (PDS) was approved for all beneficiaries. There are around 19.5 lakh ration cards in Delhi with 72 lakh beneficiaries.
Approving the Department of Food, Supply and Consumer Affairs’ proposal for providing doorstep delivery of wheat or flour, rice and sugar, under the National Food Security Act 2013, the Kejriwal government said the decision has been taken as it was committed to ensure that “eligible beneficiaries receive their due ration in a transparent manner with maximum ease”. The cabinet decision will now be sent to the Lieutenant Governor Anil Baijal for his approval.
‘Ration beneficiaries were facing unforeseen trouble’
In a note, the government said “Aadhaar based identification of ration holders was one such reform, which has faced teething problems resulting in ration beneficiaries facing unforeseen trouble. Given this experience, doorstep delivery of ration is aimed at removing the problems faced by ration beneficiaries”.
The cabinet also took noted of the laws, rules and guidelines issued by the Ministry of Consumer Affairs that had urged the state governments to ensure home delivery of ration to the beneficiaries experiencing difficulty in getting their entitled quantum of subsidised foodgrain due to old age, physical disability etc.
‘Open bidding for selecting service provider’
It said the proposal was aimed at providing a higher level of transparency in delivery system through an inbuilt online monitoring system which will weed out corruption and diversion of food grains. “It will save time and resources of ration beneficiaries of Delhi.”
The Delhi government said “the service provider for home delivery of ration will be selected in a transparent manner through open bidding”.
‘This is just changing the goalposts, non-serious approach’
Anjali Bharadwaj of Satark Nagrik Sangathan and Right to Food Campaign, however, questioned the seriousness behind the idea. “What is doorstep delivery of rations? What is your policy framework? The postman will tell you that they find it difficult to look for houses in slums because they are numbered haphazardly. So will someone carry 35 kg of grains to these places? And what if the premises are found locked as people go out for work during daytime? Who will they leave the grains with or will they take them back? And what will happen if people would not get the delivery?” she asked.
“This is just changing the goalposts. We are sure the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) will come down heavily because they have invested so much on installing PoS machines and then iris readers and have then decided to move to doorstep delivery. Right now, you cannot manage your 2,500 ration shopkeepers, how will you manage 25,000 people needed for distributing these rations under the new scheme? The changing stance shows that they are completely non-serious about the entire issue.”
‘Where is notification for delinking Aadhaar from PDS?’
Bharadwaj charged that though deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia had declared a day after the Anshu Prakash incident that the meeting called at the chief minister’s residence was to discuss the doorstep delivery of ration card issue and not the issue of advertisements as had been claimed by Prakash in his assault complaint, the government had not followed up on its assurance to delink Aadhaar from the PDS system in Delhi. “Neither has any notification or any office order issued to the effect and our team which visited several rations shops recently found that beneficiaries were still being denied rations due to their biometrics not matching or not being accepted by the system.”
Bharadwaj said after completing the process of equipping all the ration shops in Delhi with PoS machines, the Delhi government recently also installed completed installation of iris readers in all of them. “So now apart from the ten digits on the hands, you also have the two eyes for the biometric authentication. But all this is linked to Aadhaar and that is where the problem lies,” she insisted.
‘Large-scale exclusions due to Aadhaar’
“There have been very large-scale exclusions due to Aadhaar in every place including Delhi. Right from the time that the National Food Security Act (NFSA), it was said that ration cards will not be issued to people who did not have Aadhaar numbers. This started in 2013-14 during the Congress government and carried on in this AAP government.”
Bharadwaj said by the time many got their Aadhaar cards made, the quota of ration had finished. “Under the NFSA there is a limit for the number of priority cards to be made and it is up to 70% for rural areas and up to 50% for urban areas. So for Delhi, the limit stood at 72 lakh beneficiaries. So they said the quota is finished and you can’t get it. So right from the beginning, people couldn’t get their cards made,” she said, adding that this quota has also not been revised so far.
Due to this, she said, in every public hearing her organisation conducted, it began hearing complaints of large scale exclusions apart from those of corruption and adulteration. With the Delhi government opting to install PoS devices in every shop, the complaints only grew.
Faults in the system
Then, she said, a pilot was started in 42 shops in 2016 and it went on for a year. “Again, we got huge complaints of exclusions during the exercise. By the end of this pilot, only about 20 shops remained because PoS was not working in the others and so the pilot failed miserably. The system was not working due to faulty machines, internet not working, biometric system not working or even electricity issues.”
Then, Bharadwaj said, SNS went to the Delhi high court as there were exclusions due to PoS and the Delhi government had not even promulgated rules under the NFSA. Bharadwaj said when the issue of rules was brought up in the high court, acting chief justice Geeta Mittal said the court was appalled at how so many people have been excluded.
“At first the Delhi Government said all the 41-odd testimonies provided by us were bogus. Then the court set up a court commissioner to enquire and he went house to house and found the exclusions to be genuine and reported the matter to the high court. The court then said all these people should get rations and rules should be promulgated,” she said.
‘Delhi government did not formulate rules under NFSA’
In 2017, the high court directed the Delhi government for formulate the rules, but that has not been done yet, she said.
Under the NFSA, she said, the Central government is supposed to provide the subsidy, the state government is supposed to put in certain rules for identification of beneficiaries, for transparency and for grievance redress and for social audit.
State Food Commission not been constituted
“Even the State Food Commission has not been constituted so far. It is a body for final appeal in matter related to rations just like the Central Information Commission (CIC) is for RTI related matters. This was to be done by the Delhi government. So right now the complaint goes to the department, whose officials are themselves being accused,” she said.
PoS machines installed in all shops despite failure of pilot scheme
The rights activists said in the meantime they also met the Food minister and Food Commissioner and demanded that the PoS machines be done away with but she said despite the pilot failing, it was universalised and in all the ration shops these machines were made mandatory from January 1, 2017.
As such, she said, huge problem began cropping up. “Again we did a public hearing on February 16 this year and took the matter to court. But still no rules were promulgated and Aadhaar was pushed mindlessly.”
Then, she said, the Anshu Prakash incident took place and Sisodia declared that Aadhaar would no longer remain a criteria for disbursal of rations. But despite the assertion, she said, no written order has been circulated. In the media briefing, Sisodia had also claimed that Prakash was called to discuss the rations issue as 2.5 lakh people were denied rations
It is not 2.5 lakh people who were denied rations, but over 20 lakh
Also, Bharadwaj noted that for January 2015 the PoS data showed that while there are 19.5 lakh ration cards and 72 lakh beneficiaries, out of this biometric failed for 35,000 families or about 1.5 lakh beneficiaries were denied rations. But, she said, the PoS online data also shows that there is biometric data for 4.5 lakh or nearly 20 lakh people.
She said investigations by SNS revealed that many of these people were engaged in such manual work like ironing clothes or picking stones, etc due to which their fingerprints are not recognised by the system at all. But, she lamented, that some officials try to pass these as bogus card holders. “How are bogus cards possible when each card has been made on an Aadhaar number,” she asked, noting that in the past, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had also in a similar vein once stated that over 4.5 crore bogus cards had been detected.
;There is no checking by the Delhi government’
“The reality is that the Delhi Government is not doing any checking. As for the iris readers, she said, testimonies of beneficiaries obtained yesterday reveal that inn case of some the fingerprints and also iris scans are not matching and genuine beneficiaries from slums are being denied rations. “Thereafter I tweeted both Arvind and Manish about it.”
In such a scenario, she said the Delhi government should first delink the PDS system from Aadhaar and formulate the rules as per NFSA. Also, she said there is a provision for social audit in the law and nothing has been done to improve transparency and audit.
‘Doorstep delivery came as PoS failed’
Nagendra Sharma, media adviser to chief minister, told The Wire that “linking of ration shops to PoS was happening all over India and about 52% of all ration shops have been connected to the system”.
“In Delhi, the pilot began in all ration shops after preparation from January 1, 2017. It was to run for two months. But after just 10-12 days we began receiving general complaints that people were being denied rations. The Food Department had kept some margin for complaints and we had made up our mind to provide rations to those left out,” he said.
Stating that the complaints pertained to both the shop owners not being able to use the technology as also to denial of rations, he said that this is what prompted the government to “look out for some alternative”.
‘CM made up his mind on home delivery in January’
The Food Department, Sharma said, was by then also working on the iris reader system so that we would have something to fall back on. “But then in January itself, the chief minister told the food minister that we should start the home delivery scheme because the other schemes were not working out. There was a lot of policy going back and forth on this. The view among the bureaucracy was that the error due to Aadhaar linkage was very little, but that was not the report from the ground,” he said.
As such, he said, in the Cabinet meeting on February 20 “it was decided that should hold the Aadhaar linkage for the time being. In the meantime, the preparation for doorstep delivery of rations was going on. Now the Cabinet has taken a decision. It is subject to the Lieutenant Governor now giving his approval to it”.
‘AAP tried to reform the system’
Sharma said the National Food Security Act kicked in in 2013 and that then for one year, there was no government. “The year 2014 was best left to the bureaucracy and L-G. In 2015, when we returned to power, the complaints were primarily of corruption and adulteration. In between, the margin money of ration sellers was raised from 70 paise per kg to Rs 2 per kg. This happened for the first time in history.”
As for the Aadhaar linkage, he said, “It was not expected that it would lead to problems. But that is why we decided to go for a pilot. As for the pilot undertaken at 42 shops, that was rather small. The government went by the assurances of the bureaucracy that things would work out well finally.”
‘No one is to be denied rations due to Aadhaar’
But now all those problems, he said, would be overcome through doorstep delivery. “PoS had come with a set of problems. The net does not work somewhere and fingerprints do not match. So we decided that rations will not be denied due to Aadhaar and the old system should continue,” he said.
However, he said, “The orders may not have reached the ration shops, but the department has been directed that no one should be denied rations due to Aadhaar matching.”