Aadhaar and Hunger: Second Jharkhand Woman Starves to Death After Being Refused Rations

Technical glitches in the delivery of rations and pension led to the death of a 67-year-old widow in Garhwa district.

Etwariya Devi's house in Jharkhand. Etwariya Devi Credit: Right to Food Campaign

Etwariya Devi’s house in Jharkhand. Credit: Right to Food Campaign

A second death related to faults within the Aadhaar-based Public Distribution System (PDS) has come to light in Jharkhand. On December 25, Etwariya Devi, a 67-year-old widow, reportedly died due to starvation in Sonpurwa village of Garhwa district’s Majhiaon block.

Her family was reportedly unable to procure food after the Aadhaar-enabled point of sales (PoS) machine couldn’t authenticate the biometrics of her daughter-in-law.

The Right to Food Campaign, which has been spearheading the fight of the poor and the marginalised for their right to rations, released a fact-finding report five days after the widow’s death and wrote of how the incident proves that problems with Aadhaar authentication are leading to not just the deprivation of much-needed grains to the very needy and poor, but also resulting in their deaths.

On December 1, Premani Kunwar, a 64-year-old widow, died because of glitches in the alleged Aadhaar-bank integration system. The campaign had then charged that Kunwar died of hunger and exhaustion in Danda block of Garhwa district after the State Bank of India (SBI) had diverted her old-age pension. It said that while the elderly woman had been receiving her pension till September, it was redirected to the SBI bank account of one Shanti Devi in Piprakala branch, which lies 22 km from Danda. Shanti Devi had died 25 years ago and was the first wife of Kunwar’s husband, late Mutur Mahto.

Kunwar’s death came barely days after Jharkhand food and civil supplies minister Saryu Roy admitted to the government’s mistake in an alleged starvation death case.

No pension, no ration

In the latest case, the Right to Food Campaign said Etwariya lived with her son Ghura Vishwakarma, daughter-in-law Usha Devi and their three children in a dilapidated house. The family led a hand-to-mouth existence and survived on bare meals of rice and salt.

As per the Campaign, “The shortage of food worsened for Etwariya Devi when the family was denied ration from October to December 2017 and she did not get her pension for the months of November and December.”

It said the family was denied their monthly entitlement of 25 kg of grain under the National Food Security Act for three months preceding her death. In October, her daughter-in-law Usha Devi’s fingerprint could not be authenticated in the Aadhaar-based biometric PoS machine at the local ration shop and she was told to come back some other day. When she did, she was told that the stock had finished. In fact, no grain was distributed at the ration shop in December till Etwariya Devi’s death as the PoS machine was allegedly dysfunctional.

A corrupt system

The report also highlights a general complaint made by villagers in Sonpurwa that the dealer does not distribute ration as per the transactions made in the PoS machine. “In October, for most ration card holders, he transacted twice the monthly entitlement of grain and kerosene quantities but distributed for only a month,” the report says.

The denial of ration to Etwariya’s family, the Campaign said, is yet another example of the disruptions in the PDS caused by its mandatory integration with Aadhaar.

“Dealers have started tampering with digital records in order to hide accumulated stocks. One way they do this is to separate authentication and distribution – get people’s fingerprints and/or tell them that they would get rations later, and then play hide-and-seek. As per the online records, ration was allotted to the dealer for October-December. But the dealer did not distribute ration to many cardholders claiming that he did not have adequate ration stock. These irregularities show that the introduction of Aadhaar-based biometric authentication has failed to curb leakages in the PDS. In fact, it has created new barriers to the access of rations,” the report reads.

Monetary issues

Every month, Etwariya Devi would receive her old-age pension of Rs 600 in her Aadhaar-linked bank account at the local Community Service Provider (CSP) centre (under Jharkhand Grameen Bank). She last collected her pension in October 2017.

In November, no money was credited in her account. When she went to withdraw her pension for December, after authenticating her fingerprint, the CSP operator told her that the authentication had failed. But as per her bank statement, a transaction of Rs 600 was made on December 8.

In the CSP model of banking, the Campaign said, money is electronically transferred from a customer’s account to that of the CSP operator once the customer authenticates the Aadhaar-based transaction. Once the money is credited to the CSP’s account, the payment is made to the customer. But according to the CSP operator at Sonpurwa, internet connectivity was disrupted just after Etwari Devi authenticated her fingerprint and thus her pension was not credited to the CSP account.

Another sorry example

The Campaign said the starvation death of another person in the same district exposes the government’s lack of seriousness towards addressing very pressing issues. “Disruptions in the delivery of ration and pension in Jharkhand continue unabated. For those living on the margins, denial of such crucial entitlements leads to the violation of mere right to life,” the reports says.

In light of this tragedy, the Jharkhand Right to Food Campaign has sought the immediate dismissal of the ration dealer in Sonpurwa and a registration of an FIR against him for embezzling PDS grain and tampering of with records. It has also sought immediate shift to “offline” delivery of PDS entitlements; transfer of all ration shop licenses from private dealers to gram panchayats or self-help groups; and the introduction of pulses and edible oil in the PDS.