Prime Minister Narendra Modi has over the last few years been vocal about his dream of a ‘New India’ and the ‘revolution’ of Aadhaar. Subscribing to this privileged worldview, the majority judgement authored by Justice Arjan Kumar Sikri upheld that linking of Aadhaar with welfare schemes for administering subsidies for the poor was a ‘legitimate exercise’.
To the worries of massive exclusion, and anxieties of a considerable population of underprivileged lives being adversely affected by such a serious decision, the judgment was explicitly disempowering, as it stated, “Lot of people who will benefit due to inclusion cannot be denied due to exclusion of few; can’t throw baby out with bathwater.”
The “exclusion of a few” that did not qualify for “throwing the baby out” cost them their lives. Recently, Kaleswar Soren, a 45-year-old Adivasi man in Mahuatanr village in Jharkhand’s Dumka district, lost his life due to prolonged hunger and undernutrition. Since Santoshi Kumari’s death last year, this was the 17th starvation death in the state. Kaleswar had no known illness, except he was getting weaker each passing day and had not eaten for two days before his demise, his son said. Once a daily wage labourer in a brick kiln, he quit work after suffering an injury.
For Kaleswar, hunger and destitution kept his family away from education. His children migrated in search of work. None of them availed the mid-day meal schemes or the anganwadi facilities. The family had no job cards; no MGNREGA project was running in the village. The family had no source of employment to ensure their sustenance. Without any other means to procure food, Kaleswar’s dependence on the PDS ration, which he availed on his priority card, was indispensable. However, his access to PDS rations was stopped in 2016 as his Aadhaar number was not linked.
The Aadhaar connection
In 2016, Jharkhand government initiated the ‘paperless’ public distribution system to check identity fraud and seize ‘ghost’ cards. It is at this time that Aadhaar numbers started to be linked to ration cards, failing which the beneficiary’s name was deleted and counted as ‘Aadhaar-enabled savings’. For people like Kaleswar, in rural India, who had already been denied most welfare schemes, this was the final blow.
The seemingly simple act of ‘seeding’ – the official term for linking – does in fact come with myriad problems. Seeding is the next step after receiving an Aadhaar number. One of the most obvious aspects of seeding is to check duplicity. The names, ages and details of individuals must match all other documents, which will in turn combine to form a coherent database.
In reality, things are different; age, spellings and a host of other data point and technical errors plague the system. People with incorrect names, mismatching dates of birth, end up unable to avail any welfare scheme that they are otherwise eligible for. Their access to constitutionally guaranteed everyday upkeep becomes limited, and lives jeopardised. Jharkhand government’s own data shows that out of about 2.3 crore covered under the PDS, only 1.7 crore people have their Aadhaar seeded.
Unlike the government’s claim, the overwhelming problem is not ‘identity’ but predominantly ‘quantity’ fraud. The most common and rampant form of irregularity in PDS is katauti – fraudulence by a dealer, wherein beneficiaries receive less than their sanctioned allowance. The state’s ignorance of this larger malaise and imposition of Aadhaar does little or nothing to help, and instead becomes a massive hassle.
The imposition of Aadhaar for social welfare benefits is deeply rooted in class biases, observed Jean Drèze rightly. The often arrogant argument made by the government has been that the onus of enrolment lies with them. This erases the accounts of problems related to enrolment. Many do not know the procedures, or the need for making such a document. Misinformation and confusion cloud the process. Even if she wants to, the conditions of reaching the nearest enrolment centre are also not easy; she might have to travel for long hours and endure considerable expenditure.
Much like in Kaleswar’s case, his injury impeded him from being able to go to a centre. His children never enrolled because they were never made aware about the implications of its unavailability, and they couldn’t afford time off from their employment to pursue the process. On reaching the centre, additional issues like bribes make the process even more deleterious. Consequently, it surpasses the ranges of affordability for the ones who need it the most.
The other kind of havoc that Aadhar wrought is the ‘Aadhar Based Biometric Authentication (ABBA)’. ABBA’s monumental damage is well documented. For it to work smoothly, one has to have Aadhaar, then feed the number into the system. Provided the machine has to access to the internet, biometric authentication is required. This makes the entire process an affair highly contingent on a host of material availabilities, arguably risking the rightful dues of many.
Additionally, ABBA simply could not check the unaccounted excess food grains left with dealers after the distribution of a month’s quota. The 2015 Targeted PDS (TDPS) order requires a dealer to produce a monthly utilisation certificate of food allocation before claiming the allocation for subsequent months. In Jharkhand, the closing balance of food grain quantity of all districts is zero for every month. However, the dealers usually possess positive physical stock.
The challenges created by the imposition of Aadhar are immense and manifold, especially for the poor. The right to life, which essentially ensures the right to a dignified life, and is the foundation of the National Food Security Act, 2013, has been trampled on extensively. This legislation, along with the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, 2006, was created to ensure the basic minimum requirements for sustenance of the poorest of the poor – those who are deprived of the most fundamental needs of life. However, railroading the country into a fantastical ‘New India’ using the magic of Aadhar is threatening the constitution.
Recently, the Jharkhand government created a Khadyan Kosh fund – an emergency fund to mitigate immediate situations of food unavailability. Under this, Rs 10,000 is allocated to the Gram Panchayat which would procure food-grains. A token measure at a moment of deep crisis, it is too little when it is too late.
For Kaleswar, it was claimed he’d been given 10 kg rice by the sarpanch a few days before his death. However, no evidence was found to corroborate the claim. Not addressing the structural flaws of food insecurity, nor eliminating obstacles between the deprived and their entitlements, but rather pigeonholing the solution as a mere emergency mitigation, does not resolve it.
Under these circumstances, the reduction of rampant under-nutrition and unemployment must be listed as priorities in the vision of a ‘New India’ instead of a mechanism that curbs basic human and legal entitlements for a large section of society. State and constitutional bodies must concern themselves with seriously overhauling the concept of Public Distribution Systems at the earliest. This reorientation must include: an increase in the coverage of Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY), as most families eligible for the scheme are not a part of it and; an inclusion of oil and pulses in monthly ration quotas at the earliest, which will ensure the availability of nutritious food to a bulk of rural households.
A robust mechanism for grievance redressal in PDS and doing away with compulsory Aadhaar can perhaps begin to tackle the ravages of continuing starvation deaths confronting India today.
Abinash Dash Choudhury is a Skye Fellow. He is currently based in Ranchi, Jharkhand.