Aadhaar raj: Targeting the poor & vulnerable

Columnist  | Antara Dev Sen

Opinion, Oped

There are many reasons why Aadhaar and biometric identification fails in rural areas.

In the name of Aadhaar you can be denied work, education, skills training, midday meals in school, loans for farmers, bank accounts, and be cut off from all kinds of welfare schemes, including nourishment for children and pregnant women. (Photo: PTI/File)

Santoshi was 11 years old. She went to school, helped her mother with her chores, and looked after her baby brother. Perhaps like little girls in your family, or kids around you. Except that Santoshi’s family was very poor. And for most of this year, the only food she got was the midday meal at school. On September 20, her school closed for the Durga Puja festivities. And on September 28, as Ma Durga killed Mahishasura, Santoshi died. With her last breath, she asked her mother for rice. But there was no food in the house — there hadn’t been for days. Her starving mother could do nothing but watch her little girl slowly and painfully die of hunger.

Santoshi did not die because there was no food for her. Her family had a ration card and had earlier been living on the subsidised foodgrains they were entitled to. Santoshi died because the government snatched that food away. It refused to let them have their entitlement, for no fault of theirs. Except the huge, colossal fault of being born very poor in a country that is now too posh to care about the poor.

Santoshi died because the State, in its exhibitionary zeal to display efficiency, had decided that only those ration-card holders who had an Aadhaar card, and had linked it to their ration card, and could prove that their biometrics — like fingerprints — matched those on the Aadhaar database, would get subsidised rations. In a country where rural areas are barely touched by electricity and Internet connectivity, such technological competence is often impossible. So the poorest of the poor, those whose lives depend on the substandard but subsidised food rations allotted to them, do not get their food. Santoshi’s family is one such.

They had both a ration card and Aadhaar, and had tried to get them linked. But as one arm of the government failed to link the two, the other arm declared that because the link was missing, Santoshi’s family must not get the rations they were legally entitled to. So the child died.

This happened in Jharkhand. And since Santoshi’s death, news of similar starvation deaths have surfaced from that state. For example, Rooplal Marandi, 75, died because biometric machines had failed to read his daughter’s fingerprints, and had refused the family their food rations for two months.

But Jharkhand is not alone. In July, three dalits died in Karnataka because they had been denied rations for months. Narayana, Venkataramma and Subbu Maru Mukhri were brothers, and lived together with their old mother. None of them had an Aadhaar card. So they were not given the foodgrains they were entitled to, and three of the family starved to death.

This insistence on Aadhaar linkage and biometric authentication to allow the poor access to their food entitlements is ruining the poorest of the poor wherever it has been implemented across the country. In a country that ranks 100th among 119 developing countries in the World Hunger Index, where endemic hunger and malnourishment is rampant, there can be no justification for excluding the most vulnerable. The public distribution system (PDS) is a lifeline for those who live below the poverty line, and snapping that lifeline amounts to murder.

It also violates the Supreme Court’s orders, which stated that Aadhaar cannot be made mandatory for welfare schemes, it has to be a voluntary option. Flouting the order, the Narendra Modi government made Aadhaar compulsory for the distribution of food rations. This has ruined the most vulnerable — the old, the infirm, the children — among the poorest citizens of India. When you live close to the edge, a bump can throw you off the cliff.

There are many reasons why Aadhaar and biometric identification fails in rural areas. First, it is not easy for the illiterate villagers to get their Aadhaar and ration cards linked. It has to go through a lugubrious system that is beyond their control. Second, the machines that check this authentication at the ration shop often malfunction. Third, Internet connectivity is pathetic and the system fails. Fourth, the remote servers that authenticate often fail. Fifth, fingerprint recognition fails as the software cannot recognise the worn-out fingerprints of the elderly and labourers with calloused hands. Because of such technical issues, over and above individual, human issues, the most vulnerable groups are often excluded from benefits that they are legally entitled to.

And this insistence on denying legitimate beneficiaries their entitlements pervades our new style of governance. In the name of Aadhaar you can be denied work, education, skills training, midday meals in school, loans for farmers, bank accounts, and be cut off from all kinds of welfare schemes, including nourishment for children and pregnant women. All in the name of streamlining the system and weeding out “ghost” or fake beneficiaries.

In short, if you are severely underprivileged, you are guilty till proven innocent. And if you are unlucky, you may never be able to prove your innocence. You will be branded a “bogus” candidate and struck off welfare schemes that were made precisely for people like you.

Such muscle-flexing is the hallmark of our present government. So the Prime Minister can publicly threaten states that don’t fall in line, he can say that he will not give a single rupee to those who are against his idea of “vikas” or development. Flouting democratic norms and the federal spirit comes easy to those who believe that might is right.

So your government can trash your money in the name of demonetisation, which did enormous harm with no positive results, and not give a fig about those who died because their money was suddenly invalid. Of the 105 recorded deaths as a direct effect of demonetisation, almost all were from the most vulnerable sections.

Because might is right, the Rajasthan government can dare to table an ordinance, now shelved, seeking to give legal immunity to politicians and government officials for corruption, specifying that there can’t be complaints filed against them without the government’s approval. And the media was prohibited from mentioning the names of the accused, to guarantee full impunity.

Today we can see this complete disregard for laws, freedoms and democratic rights all around us. We have a daring government. It can dare to disturb the very norms of democracy.