The Supreme Court recently asked the Centre to respond to allegations made in a PIL by a Dalit woman from Jharkhand that 3 crore ration cards have been cancelled in the country because of the insistence on Aadhaar linkage and biometric authentication, and that this has resulted in the denial of foodgrains to poor citizens, which in turn has caused starvation deaths including that of the petitioner’s 11-year-old daughter. Poor Internet in remote areas was also flagged as an issue. The Supreme Court said it would hear the PIL in detail at a later date.
Some findings from our national and state surveys are related to this issue. In its National Election Study (NES) during the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, Lokniti-CSDS had asked electors whether they had ever been denied foodgrains due to non-possession/production of an Aadhaar ID or because their Aadhaar biometric details didn’t match or on account of technical or server issues. On analysing the responses of those from ration-card-holding households, (four-fifths of the 12,000+ electors interviewed said their household held one), it turned out that 28% or over one in four households had indeed experienced such a situation.
While in percentage terms this may not seem all that high a figure to some, in absolute terms (extrapolating to the general household population) it would be huge. Moreover, although we only asked people whether they had ever experienced such a denial and not about the frequency of it or about ration card cancellation specifically, the fact that so many were denied their ration entitlement even once raises questions about the system put in place, especially for a matter relating to food security. Ever since Aadhaar-based biometric authentication was introduced in PDS, there have been numerous reports about people’s fingerprints not getting confirmed by the e-PoS device at the ration shop, iris scanners not being there as backup, and a poor Internet connection forcing people to spend on another trip to the shop. Our survey confirms this and puts a number to it.
Rural vs urban, the states
Contrary to the notion that seeding and authentication problems are occurring mostly in remote areas, our data indicates that they are nearly of the same magnitude in villages and towns/cities —while 28% of respondents belonging to ration card-holding households in rural areas were refused ration due to Aadhaar-related issues at some point, in urban areas this was 27%. Some big cities were slightly better off, however. In both rural and urban areas, the poorest were worst affected – 39% of households with a monthly income below Rs 2,000 said they were at some point denied PDS ration due to Aadhaar problems.
The most striking difference was noticed when we disaggregated the responses by a grouping of Hindi-speaking heartland states vis-à-vis the rest. In the Hindi belt — Bihar, Jharkhand, MP, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, UP and Uttarakhand, states once described as ‘Bimaru’ by some economists for their backwardness — as many as 40% of RC-holding households reported a denial of ration due to Aadhaar issues, compared to 20% households in the rest of the country. Our data also suggests that the problem may be less due to non-possession of Aadhaar and more due to biometric authentication and server issues, as respondents from 95% of RC-holding households in the ‘Bimaru’ belt did report having Aadhaar.
Coincidentally, 5 of the 7 heartland states — Bihar, Jharkhand, MP, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh —also had Assembly elections either after the 2019 national election or just before, and in surveys during these elections Lokniti asked the very same question as during NES 2019. We can therefore double check, using much larger samples, whether the situation in these states is as grave as the NES data suggests. We find it indeed is. The proportion of RC-holding households that reported having experienced ration denial due to Aadhaar-related factors was: in Rajasthan, 36%; in Chhattisgarh, 39%; in MP and Jharkhand, over 40%; and in Bihar, particularly high at 56%.
While our data only indicates a denial of PDS grains due to Aadhaar-related issues and doesn’t confirm the allegation of ration card cancellation (since our question wasn’t that specific), the fact that one-fourth households did at some point not get ration they were entitled to because of the Aadhaar compulsion is a serious matter. Moreover, the problem isn’t just limited to PDS. Our surveys also asked people whether their household had ever been denied benefit of a government scheme it was eligible for due to Aadhaar-related issues, and the responses and trends were quite similar.