By Dipa Sinha and Kavita Srivastava*
The Right to Food Campaign is deeply disappointed by the 13 March 2018 Supreme Court order which extends the deadline for Aadhaar linking of facilities such as bank accounts and SIM cards, but permits the continued imposition of Aadhaar on social services and entitlements such as the public distribution system (PDS), the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) and social security pensions. This order perpetuates a long-standing double standard, whereby the hardships experienced by privileged classes due to Aadhaar being made mandatory are being addressed while much greater hardships endured by poor people are ignored.
From September 2017 to January 2018, at least ten persons across three states died of starvation due to reasons directly connected with Aadhaar. These persons were denied their legal entitlements to ration/pension either because their ration card was not linked with Aadhaar or because of failures in Aadhaar-based biometric authentication.
In a recent public hearing in Delhi, more than 400 people from different districts and marginalised communities of the national capital testified about their inability to access their legal entitlements of rations and pensions due to mandatory linking of Aadhaar. Last year, in a similar public hearing in Bengaluru, people from across Karnataka shared the various problems they were facing in accessing social security entitlements, rations as well as health services.
In 2017, according to data put out by state food departments, in Rajasthan 33 lakh families were unable to access their Public Distribution System (PDS) ration entitlement each month due to the linkage of the PDS with Aadhaar. Similarly, in Jharkhand, 25 lakh families were deprived of their grain entitlements on a monthly basis. Even in areas (e.g., Ranchi District) where the integration had been in place for over a year, the rate of non-transacting households was high.
The damage caused by Aadhaar is not limited to the PDS. Recipients of social security payments, such as NREGA workers, social security pensioners and scholarship holders, are also suffering due to this application. Many such payments get credited in others’ accounts due to errors in Aadhaar seeding. People’s pensions have been stopped because their Aadhaar numbers are not seeded, or cannot be seeded; in some cases, old people whose biometrics do not match are also denied their entitlements (rations, pensions, etc). In one village in Badauli block, Sarguja District, Chhattisgarh 124 old people were not able to access their old age pensions as the village did not have network connectivity. Such denials of entitlements are in fact in violation of the right to life and must be penalised.
Despite some token safeguards being introduced recently in some of welfare schemes in response to Aadhaar-related starvation deaths and other tragedies, in practice Aadhaar linkage and (in some cases) even Aadhaar-based biometric authentication are still compulsory for a wide range of welfare schemes and basic entitlements. The exclusion problems created by this compulsion have been abundantly documented in a long series of media reports, statistical analyses, public hearings, testimonies, videos, tweets, and other records.
Aadhaar is unable to reduce “quantity fraud” – the most important form of leakage from welfare programmes. Also, many other reforms that predate the integration of welfare programmes with Aadhaar have succeeded to reduce corruption from these programmes. Nevertheless, the government persists in its obsessive imposition of Aadhaar on every possible scheme. Instead of acknowledging the very limited role of Aadhaar in improving welfare but the widespread damage caused by this integration, it fabricates and propagates its own evidence of alleged Aadhaar-enabled savings to defuse the opposition.
The Right to Food Campaign feels that by putting all the focus on Aadhaar, the government is distracting attention from the real reforms required in these programmes – increase in the quantum of support through greater allocation of resources, streamlining of delivery mechanisms and activating systems for transparency, accountability and grievance redress.
For example, there is an urgent need to universalise the PDS, introduce pulses and oil in it, introduce eggs and other nutritious items in the midday meals and anganwadi programmes, increase in the rates of NREGA wages, social security pensions and maternity entitlements and timely payment of these transfers, and so on. We demand that all the notifications linking Aadhaar with welfare programmes (PDS, NREGA, social security pensions, midday meals, anganwadi services, maternity entitlements etc.) be immediately withdrawn.
*Co-convenors, Steering Committee, Right to Food Campaign