Lead: Koyli Devi, mother of Santoshi Kumari, who died of starvation in Simdega district
Jharkhand has seen four deaths in recent months due to the centre’s insistence on linking Aadhaar to PDS rations and social security pensions despite the matter pending in the Supreme Court
~By Siraj Dutta
Over the last four months, at least four persons died of starvation in Jharkhand. Their families routinely faced shortages of food and nutrition. The state of semi-starvation worsened after disruptions in the delivery of the Public Distribution System (PDS) rations and social security pensions, leading to the violation of the constitutionally enshrined Right to Life. In each of these four cases, the denial of welfare services was the direct result of their linkage with Aadhaar.
Jharkhand is a state still known for its backwardness and poverty, where 43.5 percent of children in the 0 to 5 age group are underweight (National Health Family Survey 2015-16) and where undernourishment is rampant even in the adult population. In such a scenario, the rations made available under the PDS and through entitlements under the National Food Security Act (NFSA) are often the only reason why a majority of the state’s population is not forced to sleep on an empty stomach.
Yet, the insistence of the BJP-ruled centre, aided enthusiastically by the party’s government in the state, on mandatorily linking Aadhaar to all social welfare schemes has led to vast sections of Jharkhand’s impoverished population being deprived of their legally guaranteed entitlement to food or the means to buy rations.
The Supreme Court has issued multiple orders since 2013 that prohibit making Aadhaar mandatory for accessing welfare services. But Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government and many of the state governments—a majority of them BJP-ruled—continue to link welfare services with Aadhaar, either through notifications or on the sly.
With the Supreme Court yet to take a final call on the validity of such orders, the Modi government recently extended the earlier deadline for linkage of various services to Aadhaar from December 31, 2017, to March 31, 2018. However, there is growing evidence of widespread hardship and exclusion from welfare programmes due to this integration with Aadhaar, irrespective of the missive issued by the apex court or the centre’s submissions before it.
Premani Kunwar, a 64-year-old destitute, died after prolonged starvation on December 1 in Garhwa district of Jharkhand. For eight days preceding her death, Premani could not cook any food as there was no food grain in her dilapidated mud house. She was wholly dependent on her family’s monthly grain entitlement of 35 kg under the NFSA and a monthly pension of `600 under the Indira Gandhi National Old Age Pension Scheme. Premani, her kin suggest, had not received her pension for the last two months. The money was credited to another account that was linked to her Aadhaar but without her knowledge.
Premani’s only means of getting food for herself and her 13-year-old son, Uttam, was the ration she would get through the NFSA entitlement—grain which she was reportedly deprived of in August and then again in November 2017. Her four stepsons—three of them married—would sometimes offer Premani and Uttam some cooked rice. However, Premani’s step family, which stayed with her in the mud house, had few resources to ensure a steady supply of food for itself. So Premani and Uttam would only get what was left after the others had eaten—and it was not much. According to the local ration dealer, he could not distribute grain to ration-card holders in August as he was not allotted any stock for that month. In November, the dealer reportedly transacted on Premani’s ration card through the Aadhaar-based biometric Point of Sale (PoS) machine, but did not actually give her the grain.
To hide the leakage of grain and stock accumulated over months, reports of ration dealers tampering with digital records are rampant in Jharkhand. The dealers do not distribute rations as per the Aadhaar-based transaction to match the online record and the allotted stock over a period of time. Premani seems to have become a victim of this fudging.
The practice of transacting on ration cards but not providing the grain to the intended beneficiary is only one example of the numerous ways in which the integration of welfare services with Aadhaar is affecting the marginalised.
In February 2017, the central government notified the mandatory linkage of PDS with Aadhaar. All ration cards are to be linked with Unique Identification (UID) numbers of respective family members—any one person on the ration card whose Aadhaar is linked with the PDS database has to authenticate his fingerprint on the PoS machine at the local ration shop to access the family’s rations.
Following the central government’s notification on Aadhaar linking, Jharkhand’s chief secretary, Rajbala Verma, instructed the cancellation of all ration cards not linked with Aadhaar. In September 2017, the state government claimed to have saved `225 crore after cancelling 11.64 lakh “bogus” ration cards. Reports from across the state suggest that ration cards of many households eligible for PDS grain under the NFSA were also cancelled in this exercise. In a recent survey of 133 cancelled ration cards of Manika block in Latehar district, only five cards were found to be fake or duplicate.
One household for whom the cancellation led to starvation was that of 11-year-old Santoshi Kumari of Simdega. She died of starvation on September 28, 2017, after her family was denied ration for five months.
In Deoghar district, 62-year-old Ruplal Marandi and his daughter stopped getting grain as neither of them could authenticate their fingerprints in the PoS machine. Ruplal succumbed to starvation on October 23, 2017.
The central government has maintained a stoic silence on these deaths, barring the exception of Santoshi Kumari’s case which was widely reported by the national media. It sent an inquiry team to investigate her death. However, the team prepared its report based only on discussion with the state department and did not bother to meet Santoshi’s family. The report has not yet been made public.
The centre issued a clarification on October 24, 2017, allowing distribution of grain to those whose Aadhaar was not linked with their ration card and also to those who failed to authenticate themselves through the Aadhaar-based biometric authentication. Ration dealers are to maintain a record of such cases in an “exception” register.
STATE GOVERNMENT APATHY
While the Raghubar Das-led Jharkhand government has not acknowledged the role of starvation in any of these deaths, it has grudgingly accepted that the chief secretary’s order may have denied people their PDS entitlements.
Jharkhand Minister for Food and Consumer Affairs Saryu Rai claims that the chief secretary had instructed the mass cancellation of ration cards without his consent and revoked the order after Santoshi’s death. Rai stopped short of acknowledging Santoshi’s case as a starvation death but conceded that “it’s a fact that the names (of Santoshi’s family) got struck off the ration list due to Aadhaar issues, which means they stopped getting ration”. The food minister added: “The chief minister too didn’t focus on this. The cancellation of the family’s ration card was our mistake. The chief secretary should have apologised for the unwanted order. Ignoring ground realities, they boasted how fake ration cards were deleted.”
But the starvation deaths of Premani and Etwariya Devi in Garhwa two months after the death of Santoshi indicate that the government is yet to get its act together. Usha, daughter-in-law of Etwariya Devi of Majhiaon block, who died of starvation on December 25 after being denied rations for three months and pension for two months, said: “When I went to collect ration in October, the dealer did not give me ration as my thumbprint did not work in the PoS machine. He told me “angutha load nahi ho raha hai (thumb impression is not being corroborated)’.”
In fact, the administration of Khunti district recently ordered the deletion of those names whose UID numbers were not linked with their ration cards.
Dheeraj, a member of the Right to Food Campaign in Jharkhand who has been part of fact-finding teams that investigated these starvation deaths, said: “The starvation deaths being witnessed in Jharkhand are not unexpected. They are the outcome of state-imposed starvation, i.e. people are dying not because of scarcity of food grain but because they are not able to access their own legal grain entitlement due to Aadhaar-based biometric authentication system in PDS and cancellation of ration cards just because they are not linked with Aadhaar.”
In March 2016, the central government bulldozed the Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and Other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Act, 2016 through proclaiming it to be a money bill. Although the legality of this Act itself is under question in the Supreme Court, it allows the government to link subsidies with Aadhaar and introduce Aadhaar-based biometric authentication in the delivery of these subsidies.
The interim orders of the Supreme Court in the Justice KS Puttaswamy (Retd) & ANR vs. Union of India & ORS case allow the government to link schemes such as PDS, National Rural Employment Guarantee Act and National Social Assistance Programme with Aadhaar. However, the Court has also reiterated that these services cannot be denied for want of Aadhaar.
December 25, 2017: Etwariya Devi of Majhiaon block in Garhwa died of starvation after being denied rations for three months and pension for two months.
December 1, 2017: Premani Kunwar, a 64-year-old destitute, died of starvation in Garhwa district. She had not received her pension for the past two months.
October 23, 2017: Ruplal Marandi, 62, of Deoghar district, succumbed to hunger after being denied grain for two months as he couldn’t authenticate his fingerprint on the PoS machine.
September 28, 2017: Santoshi Kumari, 11, of Simdega district, died of starvation after her family was denied rations for five months.
In its interim order of September 23, 2013, the Supreme Court clearly ordered that “no person should suffer for not getting the Aadhaar card inspite of the fact that some authority had issued a circular making it mandatory”. On August 11, 2015, the Court again stated that “production of an Aadhaar card will not be condition for obtaining any benefits otherwise due to a citizen” and upheld this in its interim order of September 15, 2015. As per this order: “The Aadhaar card Scheme is purely voluntary and it cannot be made mandatory till the matter is finally decided by this Court one way or the other.”
It also must be borne in mind that grains under the PDS and social security pensions are legal entitlements as per the Supreme Court orders in the People’s Union for Civil Liberties vs. Union of India & ORS case of 2001 (popularly known as the Right to Food case) that was triggered after a spate of starvation deaths in Rajasthan. In its numerous orders in the case, the apex court clearly established the legality of these entitlements within the ambit of the Right to Life as enshrined under Article 21 of the Constitution. It also made the central and state governments solely accountable for starvation deaths.
DEATHS IN OTHER STATES
Denial of entitlements due to Aadhaar-related issues, leading to death, is not limited to Jharkhand. In July 2017, three brothers died of starvation in Karnataka after they were denied rations for six months for not possessing UID numbers.
A 50-year-old paralysed woman starved to death in Uttar Pradesh in November 2017. She was denied her grain entitlement for a month as she could not go to the fair price shop for authenticating her identity in the PoS machine.
These deaths are just the tip of the iceberg of the number of people for whom hunger actually worsened because of the disruptions in the welfare programmes.
A five-judge constitution bench is set to hear all Aadhaar-related cases from January 18, 2018.
The question is whether the Supreme Court should adjudicate on the matter purely through the prism of the legal arguments put forth by lawyers of the rival parties or take into account how governments, in their rush to link public services with Aadhaar, failed to honour their constitutional obligation to ensure the right to life of citizens.
Will the Aadhaar-abetted starvation deaths of Premani, Ruplal, Santoshi, and Etwariya mean anything to the Supreme Court?
—The writer works on social policy frameworks in Jharkhand