How mandatory Aadhaar authentication leads to exclusion of the marginalised from PDS

In 2013, the government of India passed the National Food Security Act (NFSA) intending to provide nutritional and food security by ensuring that everyone had access to an adequate quantity of quality food at affordable prices. The law entitled 75 per cent of the rural and 50 per cent of the urban population to get the benefit of subsidised food grains, while empowering State governments to increase the percentage as per their needs. For instance, in Uttar Pradesh, 79.56 per cent of the rural and 64.43 of the urban population have been selected as beneficiaries. In Odisha, nearly 82 per cent of the rural population has been chosen.

The NFSA subsumed all previous schemes into it and two categories of beneficiaries were carved out: the poorest of the poor population under the Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY) and Priority Households (PHHs) or families below the poverty line. Under the PHH category, each person is entitled to receive 5 kg of food grains each month, which includes rice, wheat, and coarse grains at Rs.3, Rs.2, and Rs.1 per kg respectively. Each AAY household is entitled to 35 kg of food grainsper month at the subsidised rate, irrespective of family size. The law also made the provision of security allowance in case of non-supply of entitled quantities.

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In September 2016, the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) asked the Central and State governments to issue notifications under Section 7 of the Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and other Subsidies, Benefits, and Services) Act, 2016, making Aadhaar or its application number a prerequisite for beneficiaries to avail themselves of targeted financial benefits, services, and subsidies from the Consolidated Fund of India. Subsequently, on February 8, 2017, the Centralgovernment issued a notification making Aadhaar mandatory for Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS) under the NFSA. Eligible individuals having valid ration cards were required to furnish proof of their Aadhaar numbers to receive certain subsidies, benefits, and services.

Section 7 of Aadhaar Act challenged

Section 7 of the Aadhaar Act was among the provisions challenged before the Supreme Court in K.S. Puttaswamy v. Union of India (Civil Writ Petition No 494/2012) as violative of the Constitution because the mandatory authentication caused and continued to cause the exclusion of the most marginalised sections of society.

However, a Supreme Court Bench by a 4-1 majority judgment stamped its approval on the law in 2019. It ruled that the purpose of bringing Section 7 was to ensure that subsidies and benefits reached the rightful and genuine beneficiaries. Justice D.Y. Chandrachud dissented and held that the entire Aadhaar scheme was pervasive, exclusionary, and violated the privacy judgment. Justice A.K. Sikri, on behalf of himself and two other judges, said, “We again emphasise that no person rightfully entitled to the benefits shall be denied the same on such grounds.” He further noted: “No failure rate in the provision of social welfare benefits can be regarded as acceptable. Basic entitlements in matters such as food grains can brook no error. To deny food is to lead a family to destitution, malnutrition and even death.”

Despite these observations by the apex court, the mandatory use of Section 7 of the Aadhaar Act, relating to Aadhaar authentication in the Public Distribution System (PDS) continues to create exclusion to this day.

Shibani Kerayi, 26, said she had been deprived of rations since 2016 because, as officials claimed, she could not submit her Aadhaar details in time.

Shibani Kerayi, 26, said she had been deprived of rations since 2016 because, as officials claimed, she could not submit her Aadhaar details in time. | Photo Credit: Syed Asif Ali Zaidi

The eminent privacy expert Simon Davies points out that it is not an accident or coincidence that biometric systems are most aggressively tried out with welfare recipients since they are in no position to resist the state-mandated intrusion. Davies’ words ring true in the government’s aggressive and mandatory use of Aadhaar for welfare. A report published by Down to Earth magazine in February 2023 estimated that the delay in conducting the Census had led to the exclusion of nearly 10 crore people from the NFSA safety net.

An official dealing with food supplies in Rampur, Uttar Pradesh, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the excluded population figure was nearly 200 million or 20 crore people. And with the Census again postponed until October 2024, this number is likely to increase. It is a difficult task to find out the exact number of genuine beneficiaries who have been given “civil deaths” through Aadhaar-based exclusions or exclusions by technological interventions, but an attempt has been made here to discern the magnitude of the issue by delving into some primary sources, secondary sources, and case studies.

Odisha and Aadhaar authentication

Arjun Hembram, an 11-year-old child with a disability, died on March 3, 2023, in Ghatisahi village of Jajpur district in Odisha. He had not eaten rice for two days. A fact-finding report published by civil rights groups in April 2023 noted that the family had received its entitled rice for the last time in July 2021. Upon checking, it was found that the family’s ration card was inactive due to a mismatch between the name of the head of the household in the ration card and the Aadhaar card. Sambad, an Odia newspaper, reported on April 6, 2023, that more than a hundred children in Ghatisahi were deprived of the PDS scheme as they did not possess Aadhaar numbers, and this led to their exclusion.

A writ petition, (C) No.12966 of 2023, filed by one Mantu Das before the Orissa High Court prayed for directions to the State and its departments concerned to immediately admit children suffering from acute malnutrition in Danagadi block of Jajpur district to the Nutritional Rehabilitation Centre and to provide compensation to the affected families whose children have died. The petition cited instances of 11 children in urgent need of rehabilitation and brought to the notice of the court that the children did not possess Aadhaar cards, eventually leading to their exclusion from the PDS scheme.

The Division Bench led by Chief Justice S. Murlidhar, on May 18, 2023, ruled, “The court is of the considered view that given the unfortunate happenings in the Danagadi Block in Jajpur district spoken of in the petition, this needs to be made abundantly clear at both the State level as well as the national level these welfare schemes are meant to cater to the needs of the most vulnerable and poor sections of our society who cannot be excluded on any ground, including the lack of an Aadhaar Card or a mobile phone. The fact is that there are still several poor and vulnerable individuals, in the State of Odisha and in the country, who may not possess either.” The court noted that one of the children, Subhalaxmi Tarai, who was suffering from cerebral palsy and secondary malnutrition had died.

Masuri Pingua, 42, had 10 family members registered for rations in 2016. Her three daughters are married now, and her husband has died. In May 2017, her ration card was apparently deleted from the portal, and since then, her now six-member family has not received rations.

Masuri Pingua, 42, had 10 family members registered for rations in 2016. Her three daughters are married now, and her husband has died. In May 2017, her ration card was apparently deleted from the portal, and since then, her now six-member family has not received rations. | Photo Credit: Syed Asif Ali Zaidi

Following the High Court order, the State Department of Women and Child Development, in a communication to all districts said the department would ensure that no household was deprived of rations for want of Aadhaar under the NFSA and the State Food Security Act (SFSA). District Magistrates were directed to ensure the enrolment of all beneficiaries under the Aadhaar programme and to direct all fair price shops to erect notice boards specifying that people cannot be denied entitlements if they do not have Aadhaar or mobile phone.

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The boards were to also contain grievance reporting numbers that beneficiaries could call if they were denied their entitlements. District Collectors were also directed to prepare a list of households that were not getting entitlements under the NFSA and the SFSA. Surprisingly, the Odisha government denied that there was any Aadhaar-based exclusion. Suhail Afraaz, the lawyer who appeared for Mantu Das, said, “The government has filed over a thousand pages response in compliance of the High Court order, but they have refused to acknowledge any exclusion due to Aadhaar.”

The situation on the ground

This writer visited an Anganwadi Centre at Tuhikutti slum, Ward 10 of the Mancheswar industrial area of Bhubaneswar Municipal Corporation (BMC) to understand the situation on the ground. The slum is mostly populated by people from tribal regions who work as daily wage labourers. Jasoda Munda, 47, a daily wage labourer, had not received rations for the past eight to nine months. She complained that every time she visited the ration shop, she was told that her biometrics did not work and she was refused her entitlements.

Shibani Kerayi, 26, said she had been deprived of rations since 2016 because, as officials claimed, she could not submit her Aadhaar details in time.Jyotsna Samad, 11, was not included in her family’s ration card during an online update and as a result, her name was deleted from the website. Her mother Radikha Samad said that since 2016 they had not received Jyotsna’s entitlements. However, the ration card issued in October 2015 has three-year-old Jyotsna’s name on it.

Masuri Pingua, 42, who comes from western Odisha, had 10 family members registered in 2016. Her three daughters are married now, and her husband has died. In May 2017 the ration card was apparently deleted from the portal, and since then the now six-member family has not received rations. She was given Rs.1,000 during the COVID-19 pandemic in May 2020.

The situation in Gangapur, Ward 61, of the BMC, was no different. Karnukar Malik, a disabled man and the only member of his family, was removed from the records as he could not visit the fair price shops when he was ill for a few months. In all these cases, the entitlement holders visited fair price shops frequently for their entitlements but were made to run between the offices of the Additional District Magistrate and the Corporator. No grievance mechanism has been put in place to address the woes of such people.

Jyotsna Samad, 11, was not included in her family’s ration card during an online update and as a result, her name was deleted from the website.

Jyotsna Samad, 11, was not included in her family’s ration card during an online update and as a result, her name was deleted from the website. | Photo Credit: Syed Asif Ali Zaidi

Aadhaar-based exclusion extends even to New Delhi, where people have been denied rations due to the non-linking of Aadhaar with ration cards. A visit to New Seemapuri in Ward 81 of the Delhi Municipal Corporation shows the harsh reality of systemic deprivation. Nazma, 30, who segregates waste, said that during the pandemic, she and her family moved to East Medinipur in West Bengal. Before the pandemic, her family used a ration card linked with Aadhaar. However, as per the scheme, if people do not show up at a ration shop for three months, their ration cards get deleted. After returning to Delhi, Nazma found that her name had been struck off the portal. She is not alone. Kohinoor, Momina Bibi, Maya Ram Haldar, and Kartikay are among the people who keep running to the ration office but have not been able to receive their rations.

While the 18th report of the Standing Committee on Food, Consumer Affairs, and Public Distribution (2022) states that Aadhaar seeding with ration card is 100 per cent completed, the ground reality appears to be the opposite. In October 2021, in Maharashtra, tribal people from Murbad taluka in Thane district were denied benefits under the NFSA as their ration cards were not seeded with Aadhaar.

The Bombay High Court directed the State to provide rations to these people without waiting for Aadhaar authentication. Sameet Panda, an independent researcher and convener of Right to Food Campaign, Odisha, said that introducing Aadhaar seeding with PDS was meant to curb leakages but had resulted in the exclusion of genuine beneficiaries. Governments had failed to document such exclusions and right holders had been forced out, he added.

Fall in beneficiaries treated as savings

In Rampur district of Uttar Pradesh, fair price shop dealers said that they were orally informed by State officials that the State government was able to reduce expenditure due to the Aadhaar seeding requirement. Reetika Khera, economics professor at IIT Delhi, has argued that a fall in the number of genuine beneficiaries is now treated as savings or a reduction in government expenditure. On June 12, 2023, in Sadar tehsil of Balrampur in Uttar Pradesh, during a Jan Seva Kendra training camp, Neeraj Kumar Anand of the Jan Seva Kendra State team announced that if Aadhaar information was not updated, then all benefits such as PDS, pension, and scholarships would be stopped. Jan Seva Kendras across the country are digital service centres where citizens can apply for various welfare schemes.

In her Budget speech in 2024, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said that the Union government was able to save Rs.2.7 lakh crore due to the Direct Benefit Transfer scheme and that this had been realised through the avoidance of “leakages”. However, the minister did not specify how the government had made this calculation. In response to an RTI application filed by activist S.Q. Masood, the Department of Food and Public Distribution at the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution said that from 2013 to 2021, nearly 4.39 crore recipients were deleted across the country. According to the department’s website, as of March 2023, about 5.03 crore duplicate and fake/non-existent ration cards were deleted.

Entries within the PDS database that lack an Aadhaar number were identified as “ghosts” or “duplicates” and were subsequently removed from the database, said Khera. This has been seen in Uttar Pradesh, Odisha, and Delhi. Fieldwork conducted in these States found that only people with their Aadhaar numbers seeded with ration cards received rations. So, the government’s claims about saving funds are questionable as Aadhaar does not decide if someone is eligible for benefits—it is the State that decides. It seems like the government is saving funds by excluding genuine beneficiaries from getting food because their Aadhaars are not linked.

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The government has boasted that the Aadhaar project is a tool of administrative efficiency for welfare programmes and projected that it would lead to curbing corruption by reducing leakages. Khera noted that, contrary to these claims, Aadhaar seems to have become a tool to impede access to existing benefits.

The NFSA was launched to improve the lives of the poor and the marginalised in society. With Aadhaar made mandatory for the PDS, people have either suffered deletion of ration cards from the database or have been subject to the vicissitudes of technology resulting in their financial exclusion. As Justice Chandrachud noted in his dissent note in the Aadhaar judgment, the dignity and rights of individuals cannot be based on algorithms or probabilities.

Governments, both at the Centre and in the states, need to understand that welfare measures are not doles or charities, rather they are constitutionally entrenched guarantees protected under Part III of the Constitution. With the census again postponed to October 2024, people who have been deleted from the PDS records will continue to suffer. The Centre has failed to abide by the order of the Supreme Court directing that in the absence of the Census, the Union of India must come out with a policy or scheme so that benefits under the NFSA are not restricted as per Census 2011 and more needy citizens are brought into the fold.

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