Sunday, Oct 02, 2022

Exclusion by biometric

Cancellation of ration cards because of non-linkage with Aadhaar has impeded access of the poor to welfare entitlements

Beneficiary awaits for ration. (Express File Photo by Gajendra Yadav)

Written by Siraj Dutta

On March 17, a three-judge bench led by the CJI observed that the cancellation of three crore ration cards across the country in the last few years for not being linked with Aadhaar, as mentioned by the writ petitioner’s lawyer in the hearing, was “too serious”. It asked the Centre and states to respond on the issue in four weeks. The writ was filed in January 2018 by Koili Devi, mother of Satoshi Kumari, the 11-year-old girl who starved to death on September 28, 2017, in Jharkhand. The family’s ration card was cancelled in July 2017 (according to the then state food minister Saryu Roy) as it was not linked with the Aadhaar of the family members. Koili’s elder daughter, a local activist and the PUCL are also the petitioners. They have appealed for action on the cancellation of cards and starvation deaths. As hunger, driven by the pandemic, worsens across the country, the writ assumes special significance as Aadhaar continues to be an impediment in accessing welfare entitlements even now.

Koili Devi’s ration card was one of the crores cancelled across the country in the last few years. After coming to power in 2014, the Modi dispensation intensified the UPA government’s push for linking Aadhaar with welfare programmes. The formulation of the Aadhaar Act in 2016 made the unique identity (UID) number mandatory for government subsidies. As a result, in the subsequent years, crores of people who could not get their Aadhaar linked in time were removed from the lists of welfare programmes such as the Public Distribution System, social security pensions and MGNREGA. Many are also regularly denied their grain entitlement or pension money because of the failure of the Aadhaar-based biometric authentication system.

Despite mounting evidence of exclusion, the Centre too pushed ahead with its Aadhaar project. In February 2017, the Prime Minister himself praised the nationwide cancellation of 3.95 crore “fake” ration cards with the help of Aadhaar and other technologies. However, this claim does not stand the test of RTI queries.

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The state governments followed Centre’s cue. On March 27, 2017, Jharkhand’s Chief Secretary had instructed the local administration that ration cards not linked with Aadhaar by 5 April would be cancelled. In the following months, several cards of eligible families, including Santoshi’s, were cancelled. In September 2017, the BJP-ruled Jharkhand government hailed the cancellation of 11.64 lakh “duplicate” and “bogus” ration cards, identified through Aadhaar, as one of its achievement in its first 1,000 days.

Barring the Left parties, none of the opposition parties has demonstrated a firm stand against the exclusion. During the tenure of the BJP-ruled government in Jharkhand from 2014 to 2019, the principal opposition parties, JMM and Congress, had raised with gusto issues of Aadhaar exclusion and starvation deaths. According to data collected by the Right to Food Campaign, at least 24 persons succumbed to hunger in the state in that period; in more than half of the cases, imposition of Aadhaar was instrumental for denial of welfare entitlements such as ration and pension.

However, the JMM-led government formed in December 2019 has taken a contrary stand on these issues. In this year’s budget session of the state legislature, Saryu Roy (food minister in 2014-19) asked the government if the current dispensation planned to take action against officers responsible for the cancellation of 11.64 lakh ration cards for not being linked with Aadhaar. Roy had innocently claimed in 2017 that the mass cancellation of ration cards had happened without his knowledge.


The Hemant Soren government replied that it was unclear whether the reason for the cancellation of these cards was non-linkage with Aadhaar and hence it was not possible to act against any official. Curiously, responding to a question from another MLA, the government also denied occurrence of any starvation deaths under the earlier dispensation.

Even as the political circus on cancellation of ration cards and starvation deaths turned a full circle, many vulnerable families continue to be denied their grain entitlement for the want of Aadhaar or failure of biometric authentication. The administrative message on ground is clear — “no biometric authentication, no ration”. The exemption mechanism, as notified on paper, barely exists in reality. Even during the pandemic, many people whose Aadhaar was not linked with their family’s ration card were silently struck off the list. The story is similar in other states.

Denial of grain entitlement in the past few years due to cancellation of ration card or failure of biometric authentication happened right under the nose of the apex court. The five-member Constitution bench that heard a clutch of petitions challenging the Constitutional validity of the Aadhaar Act and use of Aadhaar (popularly known as the Aadhaar case) in 2018 was presented with evidence (studies, government data, factfinding reports and so on) of exclusion from welfare – at times even leading to starvation death – due to the mandatory requirement of Aadhaar linkage. The court overlooked this evidence and upheld making Aadhaar mandatory for availing welfare entitlements. The lack of urgency shown in Koili Devi’s writ reflects the same attitude.


The poor meanwhile will are doing what they are used to – struggle for their basic entitlements.

The writer is an activist and researcher based in Jharkhand

First published on: 18-07-2021 at 04:50:56 pm
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