Recently, the Supreme Court did the right thing by terming as serious the allegation by a petitioner that three crore ration cards were cancelled for not being linked with the Aadhaar database without prior notice to the beneficiaries, and that these were connected to reported starvation deaths in some States.
The unique identification scheme has been in existence for more than a decade and recent data has estimated that nearly 90% of India’s projected population has been assigned the Aadhaar number.
These include inefficiencies in biometric authentication and updating, linking of Aadhaar with bank accounts, and the use of the Aadhaar payment bridge.
About Unique Identification Authority of India:
- The Parliament has passed the Aadhaar and Other Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2019 which allows voluntary use of Aadhaar as proof of identity.
- The existing Aadhar act provides for the use of Aadhaar number as proof of identity of a person, subject to authentication.
- The Bill replaces this provision to state that an individual may voluntarily use his Aadhaar number to establish his identity, by authentication or offline verification.
- The Bill states that authentication of an individual’s identity via Aadhaar, for the provision of any service, may be made mandatory only by a law of Parliament.
- The Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) is a statutory authority established by the Government of India under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, following the provisions of the Aadhaar Act 2016.
- The UIDAI is mandated to assign a 12-digit unique identification (UID) number (Aadhaar) to all the residents of India.
- The UIDAI was initially set up by the Government of India in January 2009, as an attached office under the aegis of the Planning Commission.
Case study: Jharkhand, where not having Aadhaar could starve you to death:
- Around half-a-dozen people have allegedly died of starvation in Jharkhand in the last six months.
- Most of them were reportedly denied rations from the Public Distribution System shops for failing to have Aadhaar-based biometric authentication.
- Two women in different districts in Jharkhand died of alleged starvation last week, prompting Chief Minister to order a probe.
- The government reports said the women were sick; family members claimed they died of hunger.
Cancellations had led to starvation deaths across the country:
- The insistence on Aadhar and biometric authentication had led to the cancellation of nearly four crore ration cards in the country according to the Union of India.
- The Union of India casually gives an explanation that these cancelled cards were bogus.
- The real reason is that the technological system based on iris identification, thumb prints, non-possession of Aadhaar, non-functioning of the internet in rural and remote areas, etc, led to largescale cancellation of ration cards without notice to the family concerned.
- Biometric authentication failures are but expected of a large scale and technology-intensive project such as the UID.
- Despite being designed to store finger and iris scans of most users, doubts about the success rates of authentication and the generation of “false negatives” have always persisted, more so for labourers and tribal people.
- Those engaged in manual and hard labour, for example, are susceptible to fingerprint changes over time.
- In practice, beneficiaries have tended to use Aadhaar cards as identity markers but there have been instances of people losing cards and being denied benefits.
Why the Aadhaar-PDS link?
Though the Supreme Court has said Aadhaar linkage is voluntary, at the village and panchayat levels, little appears to have changed.
For a person who gets foodgrains through the PDS, it is mandatory for him or her to follow the Aadhaar-Based Biometric Authentication (ABBA) system that is the practice of using an electric point of sale (PoS) machine for each transaction.
For implementing the ABBA system, it is necessary to have Aadhaar seeding, which is to get one’s Aadhaar number linked to the ration card.
What are the hurdles?
- To get benefits under the PDS, biometric authorisation is required and this calls for technological necessities which villages lack: uninterrupted power supply, a functioning PoS machine, adequate mobile and Internet connectivity and ensuring that data repository servers are running smoothly.
- So, every time a person has to get rations from a PDS shop, he/she has to pray that all these variables work.
- With benefits under the PDS, the NREGA and LPG subsidy, among other essentials, requiring individuals to have the Aadhaar number, inefficiencies and failures have led to inconvenience and suffering for the poor.
- There are reports that show failures in authentication having led to delays in the disbursal of benefits and, in many cases, in their denial due to cancellation of legitimate beneficiary names.
- The government had promised that exemption mechanisms that would allow for overriding such failures will help beneficiaries still avail subsidies and benefits despite system failures.
The Directive Principles of State Policy (DPSPs) of Indian Constitution mandates government to provide various kinds of welfare measures to the people.
These initiatives like old age pension, scholarships, food supply at cheap prices suffered from issues of leakages in absence of proper universal identification tool.
Given the scale of the problem, the central and State governments would do well to allow alternative identification so that genuine beneficiaries are not denied due subsidies.
Right to food, which the ration card symbolised, cannot be curbed or cancelled because of lack of Aadhaar.
The question of fraud can still be addressed by the use of other verification cards and by decentralised disbursal of services at the panchayat level.