On the 15th of every month, thousands of slum residents in Sheikh Sarai in Delhi pour out of their tenements and head to the ration shops to pick up their share of subsidised grain. But in recent months, many have been coming back home without their full share.

This isn’t because the supplies in the shop are running thin. Rather, this has to do with the Delhi government’s insistence that people get themselves Aadhar cards, which assign a 12-digit unique identification number to each individual.

Although the Supreme Court in an order in March 2014 ruled that an Aadhar card or number cannot be made mandatory for citizens to avail of any social security service, the state government in Delhi continues to ask for it. Those who do not have Aadhar cards are being denied food rations.

Apart from being a violation of the court order, this has led to a curious trend in the slum at Sheikh Sarai. Families are lining up children, and in some cases, infants, outside Aadhar registration centres. “Even our youngest, five-month old baby has an Aadhar card now,” said Sheela, a matriarch heading a 17-member household of sons, daughter-in-laws and grandchildren.

A temporary fix

Since the Aadhar card is based on biometric data, children younger than five years are technically not ready for the procedure. Their iris and fingerprints aren’t fully formed. They would inevitably need new cards after the age of five.

So why are families desperate to get Aadhar cards for their children?

Until recently, food rations were given collectively to a family. But the National Food Security Act of 2013, popularly known as the Right to Food Act, has replaced family quotas with individual quotas. Under the new law, every member of a family that earns less than Rs 1 lakh a year is entitled to five kilos of rice and wheat a month at Rs 1 or Rs 2 a kilo.

Since Delhi government has linked Aadhar to food rations, it means every member of the family – including the children – need to get unique identification cards before they can qualify for the rations.

Geeta, a housewife from the Sheikh Sarai slum colony, has to feed her four children on the erratic income of her husband, a daily wage labourer who brings in Rs 100 or Rs 150 on a good day. Three of her children were not on the family ration card when the Right to Food Act was passed, so Geeta is unable to get subsidised rations for half the family.

“There is no hope for people like us. They ask us to get an Aadhar card first or get out,” said Geeta, who has been trying to get her three youngest children on the ration card for a year.


Geeta and her family. Photo: Mayank Jain


Geeta’s attempts to procure the mandatory Aadhar number for her children have failed, despite taking them repeatedly to the UID registration office. “We always get registration slips and then nothing happens,” she said. Her children’s applications have been rejected at least four times, and she is not sure why.

Geeta now buys more expensive foodgrains from the neighbourhood grocery store, often by borrowing money from locals at steep interest. “We have nothing left to buy anything else, like stationery for my two children in school,” she said.

An unrevoked order

In September 2013 – and again in March 2014 – the Supreme Court issued two prominent rulings on the use of the Aadhar card. In both orders, the court ruled against making Aadhar mandatory and in March, it reiterated that “no person shall be deprived of any service for want of Aadhar number in case he/she is otherwise eligible/entitled”.

The court also ordered authorities to modify all its forms and circulars that may have listed the Aadhar number as a necessity for availing services.

But four months later, in July 2014, in response to a Right to Information query by activists from the Delhi Rozi Roti Abhiyan, the state government’s department of food and civil supplies provided its guidelines for identifying families eligible for the rations. Sure enough, the guidelines give top priority to Aadhar numbers, which must be on the ration card for each family member. “Non submission of copy of Aadhar...may lead to removal of the family from the list,” the guidelines say.

The revenue department’s insistence on Aadhar stretches back to an order it issued in December 2012, announcing that Aadhar would be used to deliver all services within its jurisdiction. “As far as I am aware, this order has not been revoked, and continues to cause hardship to poor people,” said Reetika Khera, a Delhi-based economist.

Although the Supreme Court orders technically override the Delhi government’s order, the revenue department still seems to be enforcing the need for Aadhar.

Senior officials in the Delhi government were not available for comment. But a lower official in the food and civil supplied office confirmed that the Aadhar number has been linked to the ration card.

Over the past year, activists in Delhi have found that the state government continues to blatantly violate the Supreme Court order, not just in the case of food ration supplies but also for a range of services provided by the state revenue department. Forms for the application of income certificates, Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe certificates and other backward caste certificates – all under the revenue department – claim that an Aadhar number is compulsory for all applicants.

Not just Aadhar

But getting the Aadhar numbers hasn't ended the troubles of people in the Sheikh Sarai slum.

Sheela was the only person in her family whose name was listed on the family ration card. Still, the family used to get about 35 kilos of grain every month. But after the government moved to individual-based quotas, the family’s supply came down to just 5 kilos of foodgrain a month.

Sheela then painstakingly did the rounds of UID offices to get Aadhar cards for all her grandchildren. But the cards, she says, have proved to be futile.

“They ask us to give UID numbers but when we put it on the form, they want proof of birth,” she said. Very few people in Sheikh Sarai have a formal proof of birth to offer.

Sheela’s daughter-in-law Lakshmi has had similar problems while trying to get a cooking gas connection. “Our gas connection was cancelled by the company because we didn’t have Aadhar cards,” she said. “Now that we do, each authority keeps sending us away.”