Thirty-seven-year-old Moiful Begum cooks and cleans at four different houses in Guwahati. Over seven hours of work a day earns her Rs 5,000-6,000 per month. Her husband, 40-year-old Ashraf Ali, is a daily wage labourer.

The couple have managed to eke out a living in the big city for the last 15 years. They live in a small, rented tin roof hut, far from their home in Safaidalgaon village in Assam’s Darrang district.

Until recently, they would rely heavily on subsidised food acquired with their ration card, which they got 20 years ago. Under the National Food Security Act, Moiful Begum’s four-member family were getting 20 kg of rice every month. They bought about 15 kg of rice to supplement this.

In the last three months, however, life has grown harder. Assam has made it mandatory to link ration cards with Aadhaar – the 12-digit unique identification number issued by the central government. Moiful Begum has been denied rations since she does not have an Aadhaar.

“Now, we manage to survive somehow with the little wages we get,” she said. “We are poor people, the free rice helped keep us from starvation.”

At the root of the problem is a tangled bureaucratic process. In Assam, the government halted Aadhaar registrations in 2017, when just 7% of the population had enrolled. This was because the state was updating its National Register of Citizens, which was meant to be a list of Indian citizens living in the state, sifted from undocumented migrants.

The updated NRC was published on August 31, 2019. In June 2020, Aadhaar registration was resumed in Assam. Lakhs of people like Moiful Begum, who were left out of the NRC, have not been able to get an Aadhaar number.

Many of those who made it to the final NRC, but were excluded from its draft version, have also had trouble getting enrolled in Aadhaar. This is because the biometric data of over 27 lakh people collected during the NRC process remains frozen.

The lack of an Aadhaar number is leading to painful consequences. According to Ankur Bharali, Assam’s director of food, civil supply and consumer affairs department, about 15 lakh people eligible for subsidised rations do not have ration cards linked to Aadhaar numbers as their biometric data remains frozen.

Bharali claimed this isn’t affecting their access to food rations, since the state government has instructed district commissioners not to withhold rations to beneficiaries who have been unable to get Aadhaar because of the NRC process.

But families interviewed by said they have been cut off from essential supplies.

Frozen biometrics

Assam had a long-drawn NRC process. Several people who applied for inclusion in the NRC had to go through multiple rounds of verification. In July 2018, the office of the NRC published a draft citizen’s register that left out over 40 lakh applicants.

Those excluded got a chance to make fresh claims to citizenship. Others had to defend themselves against objections to their inclusion in the list.

During this process, their biometric data was also collected by the state NRC authorities, in collaboration with the Unique Identification Authority of India, which issues Aadhaar numbers. “Once the final NRC has been published such persons who are included in the NRC will be given the usual Aadhaar number as applicable to legal residents in the country,” said a document laying out the procedure for claims and objections.

Moiful Begum, who was left out of the draft list in July 2018, submitted her biometric data when she made a fresh claim to citizenship early in 2019. The rest of her family made it to the NRC but she did not, and the biometric data collected during the claims process was not converted to an Aadhaar number. She applied for an Aadhaar twice after that, only to be rejected.

She is not alone. “Nearly 40 lakh were excluded in the draft NRC published on July 30, 2018,” explained an NRC official who did not want to be identified. “But the biometrics of all the people excluded in the draft were not taken. Altogether 27,43,396 applicants’ biometrics were captured during claims and objections.”

Of these, over 19 lakh people were left out of the final NRC. Those who were excluded after the claims and objections process still have their biometric details frozen. But they are not the only ones. Many of those who made it to the final NRC after being left out of the draft also have their biometric details locked, yet to be converted to Aadhaar numbers.

The state government has written at least twice to the registrar general of India about complaints that the biometric details of NRC applicants had been frozen.

After a public interest litigation was filed in the Supreme Court, the matter has moved to the judicial domain. The court is now considering the question of whether Aadhaar numbers should be issued to the 27.4 lakh people whose biometric details are locked. The court issued a notice to the Centre, Assam government, the Registrar General of India and Unique Identification Authority of India.

Woen queue up to check if their names appeared in the draft NRC in July 2018. Photo: PTI

Claims and counter-claims

While the biometrics of 27 lakh people remain frozen, making it impossible for them to get their Aadhaar numbers, Assam started linking Aadhaar numbers with ration cards last November.

The state was the last to implement the “One Nation, One Ration Card” scheme, which stipulates that Aadhaar numbers be linked to ration cards for beneficiaries to get subsidised rice and other staples.

The regime officially came into force in Assam in June. Bharali claimed the absence of Aadhaar linking should not lead to a denial of rations. “We have told the district commissioners to allow food grains to the beneficiaries to whom Aadhaar is unavailable due to the NRC process,” he said.

He also said the government would not delete beneficiaries who could provide an Aadhaar enrolment number.

“When you apply for Aadhaar, or if you submitted your biometrics during the NRC process, you get an enrolment number,” he explained. Those who could show an enrolment number could still get free foodgrain, he said.

These instructions seem to have been implemented patchily. spoke to five ration shop dealers in the Lower Assam districts of Bongaigaon, Barpeta and Baksa. One dealer said food allocation had not changed after the “One Nation, One Ration Card” scheme and they were still giving rations to those without Aadhaar.

Another dealer, based in Bongaigaon, said, “We had to stop giving the ration because there was lots of pressure on us from the officials. It is also true that some people don’t link the Aadhaar deliberately, so we had to stop providing ration.”

A dealer from Barpeta echoed these suspicions. He said that since around April, he had stopped giving rations to those with cards not seeded with Aadhaar. However, he said an exception had been made for those who could not get an Aadhaar because of the NRC process.

Moiful Begum claimed ration shop dealers had refused them supplies since April, demanding that they link their cards to Aadhaar first. Begum said her husband and two sons made it to the NRC and have linked their Aadhaar number to the family ration card, but they are still refused subsidised rice by the ration shop dealer.

She claimed her Aadhaar enrolment number had not worked either. “I showed my PAN card, voter identity card, vaccine certificate,” she said. “As I don’t have an Aadhaar, I submitted the enrolment number of my Aadhaar application. Even after that, they didn’t give us ration.”

Rejia Khatun, a 47-year-old resident of Dolahirapara in Darrang district, has a similar problem. Her biometrics were also locked during the NRC claims process and she did not make it to the final list. Since then, she has applied for an Aadhaar three times, to no avail.

This has curtailed her family’s stock of rice. Under the food security act, each family member is entitled to 5 kg of rice.

“The other three family members whose names are there in the ration card are getting rice,” she said. “My name has been on the ration card since 2015 but I have not been provided [my share of] the rice for the last four months.” The last time they got provisions, she said, was in March.

Khatun also has a job as a domestic worker and depends on the ration supplies. “We are poor people – it is our right to get rice,” she said. “The government does not give us anything apart from rice. Now that has also stopped.”

When asked about instances of people not getting rations because their Aadhaar was held up, Bharali suggested these were stray cases. “When you are dealing with 2.25 crore beneficiaries, two-three such cases may occur,” he said.

Rejia Khatun says she has not got her share of subsidised rice for the last four months. Photo: Rokibuz Zaman

Ration card application cancelled

Even those whose names feature in the NRC have had trouble applying for a new ration card without an Aadhaar number. Take 40-year-old Haiton Nessa, who was left out of the draft list. During the claims process, her biometric details were taken. She subsequently made it to the final NRC but her biometrics remain locked so she cannot get an Aadhaar.

She filled out an application form for a new ration card and submitted documents such as her voter’s identity card, PAN card and NRC. “But my application got rejected because there’s no Aadhaar,” Nessa said.

She said her husband is a daily wage worker. On days he finds work, he earns about Rs 300-350. “We have to spend Rs 100-150 to buy food for our family,” Nessa said. “The free rice would have been a great help for us.”

Nessa said the lack of a ration card has held up other benefits. The card is proof that the annual income of the family is below Rs 1 lakh, is an essential document for other government benefits, such as subsidised electricity and gas connections. It is also used as identity and address proof.

‘Name was was deleted’

Rakesh Paswan, a 20-year-old college student who lives in Guwahati’s Uzan Bazaar area, also made it to the NRC but claims his name was deleted from the list of ration beneficiaries.

“My parents are getting the ration but my name and my sister’s were deleted from the ration card five months ago as we failed to provide an Aadhaar,” said Paswan.

Like Haiton Nessa, they had been left out of the draft list and their biometric data was collected during the claims process. They made it to the final NRC but their biometrics remain frozen.

Paswan said he had done the rounds of the Unique Identification Authority of India office in Guwahati and the Kamrup Metropolitan deputy commissioner’s office, asking when he and his sister, a minor, might get an Aadhaar. There were no encouraging answers.

“Whenever I visited government offices, the officials mistreated me, as if I was a Bangladeshi,” said Paswan, referring to the common allegation against Bengali-origin Muslims in Assam, that they are “illegal migrants” from across the border. One of the stated aims of the NRC exercise had been to detect such undocumented migrants.

“In denying us an Aadhaar and ration, they are curtailing our rights,” Paswan said. “I have all the documents, including NRC, but I am not able to get government benefits, just because of the NRC process. Nobody knows when this issue will be resolved.”

Waiting for the court

All eyes are now on the Supreme Court. After the court issued notices to various authorities, the Centre replied that the state coordinator for the NRC was supposed to create a security regime similar to the one used to safeguard Aadhaar data. Only then would the list of NRC inclusions and exclusions be shared with other authorities, including the Centre and the registrar general. It pointed out that the state coordinator was yet to create such a security regime.

The state government has asked the court to relax the rules under which data was collected and stored during the claims and objections process.

Meanwhile, Bharali warned that those who had not linked their Aadhaar numbers to their ration cards may not get access to rations in future.Assam has 58 lakh ration cards and 34,000 fair price shops, Bharali said. According to Bharali, about 78.3% of Assam’s 2.25 crore beneficiaries had linked their Aadhaar numbers with their ration card. Till date, 94.8% of the cards have been seeded with at least one Aadhaar number.

Even before the state started implementing the “One Nation, One Ration Card” system, they had started combing through the list of beneficiaries.

“To clean the system and to remove the inauthentic beneficiaries, Aadhaar seeding is very important,” he said. “Since May 1, we have deleted 18 lakh beneficiaries and 1.10 lakh ration cards which have duplicate and bogus beneficiaries. Many also surrendered their cards. Now, the government will decide their fate.”