The National Democratic Alliance government has asked the states and Central ministries to link the details of all beneficiaries of its social welfare schemes with Aadhaar, a biometric-based unique identity number, by March 2017.

On September 14, the Unique Identity Authority of India – the agency that manages the centralised Aadhaar database – sent circulars to the ministries to specify the schemes, benefits and services for which the 12-digit number will now be mandatory.

One of the biggest such schemes to be linked will be the public distribution system under the National Food Security Act, 2013 – which provides a legal entitlement to subsidised foodgrains to 67% of the country’s population through a network of fair price shops.

“The public distribution system has the largest database of beneficiaries at over 85 crore,” said Ajay Bhushan Pandey, chief executive officer of the Unique Identity Authority of India. “It is much larger than the 13 crore users of subsidised liquefied petroleum gas, or the 1.5 crore students who receive government scholarships.”

He said the agency would help the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution prepare a notification to make Aadhaar mandatory for food benefits.

"You [food ministry] should now be the main agency to register the residual population to be covered under Aadhaar,” he added at a conference of states organised by the ministry on September 16.

There are currently 105 crore Aadhaar holders in India, or 82% of its population.

Activists of the Right to Food campaign, however, criticised the move to make Aadhaar mandatory in the public distribution system. They said that even three years after it had been passed, the National Food Security Act was yet to be fully enacted by several states. And state governments were still to create grievance redressal mechanisms mandated by the law. This, they pointed out, would leave beneficiaries with no place to take their complaints if they faced Aadhaar authentication failures, as were being reported in various states.

Fingerprint snags

The Unique Identity Authority of India does not publish data on Aadhaar authentication failures in schemes where it is already being used, or instances where Aadhaar authentication worked only after multiple attempts.

But data from the states shows that Aadhaar authentication – a process where a beneficiary places his finger on a machine that uses real-time internet connectivity to verify his biometric data against that stored in the central database – is not working well in all states.

Andhra Pradesh, the first state to introduce Aadhaar in all ration shops, has a fingerprint authentication failure rate of up to 5%, said G Ravi Babu, additional secretary, food and civil supplies.

But in Rajasthan – the second state to adopt the process – fingerprint authentication does not work for 37% of enrolled households even nine months after it was introduced in December 2015.

Subodh Agarwal, principal secretary in the state’s food and civil supplies department, said 63.5 lakh transactions were recorded in August where beneficiaries received their 5 kilos of subsidised wheat after fingerprint authentication. This means the system works for 63%, or a little less than two-thirds, of the 99.7 lakh beneficiary families, mostly made up of small farmers.

Babu Singh, a construction worker, and Punni Devi who has polio and their four children cannot get rations after Aadhaar biometric authentication was made compulsory in Jawaja, Rajasthan. Punni Devi did not receive her Aadhaar number. The machine does not recognise the fingerprints of Singh or his 8-year-old son.

Agarwal said beneficiaries are allowed to take their grains after recording their names in registers kept at the ration shops, but this “manual” system will be phased out after September.

Jharkhand began Aadhaar authentication in ration shops in Ranchi district in July. An analysis of state data for July and August by economist Jean Dreze shows that only 49% got their grains in these two months, leaving out half the beneficiaries. Authentication failures were recorded both because of fingerprints not working on the point of sale devices and data entry errors in linking Aadhaar with their ration card details.

Despite these problems, VK Choubey, principal secretary in the state’s food and civil supplies department, said Aadhaar authentication will be implemented in all 24 districts by October.

Choubey's counterpart in Gujarat, MR Das, said the government has introduced Aadhaar authentication at 90% of ration shops. “At first, we had a 20% failure rate in fingerprint authentication, but it has now come down to about 6%,” said Das.

Delayed implementation of food law

The Central government is rushing states to link all ration cards to Aadhaar by March 2017. But this switch to the Aadhaar authentication system comes at a time when most states have not yet notified the rules for compensation or appointed two-tier grievance redressal authorities at the district and state levels, as mandated by the National Food Security Act 2013.

The Food Act was to be implemented within a year of its enactment by 2014, but this deadline has already been extended thrice by the food ministry’s executive orders, the last time in March 2015. Several states have not yet notified crucial parts of the law, including on compensation and grievance redressal, even three years after the Act was passed.

“Several states have appointed food department officials as district grievance redressal officials, which does not satisfy the requirement of the law to have an independent authority for this,” said Dipa Sinha, a social activist with the Right to Food Campaign. “If a beneficiary is denied rations because of fingerprint failures or data entry errors, they will be asked to approach the same food department officials who may be responsible for those errors in the first place.”

As per ministry data, only nine states have appointed food department officials as district grievance redressal officials. Twenty states have designated an existing commission to additionally act as the state-level food commission, while three states have not formed a state-level commission at all.

A toll-free grievance redressal facility – the 1967 helpline – has not been implemented in 10 states, including Rajasthan, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh.

The Act provides for compensation in case of denial of foodgrains, but only seven states have notified these rules.

“The rules specify what compensation will be provided in case of denial of food entitlements, the process of applying for compensation, the time limit within which an authority responds, but most states are yet to frame and notify these rules,” said Aditya Shrivastava, a lawyer.

Ministry officials said no one will be denied foodgrains because of Aadhaar errors. “In states like Rajasthan, which are reporting high rates of Aadhaar errors, the manual system is still being allowed and no one is being denied their entitlements,” said Vrinda Sarup, secretary, Ministry of consumer affairs, food and public distribution.