Bijalbhai Vinjuda is a Dalit farm worker who lives in Sandhidha village in Dholera, not far from Gandhinagar, the capital of Gujarat. He owns no land of his own. The day he finds work on other people’s farms, he makes Rs 200.

But Vinjuda knows how to read – an ability that helped him keep track of the foodgrains his family bought every month at subsidised rates from the fair price shop under the public distribution system.

“I used to ask the ration dealer to make accurate entries and write clearly,” Vinjuda said. “But now, since the machine system, he neither records entries in the ration booklet, nor does he print the e-coupon.”

By “machine system”, Vinjuda is referring to the system of fingerprint authentication that Gujarat adopted in ration shops starting 2010 by creating a database of the biometrics of ration card holders.

This system is not the same as Aadhaar, India’s Unique Identity Project, but it is founded on the same idea that biometrics can help eliminate theft in social welfare delivery by ensuring only real beneficiaries accessed their benefits.

Under the new system in Gujarat, to collect food rations, people are expected to get their fingerprints scanned on a machine at either the ration shop or at the computerised village service centre. Once the fingerprints match against the database, a slip called “e-coupon” is generated, which lists the quantity of foodgrains that a family is entitled to. This slip can be used to withdraw foodgrains at the local ration shop.

If the experience of Vinjuda’s family is anything to go by, the system does not entirely work.

The family is entitled to 15 kilos of foodgrains – five kilos each for Vinjuda, his aged mother, and his wife. Under the National Food Security Act, Gujarat government provides 3.5 kilo wheat at Rs 2 per kilo and 1.5 kilo rice at Rs 3 per kilo to every man, woman or child eligible for foodgrains. In addition, every ration card gets 350 gram sugar and 4 litre of oil.

But Vinjuda said his family gets just 12 kilos of grains – three kilos less than their food entitlement.

The fingerprint authentication system helps the government check and authenticate if Vinjuda, a beneficiary, is who he claims to be. But it does nothing to stop the ration shop dealer from pilfering a part of Vinduja’s grain entitlements – which is called “quantity fraud”.

Gujarat has high leakages

Pilferage in the public distribution system happens in multiple ways.

Dealers siphon off foodgrains by showing sales against fake ration cards. Or they show sales against the ration cards issued to genuine beneficiaries but the card-holders do not get the grain. Sometimes the beneficiaries get only a part of their entitlements and the rest is diverted by dealers to the open market.

The public distribution system in Gujarat has long been considered one of the most “leaky” among all states. The leakages in the state’s public distribution system increased from 51.7% to 67.5% between 2004-’05 and 2011-’12, a study by economists Reetika Khera and Jean Dreze showed.

In contrast, leakages in Chhattisgarh declined from 51.8% to 9.3% in the same period.

Khera and Dreze attribute this to the major reforms that Chhattisgarh introduced in its public distribution system from 2004 onwards. The state took away the ownership of ration shops from private dealers and gave it to village co-operatives. This reduced outright theft. It also broadened the coverage of the public distribution system, making it nearly universal, and simplified entitlements to make sure everyone knew how much grain they should be getting. The higher level of community vigilance brought down the scale of quantity fraud.

In contrast, Gujarat adopted a technological fix by creating a database holding the demographic and biometric information of ration card-holders. The system has no mechanism to strengthen transparency and accountability at the local level.

Pilferage, exclusion continue

Addressing a consultation of states on the computerisation of the public distribution system on September 19 in New Delhi, MR Das, the principal secretary of Gujarat’s food and civil supplies department claimed the biometrics-based system was “people-friendly and popular”. Ration card holders no longer feel “fear and heartburn over the theft of their ration entitlements,” he said.

But in the villages of Ahmedabad and Panchmahal districts, the poor continue to report pilferage of their rations.

Jayniben Tadvi, a Koli Adivasi, lives in Sanyal village in Ghoghamba block in Panchmahal district. Her husband died at a construction site in Surat. She supports her two children working as a daily wage farm worker.

Jayniben Tadvi, a daily wage laborer, has been wrongly categorised as Above the Poverty Line. The biometrics-based ration system cannot correct such exclusion errors. Image credit: Anumeha Yadav

The state government has wrongly categorised this extremely impoverished family as Above Poverty Line – an error that Tadvi has not been able to get redressed.

Against the 15 kilos of foodgrains that the three-member family is entitled to – five kilos per person – they get just 12 kilos, she said.

Such complaints are common in Panchmahal, a district with nearly 85% rural population and several Adivasi villages.

Ration dealers often give people less than their entitlements, pocketing the rest, said villagers. Fingerprint authentication is ineffective in preventing either wrongful exclusion of poor people or quantity fraud by dealers.

On its part, the state has mandated that ration dealers provide an e-coupon or receipt which clearly displays each person’s entitlement for that month, but villagers said they often failed to do so. In some places, they even charge card holders Rs 5 to 10 for this illegally.

In Ghoghamba, the e-coupon that villagers get is not a small slip of paper but an A4-sized sheet. The local fair price shop owner Jagdishbhai Patel said after the new system was introduced, he had to purchase a printer for Rs 6,000. To recover his costs, he now charges Rs 5 per receipt.

That month, however, the printer had run out of ink, and the receipts displayed only partial details, which were not legible.

The ration shop dealers provide e-coupons after illegally charging Rs 5-Rs 10. The prints do no specify entitlements clearly.

Asked about the complaints, Ronak Mehta, the deputy secretary in Gujarat’s food and civil supplies department, said the state had provided “toll-free helplines to assist card holders in reporting complaints.”

“I agree that quantity fraud persists,” he said.

A dual system

Not just quantity fraud, the failure of fingerprint authentication itself opens a window for pilferage.

As an earlier story in this series reported, Gujarat faces nearly 30% of fingerprint authentication failure. This means the fingerprints of one out of nearly three ration card-holders failed to match at the time of the withdrawal of foodgrains.

For such cases, the state has asked ration shop owners to manually note down the details of the ration-card holders in a register – as they did in the past for all ration card-holders – before giving them foodgrains.

Wouldn’t this allow for old-style pilferage?

Mehta said to avoid such a possibility, the system ensures that once the fingerprint authentication fails, a one-time password is sent to the registered mobile number of the beneficiary, thereby ensuring that only he or she is able to collect the grains.

But state records do not show any use of mobile phones. In October, nearly 30% transactions failed. No transactions were recorded under the column showing transactions done “with mobile”.

Officials says 200 panchayats in Gujarat have extremely poor mobile and Internet connectivity. But they did not say why the one-time password authentication facility was not being used or recorded even in the other panchayats.

In the absence of a fully functioning system, a “dual system” exists, when grains go both through biometric authentication as well as the register system. Such a system in practice becomes even more opaque for the most vulnerable beneficiaries. They have no way of knowing which of the two systems will enable their transactions. Dealers have no incentives to reveal this information.

There is no mechanism to strengthen transparency and accountability at the local level.

Laxmiben Mer, an elderly single woman whose son was paralyzed waist-down after an accident, has an Antyodaya card which makes her eligible for 35 kilo of foodgrains every month. But she said she had received only kerosene on her card. Last month, even her kerosene was siphoned off by the dealer through the register system.

“I was in Bhavnagar for work,” she recounted. “When I returned, the dealer said since I was not present when he disbursed ration, I would get kerosene through the register. He gave only two litre kerosene this time instead of four.”

Fair price shop owner Jagdishbhai Patel in Sandhidha village said he charged for the e-coupon to recover his computer and printer costs.

Expanding biometrics in welfare

Reetika Khera, Associate Professor of Economics at the Indian Institute of Technology in New Delhi, argues that leakages may have gone up in Gujarat after fingerprint authentication was introduced.

In October, state government data showed transactions were made for only 87 lakh of the 1.2 crore rations cards. Officials were not certain if the unused ration cards belonged to bogus beneficiaries or simply those who did not take their entitlement that month.

Khera points out that the state government did not reduced the allocation of grains to ration shop dealers even though fewer people were using their ration cards.

“The government ought to have systematically studied the pattern of off-take over the previous 3-4 months,” she said. “Since allocations have remained the same, where is this grain going?”

As the state moves to Aadhaar-based authentication, the problem of pilferage is likely to persist. Other states which have introduced Aadhaar in ration shops are already experiencing both what Gujarat has faced in the form of quantity fraud, as well as new ways of identity fraud in Aadhaar-based authentication systems.

At the food ministry consultation in October in New Delhi, Karnataka’s principal secretary Harsh Gupta admitted that “biometric authentication cannot stop quantity fraud”.

Rajasthan’s principal secretary, food and civil supplies department, Subodh Agarwal, offered an example of how dealers were getting around fingerprint authentication. They were seeding or linking their own Aadhaar numbers against multiple ration cards. The state had detected 6,000-7,000 instances of such identity fraud, he said.

Without additional transparency measures, the introduction of biometrics in welfare delivery systems may simply result in new forms of corruption.

The first part of this series on Gujarat’s iniative to use biometric authentication for social services programmes can be read here.