The recent death of 11-year old Santoshi Kumari in Simdega district of Jharkhand has rightly stirred the country’s conscience. The context of this tragedy, however, is poorly understood, not least because of the Jharkhand government’s obfuscation.

According to the family’s video testimonies, Santoshi died after starving for eight days. Even as she was dying, she kept asking her mother Koyli Devi for rice, but there was none in the house. Other family members were also starving when Santoshi died.

Koyli Devi, who lives in dire poverty, had not received any rice from the public distribution system for several months before her daughter’s death. As Jharkhand’s food minister Saryu Rai candidly admitted, the family’s ration card had been cancelled on July 22, 2017. Their food rations, however, had been discontinued much before that. The reason, in both cases, is that the family’s ration card had not been “seeded”, or electronically linked, with any Aadhaar number – the 12-digit identification number that the Indian government wants every resident to have.

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Common failure, widespread distress

Except for its tragic culmination, there is nothing unusual about this story. Many people in Jharkhand have been victims of similar deprivation of food entitlements during the last few months. The main reason is that Aadhaar-based biometric authentication is now compulsory in about 80% of ration shops in the state. It requires at least one member of the family to have an Aadhaar number correctly seeded into the system, which is not a trivial matter by any means. In addition, it requires internet connectivity, a working point of sales machine, and successful fingerprint recognition. Despite various safeguards, such as the “one-time password” option, whereby those who are unable to authenticate themselves using fingerprints can get a password on their mobile phones, the system often fails.

In Ranchi district, Aadhaar-based biometric authentication has been compulsory in ration shops since August 2016. When it was introduced, rice distribution levels declined sharply, but the government ignored our warnings (reiterated after an eye-opening social audit) and pressed on with imposing biometric authentication in other districts. It took about four months for the system to stabilise in Ranchi district. From January onwards, according to a careful analysis of official records by Nazar Khalid, a research student at Jawaharlal Nehru University, the proportion of cardholders who were unable to buy their food rations hovered around 20% month after month. Assuming a similar failure rate elsewhere, this suggests that about one million families in Jharkhand are deprived of their food rations each month.

Official records are consistent with a survey of the public distribution system conducted in eight districts of Jharkhand in June 2017 with student volunteers. In a random sample of 18 villages where biometric authentication is compulsory, the exclusion rate, defined as the proportion of cardholders unable to buy their food rations in the previous month, was 37% according to official records, and 36% according to the household survey. The survey also brings out that the victims of exclusion tend to come from the most vulnerable groups – for instance, widows living alone or elderly couples. In areas that are still “offline”, where biometric authentication is yet to be introduced, the exclusion rate was only 14%.

Researchers, journalists and activists have presented wide-ranging evidence of food deprivation related to compulsory biometric authentication in Jharkhand through statistical analyses, field surveys, social audits, personal testimonies, interviews, articles, videos, complaints, affidavits, powerpoint presentations, tweets, and more. But nothing moves the state or central governments on this subject: as one senior food ministry official in New Delhi put it, Aadhaar-based biometric authentication is “the government’s policy”, full stop. The pressure comes straight from the Prime Minister’s Office and applies down the line. Jharkhand is only a trailer – the policy is to extend the model across the country as soon as possible.

Wilful ignorance

With this background, it is touching to see government officials fall over each other to express surprise or indignation at the Simdega incident. Surely, they know that the public distribution system is a lifeline for the rural poor in Jharkhand, that biometric authentication is now compulsory in most ration shops, and that it has high failure rates. Intensified hunger is the logical outcome of this policy.

Characteristically, the Jharkhand government made a show of taking action against small-fry officials who were supposedly responsible for Santoshi’s death. For instance, the auxiliary nurse midwife of the area was suspended for failing to alert the government to the fact that Santoshi had malaria – the government claims Santoshi died of the disease, but the family denies this forcefully. Meanwhile, the real culprits in the case – the senior decision-makers in Ranchi who made biometric authentication compulsory for the public distribution system in violation of Supreme Court orders – continue to escape scrutiny.

Santoshi Kumari with her brother. Photo credit: Taramani Sahu
Santoshi Kumari with her brother. Photo credit: Taramani Sahu

The Unique Identification Authority of India, for its part, claims to have absolved Aadhaar of any responsibility in this matter by pointing out that some members of Santoshi’s family have an Aadhaar card. But that is not the issue at all. No one has claimed that lack of Aadhaar was the problem in this particular case. The problem is failed or faulty Aadhaar seeding, followed by the cancellation of the ration card. Lack of Aadhaar is only one possible hurdle involved in biometric authentication, but there are many others.

Coming back to the Jharkhand government, instead of learning from its mistakes, it made the situation worse last March by ordering mass cancellation of ration cards not linked with Aadhaar. Sure enough, the cancelled cards were declared “bogus”, and the whole operation was projected as another trophy for Aadhaar-related savings. As usual, however, the government is unable to present any evidence that most of the cancelled cards were bogus. Nor is it disclosing the list of cancelled cards for public scrutiny. Koyli Devi’s ration card was one of them.

Why is the government so determined to impose Aadhaar-based biometric authentication on the public distribution system in Jharkhand? One plausible answer is that it is a kind of litmus test for this technology. Perhaps the time has come to admit that Aadhaar-based biometric authentication has failed the test, and to look for alternatives. A simple smart-card system, not requiring biometrics or connectivity, is one possible option as far as the public distribution system is concerned.

The author is Visiting Professor at the Department of Economics, Ranchi University.