On Friday morning, Butan Singh took a break working his land in the forested Kumandih region of Jharkhand and took the bus to Manika, 20 km away. He was headed to a public hearing, where he had heard people’s grievances about rations were being recorded.

Butan Singh grows paddy on his small piece of land which usually lasts him seven months. The rest of the year, his family relies on the subsidised rice – 25 kg a month at Rs 1 per kg – under the National Food Security Act. This year, though, Butan Singh stopped receiving his rations in August, a month after the state made it compulsory to link ration cards to Aadhaar, a 12-digit biometric-based unique identity number the Indian government wants every citizen to have.

“Since bhaado [the month of August], my family’s food rations have been stopped,” the 55-year-old farmer, who walks with a stick, said at the hearing. “We used to buy 25 kilo rice from the ration shop every month. But now our card has been cancelled. Why?”

At the hearing organised by activists of the Right to Food Campaign, Jharkhand, and the MNREGA Sahayata Kendra, Manika, in presence of food and civil supplies department officials and representatives of the district administration of Latehar, Butan Singh, like many others, recorded his problem and waited to understand why his rations had been stopped and when they would be restored. By the end of the day, he had only got assurances from the officials that his problem would be looked into.

Butan Singh's ration was stopped a month after Jharkhand made it mandatory to link ration cards with Aadhaar. Photo credit: Anumeha Yadav

Fatal disruption

The government in Jharkhand, like in several other states, has asked for all ration cards to be linked with Aadhaar and mandated that only card holders whose fingerprints are authenticated online from the Aadhaar database would get subsidised grain.

In Jharkhand, 86% of all rural households are entitled to subsidised foodgrain under the Food Security Act. But since July, this right has been routinely violated because beneficiaries have failed to enrol for Aadhaar or get it linked with their ration cards. Or because of network and authentication problems at fair price shops.

For more vulnerable households, this has proved fatal. At least four persons have reportedly starved to death – all in the state’s remote, poorer regions – after being denied ration on account of Aadhaar. The deaths of Santoshi Kumari, 11, in Simdega and Premni Kunwar, 71, in Garhwa made it to national headlines.

Senior state functionaries have denied that glitches in government processes are to blame for the worsening condition of such households, and insisted that beneficiaries are not being coerced into Aadhaar enrolment and linking.

But at the public hearing on Friday in one of India’s poorest districts, Latehar, hundreds of low-income card holders, including the Parhaiya who are categorised as a particularly vulnerable Adivasi group, recounted instances of being denied their legal entitlement of subsidised grain for failing to correctly link their ration cards with Aadhaar by the July deadline.

Chanaiya Devi, a tribal farmer from Dundu village in Manika block, said her eight-member household received 40 kg rice a month until August, when it was stopped without explanation.

Fatima Bibi, a 70-year-old farmer from Namudag, Manika, said her family members enrolled for Aadhaar and tried to seed it with their ration cards, yet the cards were cancelled.

Fatima Bibi's ration card was cancelled without explanation. Photo credit: Anumeha Yadav

Denied their due

Several families said after July, when Aadhaar was made compulsory, they have been wrongly shown as high-income households, which are entitled only to subsidised kerosene, not grain.

Ramjit Ram, a 70-year-old visually impaired man from Rankikala in Manika, said he no longer gets his entitlement of 30 kilo rice because the machine at the fair price shop shows he is entitled only to kerosene. “How did this change, they do not say,” he said.

Mahru Lohara, another elderly farmer, said he too does not get 30 kilo rice anymore. The last two months, he was told he could take only two litres of kerosene.

Durga Singh of Dundu, Manika, said after the death of his wife Kopli Devi, his four-member family’s ration card was cancelled with reason given as “death”, apparently because she was listed as the head of the household and the ration card was linked to her Aadhaar. “But the rest of us are still alive, why did the machine cut our rice?” Durga Singh wanted to know.

Durga Singh's family's ration card was cancelled after his wife, to whose Aadhaar the card was linked, died. Photo credit: Anumeha Yadav

Most families whose rations have been stopped have not been given any reason. This is confirmed by a door-to-door survey conducted by the Right to Food Campaign, Jharkhand, and the MNREGA Sahayata Kendra, Manika. The surveyors found that of the 135 cancelled ration cards, two were declared farzi or fake during Aadhaar linking while three were deemed to be duplicate. Ration cards of six households were cancelled when their heads died and 26 cards were cancelled for “not linking to Aadhaar” for “errors in linking”. But the majority of the cards, 96, were scrapped without explanation.

Although the main stated aim of Aadhaar linking and biometric authentication is to reduce pilferage of grain, several card holders testified at the public hearing to ration dealers demanding bribes of Rs 500-Rs 800 for Aadhaar linking and giving them less than their entitlement of ration even after they completed their fingerprint authentication.

“In July, the dealer entered something in his machine and the slip said I had taken two months of grain but he gave me only one month’s,” said Sohbatiya Devi, a 68-year-old farmer from Dundu. “He is giving 15 kilo grain, not 25 kilo as we are entitled to.”

Responding to the complaints, District Food Supply Officer Selprabha Kujur said her department was not in a position to give ration to beneficiaries who did not have Aadhaar. “You cannot get ration without Aadhaar,” she said. “The software will not allow it.”

She admitted that there were “practical difficulties” in linking ration cards to Aadhaar. “Because there are network issues and biometric errors, and we are aware of these problems, we are asking you to link your mobile numbers to your Aadhaar, so your mobile can provide authentication through one-time password,” she told the card holders.

The district administration, she added, was trying to implement the state government’s instruction to allow continued access to grain to low-income households facing problems linking Aadhaar by noting their names in a separate register.

Kujur also said the Latehar administration would organise a camp on December 18-20 to ensure “accurate Aadhaar enrolment and linking.

Block Supply Officer Habib Khan told the complainants their ration cards were cancelled following a March 2017 order from the chief secretary’s office to not give ration to anyone without Aadhaar.

A door to door survey of 135 canceled ration cards showed five cards were removed as fake and majority were not told why card was cancelled. Photo credit: Anumeha Yadav