In May, Ram Baran, a resident of Savitri Nagar in Delhi, received a letter from the ration circle office stating that his ration card would be cancelled because he had not collected foodgrains between January and March. The letter added that unless he submitted his Aadhaar number, electricity bills and other documents that could serve as proof of identity to the circle office, his ration would not be restored.

“I have been bed-ridden for two years,” said 69-year-old Baran. “I cannot go to collect my rations or send anyone to collect them for me. Nobody came to tell me my ration card has been cancelled. What will I do now?”

Baran is not the only one facing the consequences of Delhi food commissioner Mohanjeet Singh’s decision on August 20 to cancel 2.5 lakh ration cards on the grounds that beneficiaries had not collected their rations for three months. Days later, the Aam Aadmi Party government in Delhi promised to restore all the cancelled ration cards.

The three-month rule is followed by both the Delhi government and the Centre.

However, the matter has since turned into yet another flashpoint between the Aam Aadmi Party government and the Delhi bureaucracy, and by extension the Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled Centre, which oversees much of the Capital’s administration. The political squabble assumes greater urgency as it comes in the wake of the starvation deaths of three sisters, aged between two years and eight years, in Delhi on July 25, leading to questions about the Capital’s welfare delivery system.

Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has alleged that the food commissioner – who answers to the Central government-appointed lieutenant governor – cancelled the ration cards without proper verification. And in his order to food supply officers to restore the ration cards, Food and Civil Supplies Minister Imran Hussain was quoted by the Hindustan Times as saying, “Any death occurring in Delhi due to starvation/non-availability of ration to the otherwise eligible beneficiaries whose card has been cancelled without proper verification, shall also invite criminal action besides disciplinary action against the concerned FSO/FSI [food supply officer or food supply inspector] for which they shall be personally responsible.”

Singh maintains that he followed the “due process of law”.

Confusion over biometric verification system

Subsidised foodgrains are a legal entitlement under the National Food Security Act, 2013, for close to three-quarters of India’s population. The foodgrains can be availed of at ration shops or fair price shops, which are part of the public distribution system.

In Delhi, the ration system has been a tale of confusion over the last year and a half. In 2017, the state government introduced an Aadhaar-based system to check hoarding at fair price shops. Under this system, beneficiaries were made to register their biometrics on electronic point of sale or e-PoS machines to receive their rations. But in January this year, the Delhi government decided to do away with the system, citing technical glitches and irregularities. This decision came into effect in April.

A month later, though, the food commissioner decided to revive the system. The state government protested, alleging that Mohanjeet Singh was working at the Centre’s behest.

At present, it is unclear where things stand. Several residents say they have not collected their rations for three months – the reason cited by the food commissioner to cancel their cards – because the biometric system does not allow them to do so.

Harjit Kaur of Savitri Nagar said she last tried to collect her rations in December but the point of sale machine did not recognise her biometrics. “I thought my card had been cancelled,” said the 65-year-old, adding that she did not take any rations between January and August. She also said she did not receive any communication from the ration circle office till they sent her a letter in May informing her that her card had been cancelled.

Another resident, Sunder Devi, said, “When my husband went to the ration shop, they did not give him rations because the ration card is in my name.” The 62-year-old explained that she was in poor health and unable to go herself. She added that she had not received any communication stating that her card had been cancelled.

On August 27, the Delhi Rozi Roti Adhikar Abhiyan, which works on matters related to food security, identified 10 citizens in various parts of Delhi whose ration cards had been cancelled. Amrita Johri, an activist with the organisation, said many of the beneficiaries stopped going to ration shops after the electronic point of sale devices failed to recognise their biometrics. “This is why there is a need for door-to-door verification,” Johri said. “It is important to check and find out about these people. Why were they not able to get their rations? The data from the e-PoS machine cannot be the only way to determine active ration cards.”

However, Mohanjeet Singh said beneficiaries not receiving their rations for such a reason was “not possible”. He said, “If the thumb print does not work, then the iris is scanned. If the iris scan does not work, there is a one-time password that reaches the beneficiary’s phone. If this does not work then the shop owner can manually give rations to the beneficiaries.”

Due process

The food commissioner also refuted Kejriwal’s charge that ration cards were cancelled “without any valid reason”.

Singh said notices were sent out to 2.7 lakh ration card holders in May stating that their cards had been cancelled because they had not collected rations between January and March, and advising them to come to the ration circle office. “Around 40,000 people came to reinstate their ration cards after we sent out letters in May,” Singh said. “Now there are around 2.5 lakh ration cards. It’s not as if they cannot be made active again if they are cancelled. Those who are genuine card holders can still make their cards active again.”

On August 7, the department of food supply and consumer affairs issued a circular stating that a list of these card holders would be sent to all fair price shops and if any of them came for their rations, it would be the responsibility of the shop owner to ensure their cards were restored after their documents were verified. There are currently 2,254 fair price shops in Delhi.

But Johri asserted that “in this situation, due process has not been followed”. She said, “The food commission was supposed to conduct thorough checks before cancelling ration cards. A showcause notice was supposed to be sent after which the card holder would be able to file for objections and also a door-to-door verification.”

She added, “The other matter here is that of a grievance redressal system, which is not in place.”

Sections 14 to 18 of the National Food Security Act require every state government to set up a grievance redressal mechanism that includes call centres, helplines and nodal officers in districts. The Delhi government has not framed any such rules since 2013. In September 2017, the Delhi High Court directed the Delhi government to frame rules to form a grievance redressal system within four weeks.

Johri said the Delhi Rozi Roti Adhikar Abhiyan is considering filing a petition in the High Court against the food commissioner’s decision to cancel ration cards.