On Thursday, Jirua Parhaian and Dhaneshwar Parhaiya sat in front of the large crowd that had gathered to take stock of the effectiveness of public schemes in Jharkhand’s Manika block, under which which their village falls. They belong to the Parhaiya Adivasi community, which is classified as a “particularly vulnerable tribal group”. The elderly couple listened quietly while government officials acknowledged the problems that have prevented Parhaiya Adivasis from availing of government schemes meant for them.

Both were frail and walked with difficulty. But they had traveled to Manika, the block centre, 15 km from their village Uchvabal, to attend the meeting because they faced a dire predicament. “There is not enough food at home,” said Jirua Parhaian. She and her husband went to bed hungry at least a few nights every month. “Our ration card was cut without any explanation three years ago,” she said.

The couple had carried with them their Aadhaar card bearing the 12-digit unique identity number attached to their biometric data that the government wants all Indian residents to have. They submitted the number to a kiosk manned by government staff at the public hearing. “What more do we have to do to get our rations of rice started again?” asked Dhaneshwar Parhaiya.

The government recognises Adivasis such as the Parhaiya and 70 other communities as particularly vulnerable tribal groups because of their precarious economic condition and dwindling populations. These communities are also entitled to Antodaya ration cards meant for the “poorest of the poor”, which entitles them to 35 kg of rice at Re 1 per kg every month under the National Food Security Act. But they continue to face dire hunger and malnutrition.

In Jharkhand, which is going through a period of drought, these families are falling through the cracks in the absence of adequate social protection. A survey in November conducted among 324 Parhaiya households living in 15 villages in Latehar district found nearly 43% of the families had missed meals in the last three months because there was no food at home. The survey was carried out by National Rural Employment Guarantee Act Sahayata Kendras and Gram Swaraj Mazdor Sangh activists.

The survey also showed that though the government has aggressively pushed Aadhaar as a way of streamlining welfare schemes and improving access to social security by providing everyone with an identity document, ground reality was different. It found that Aadhaar, in fact, acted as a barrier to accessing social schemes. For instance, the survey found that 42% of Parhaiya families surveyed faced problems due to Aadhaar in the form of data entry errors, network glitches, biometric authentication failures or complications related to their failure to complete Know Your Customer norms for banks far removed from their hamlets.

At Thursday’s public hearing, organised a month after the survey was conducted, Parhaiya families shared their testimonies and sought redress.

Parhaiya Adivasi families arrive for the public hearing at Manika, Latehar, on Thursday. (Photo credit: Anumeha Yadav).

Left out of social security

Traditionally, Parhaiya Adivasis survived by collecting forest produce such as honey and mahua flowers, roots such as gethia and kanda, and by making bamboo brooms, said Mahavir Parhaiya, an activist in Latehar district, which Manika block is part of. “But the dense forests are now gone,” he said. “The government made forests into plantations, handing them to contractors. Now our people struggle to find the jadi [roots] or saag [vegetables] that we survived on.”

This is one of the reasons why the community is dependent on government support to eat.

At the public hearing on Thursday, several Adivasi families described corruption in schemes meant for them. Those who had ration cards said they frequently received less grain than they were entitled to despite having Aadhaar, which the government had introduced in the public distribution system in order to end pilferage.

Nearly a dozen Parhaiya women from Uchvabal and Pagar villages said they received only 30 kg or 31 kg of rice every month instead of their 35 kg entitlement. “After the surveyors came to the village, for the first time, yesterday the ration dealer Dinesh Rai gave [me] 35 kg rice,” Sugiya Devi told local officials at the hearing. She said the ration dealer had followed a “tin” system for years. “He fills two tins with ration and says we have got only this much,” she said. The tins were filled with grain and weighed at the meeting, while officials watched. They weighed only 31 kg.

The delivery of rations in tins also violates a system the Jharkhand government has put in place to ensure that families from particularly vulnerable tribal groups got their full entitlements, without any pilferage. Under the dakiya or post system, the ration dealer is required to deliver monthly food rations to such households at their doorsteps in sealed sacks clearly marked for such groups.

Dasiya Parhaian said the customer service center kiosk operator meant to connect the residents to government services online demanded a bribe of Rs 2,000 for her pension application. (Photo credit: Anumeha Yadav).

Problems with pensions

Jharni Kunwar Parhaian of Uchvabal village said at the public hearing that she could manage with slightly less rice every month but complained that for the past year, she has been unable to draw her monthly pension of Rs 600 because her biometric authentication failed regularly when tested on micro ATMs.

Besides food rations, the Union government provides pensions to all those over 60 years of age, widows and those with disabilities under the National Social Assistance Programme. Of those who got these pensions, 28 households among those surveyed faced authentication problems of the kind Jharni Kunwar Parhaian spoke of.

The Jharkhand government also provides a pension of Rs 600 a month to those households from particularly vulnerable tribal groups where no member is getting a pension under the National Social Assistance Programme. This is the only source of cash income for several Adivasi families in interior villages but they are unable to access it easily. Of those surveyed, 36% were not included in any pension lists – of the state or the Centre.

There are also gaps in other essential schemes.

Butni Devi, from Rankikalan expressed concerns that her children had not received mid-day meals at their school since the Sohar festival, which fell in early November, around the time of Diwali. “The school teacher collected our children’s Aadhaar number and passbooks, but they did not receive any scholarships,” she added.

In Rewat Khurd village, surveyors found that despite Supreme Court orders that no child could be denied school admission for not having Aadhaar, Sonu Parhaiya a 10-year-old boy was refused enrolment because his family could not locate his Aadhaar number.

Mahavir Parhaiya, an activist with NREGA Sahayata Kendra, holds the sealed sack that particularly vulnerable Adivasi families are supposed to get subsidised rice in. (Photo credit: Anumeha Yadav).

No mechanisms to handle exceptions

In the past two years, the Right to Food Campaign in Jharkhand recorded that 11 people had died after their rations or pensions were cut off because they did not link their social security details with Aadhaar. Of these, eight belonged to Adivasi communities, seven were from Other Backward Classes and five were Dalits.

In October 2017, the Union food ministry issued a notification that no eligible beneficiary’s name may be deleted from the ration database if they did not possess an Aadhaar number or failed to link it. In its judgment in the Aadhaar case in September, the Supreme Court had also reiterated that no eligible person could be denied their social security entitlements for not having an Aadhaar or not linking it.

But worryingly, things have not changed at all on the ground. There is no mechanism in place to ensure that genuine beneficiaries got their entitlements if a biometric mismatch occurred because of poor internet connectivity, data entry errors, or if the beneficiary simply had a cut on their fingers. “At least 12 ration dealers said they do not keep a register to note down details and finish grain allocation in case of a data mismatch,” said James Herenj, who was part of the surveying team. “Right now, there is no format, no instructions on what to do in such cases and they continue to turn people back without food grains.”

Butni Devi. (Photo credit: Anumeha Yadav).

What government officials said

At the public hearing, marketing officer Habib Khan conceded that it was true that the Jharkhand government had stopped giving rations to those who did not have Aadhaar or had failed to link it, after a letter sent by the state chief secretary in March 2017. “In October 2017, there was a notification from the Centre to not discontinue grains,” he said. “But we have not implemented it.” He said those who were denied grains would be compensated with at least two months worth of their food ration entitlements. But he was not sure what would happen if a family lost out on entitlements for more than two months.

Block development officer Santosh Kumar said that the local administration would organise more Aadhaar enrolment camps. He said he would investigate how grains were being siphoned from beneficiaries. Kumar acknowledged problems with biometric failures or the lack of timely e-KYC at banks, which led to Parhaiya families being stuck off pension lists, but he did not offer any alternatives.

Sub Divisional Magistrate Jai Prakash Jha said that camps would be organised not only for Aadhaar enrolment but also for new Antodaya cards that would allow Parhaiya families to get their complete entitlements.