Rethink Aadhaar and the Right to Food Campaign have released a joint statement condemning the Odisha government’s decision to restrict the payment of social security pensions only to those who carried Aadhaar cards as proof of identity, and to those accounts which had been “Aadhaar verified”.

The advocacy groups said making Aadhaar a barrier to welfare entitlements, particularly during a pandemic, was a “callous move which could have fatal implications”. They said more than 11 lakh people could potentially lose their benefits as a result of this.

The decision, they said, marked an “about turn” for Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik’s government, whose pension schemes have till now received praise for their wide coverage and people-friendly mode of payment.

The statement pointed out that in 2017, Patnaik himself opposed Aadhaar linkage, saying it would cause hardship to beneficiaries. But in January, his government went back on this, and announced that pension accounts would have to be linked to Aadhaar for “verification and seeding”.

The groups added that the move was “particularly egregious” in light of the recent death of a tribal woman from starvation in Odisha. The 46-year-old woman, Dukhi Jani, was a widow, who had been struck off the pension and food ration lists, due to Aadhaar verification failures, they said.

The statement referred to the two circulars issued by the Department of Social Security & Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities in July and August, which specified the pensions and an “ex gratia” amount of Rs 1,000 were to be disbursed (in cash) only to those who had Aadhaar verification. It said this mandatory rule threatened “to curtail this tenuous line of support”.

“As per the updated National Dashboard of National Social Assistance Programme, only 83% of the NSAP accounts in Odisha have been ‘verified’ by Aadhaar, while only 74% have been verified for the Madhu Babu Pension Yojana scheme,” the statement added. “This means that more than 11 lakh persons could lose their benefits because of a lack of ‘Aadhaar verification’”

Under the National Social Assistance Programme and the Madhu Babu Pension Yojana some of the most vulnerable citizens living in poverty, including the elderly, persons with disabilities, widows, and transgenders persons, get a pension of between Rs 500 to Rs 900 a month.

Mass exclusions, ‘shrouded in opacity’

The statement also pointed out how mandatory Aadhaar linkages have caused mass exclusions, both at the point of disbursal of welfare entitlements – because of biometric or technical failures – and during the process of seeding and verification. “There is no clear method to appeal these exclusions, and persons struck off these lists are left running from pillar to post,” it added.

Besides this, the advocacy groups said the seeding and verification processes of Aadhaar “are shrouded in opacity”, as they can fail for a range of reasons, often without any of the responsible officials understanding the reason for the failure or how it should be remedied.

“The Aadhaar-enabled Payments System comes with its own share of failures, due to poor design, missing safeguards, and a confusing array of failure codes,” the statement said. “Remedying this is close to impossible for those who are not mobile, have limited access to transportation, or live in an area far from administrative headquarters. These difficulties have been exponentially exacerbated by the ongoing pandemic.”

In light of these factors, the groups demanded that the Odisha government must reverse its recent order to ensure that rights of the most vulnerable citizens are not curtailed due to “experiments with technology”. “Awake to the pandemic-related threats fingerprint authentication poses, biometric authentication has been suspended in many states during the pandemic,” they said.