( Claimants are given a 12-digit number linked to their data, and if something goes wrong they can be refused food )
Motka Manjhi had been back and forth to the ration shop four or five times, his wife said, but on each occasion he returned empty-handed. His thumbprint, needed to prove his identity, wasn’t registering on the new system.
He was told to do an online update. But to do so he would need to get to a private centre – a four-mile journey from his village in Dumka, in the state of Jharkhand, north-east India. This would mean missing at least a day’s potential work, which he desperately needed to buy food. And even if he made the trek, there was no guarantee that the system, which often suffers from network outages, would be working properly. What was to be done?
In the past, Manjhi and other low-income Indians only needed papers to pick up subsidised grains to feed themselves. But the welfare system in India has undergone dramatic change.
Each person claiming support is now required to have an Aadhaar, a unique 12-digit number that is linked to their biometric and demographic data. The scheme has grown so quickly since its introduction in 2009 that it now covers more than 1.2 billion people and is the world’s largest biometric identification system.
The Indian government argued that this system would revolutionise welfare: computerised checks would stop fraudsters from siphoning off other people’s benefits, allowing more money to reach the poor. But campaigners say its design is flawed and it is riddled with technological glitches. They argue it has become a Kafkaesque nightmare that has caused misery for the very people it claims to protect.
Despite the serious concerns raised by economists and poverty experts, the system kept on growing and is now involved in access to anything from a pension to medical reimbursements or disaster emergency relief. Activists say in some cases parents are wrongly being asked for an Aadhaar number in order to enrol their children in school.
If there’s a fault in the system, access to an array of support can abruptly halt. “Decisions about you are made by a centralised server, and you don’t even know what has gone wrong,” said Reetika Khera, an associate professor of economics at the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad. “People don’t know why [welfare support] has stopped and they don’t know who to go to to fix the problem.”
Even if a person is lucky enough to find out what has caused the disruption, this doesn’t mean the problem will be solved. “Officials at district level or lower district level may be able to tell you why your payment has stopped; they may not be able to tell you how to fix it,” Khera said.
In Majhi’s case, the problem of his unrecognised thumbprint was left unresolved as he couldn’t take the time to make the trek to the centre. Meals were missed – just a few to start, then more and more often – and Manjhi became extremely thin.
On 22 May he collapsed outside the family home. Neighbours rushed to help as his wife, Alabati Devi, tried to resuscitate him. An ambulance took him to hospital but it was too late. He died aged 50.
No one declared the cause of his death, but the family believe it was starvation. “When he came back from looking for work he said: ‘Give me food or I will die,’” said Devi. There was nothing to give him. Hours later he fainted. All he had eaten that day was a small portion of rice and toddy palm fruit, which grows nearby their home.
“He was malnourished because of the lack of the food,” said Devi, who noted he had no other illnesses.
The family was living hand to mouth, said Bijay Prasad Kapi, a social activist who has supported Devi and many others. “They didn’t have any food, they couldn’t afford to store any rice. They didn’t know where to get help.” Devi was entitled to a pension but this had not arrived in her account since January.
The block development officer for Majhi’s neighborhood was not reachable and the supply officer declined to comment.
Activists have tracked 13 cases in Jharkhand where people who were refused support due to aadhaar glitches have allegedly died of starvation. One was an 11-year-old girl. The death of Santoshi Kumari, whose family’s ration card was cancelled because it was not linked to Aadhaar, shocked the country in 2017. Officials denied that Santoshi died of starvation and said her death was due to malaria. Other cases of alleged starvation deaths have also been denied by the government.
Campaigners say the system continues to be fraught with problems. Fingerprints don’t scan properly, officials fail to offer timely assistance and internet coverage is too poor for the system to function.
Pansure Murmu, who runs a ration shop in Jammu, said Aadhaar worked well on the whole, but she admitted the network signal was a problem. “We have to move the machine one or two kilometres to get the signal,” she said.
Others have been known to take their customers to a hilly mound to get a signal for internet access. Residents in Lurgumi Kalan village in Mahuadanr, also in Jharkhand, went without rations for two months this summer because there was no connection, according to researchers at the campaign group Right To Food (RTF).
Rice was distributed to the village only after one resident, 64-year-old
Government officials issued a notice stating that if fingerprint scans failed, people should not be denied rations. But Ashrafi Nand Prasad, a state coordinator for RTF, said this message had not filtered down in many areas. “The local ration shop owners were not doing that,” he said. Like Manjhi, people were simply turned away with nothing.
Access to other benefits linked to Aadhaar, such as pensions and wages offered through a government scheme that guarantees 100 days’ work, is equally chaotic. Researchers at the Indian School of Business found that 68% of total payments made under the work scheme in Jharkhand, which were processed through Aadhaar, were misdirected. Such errors, along with delays in payments, are common and have discouraged some from finding work through the scheme.
“Payments were always an issue and they were getting delayed even before Aadhaar, but one could see improvements happening for sure,” said Siraj Dutta, who works on social policy in Jharkhand. “With Aadhaar, everything went crazy and new problems came up.”
Shrimati Devi, 70, who lives in Dumka, Jamma, said she had not received her 1,000-rupeesa-month pension for months. She eventually discovered that it was being paid to someone else’s bank account. Government staff told her to speak to the bank and the bank told her to speak to the individual who was receiving her money.
“We have tried many times, now we are hopeless,” said her daughter, Suma Devi. “In our family no one is in a government job, so [the pension] was very helpful,” she said, adding that the family was dependent on precarious private-sector work.
Corruption and poor management have proved huge problems in the welfare system. Research by economists Jean Drèze and Reetika Khera estimated that 85% of the grains meant for poorer families in Jharkhand did not reach consumers in the financial year 2004-05. But this figure was already improving prior to the introduction of Aadhaar, and had fallen to 44% by 2011-12.
The problem of duplicate or fake cards, which Aadhaar promised to target, was actually “extremely negligible”, said Dutta. Corruption was happening elsewhere: grains were going missing before they reached the ration shop and dealers were fudging their records to suggest they had given plenty to customers, when actually some grains were held back.
After Aadhaar was rolled out, the Jharkhand government claimed it had wiped out around 1m fake ration cards. Campaigners say many of those were genuine cards held by people who hadn’t successfully obtained an Aadhaar number and linked this to their card. A survey conducted by RTF found that of a sample of 135 cancelled ration cards, only two were declared fake and three deemed to be duplicates.
Some were cancelled for not linking to Aadhaar or because the individual had died, though the majority, 96, were scrapped without any explanation.
People whose cards are cancelled can face hurdles in getting back into the welfare system, partly because the number of recipients for some support is dictated by a quota set by the central government. In Jharkhand, 86% of rural households are eligible to receive subsidised grain, but this figure is based on a 2011 socio-economic caste census and the population has grown considerably since then.
Some states have chosen to supplement funds from central government to ensure vulnerable families are not left out Not Jharkhand, however, where some families are turned away or face long delays.
Alabati Devi’s family are now getting the right support, although Kapi said they did not officially have the correct ration cards. Things changed after activists raised awareness of Manjhi’s death through the media.
“Because a lot of these [problems] are affecting the poor, who don’t have a voice in the system, a lot of it is going unnoticed and unchallenged,” said Khera.
She expressed concern about other families in Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh and Odisha – India’s poorest states. “Where is the dignity in all this? These programmes have been put in place to allow people to live a life of dignity, and you are reducing them to beggars.”
[ Additional reporting by Mohammad Sartaj Alam. Source: The Guardian]