India has not only slipped three points on the global hunger index, falling behind North Korea and Iraq, it has also started witnessing children being starved to death because their ration cards were not “linked to Aadhaar”. A report by the portal Scroll.in claims that an 11-year-old girl in Jharkhand went without food and died eventually because her family didn’t have Aadhaar-linked ration cards and they were denied food items by the Aadhaar-driven PDS.
This, despite PM Modi and his retinue of ministers and supporters going on and on about “Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao”.
That this denying of food and ration because the cards weren’t connected to Aadhaar is a gross violation of the Right to Life, Food Security Act and Aadhaar’s own “voluntary” nature by law, and the Supreme Court guidelines on the PDS-UID link, goes without saying. However, what’s even more tragic is that this could be foreseen by civil rights activists and commentators, reporting on the “Aadhaar exclusions” months in advance.
Santoshi Kumari, the 11-year-old girl who died of starvation, had gone without food for nearly eight days when she succumbed to it. Her family’s ration card was cancelled because it wasn’t linked to their Aadhaar number, while mid-day meals at her school weren’t available because of Durga Puja holidays, says the report. As a result, Santoshi Kumari hadn’t had a morsel of food for over a week, even though her family was eligible to avail food rations as per the Food Security Act, but was denied rations for six months because their card wasn’t Aadhaar-linked.
As the Centre is hell bent in linking Aadhaar to almost every service, public and private, in India, the gross violations of fundamental rights, and the resultant exclusions have been documented meticulously. In states like Jharkhand and Rajasthan, the poor have been left out of the Aadhaar-driven PDS because of “authentication failures”. Civil rights activists Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey have repeatedly drawn our attention to the hard facts on the ground – how the poor and the vulnerable are denied rations, work, services, skills training, even pregnancy care because they lack Aadhaar.
Photo: Press Trust of India
The policy framers riding Aadhaar mania treat the poor and marginalised as just 12-digit numbers of the UIDAI, and are least concerned when reports of unpardonable exclusions come forward. As the Jharkhand starvation death demonstrates, “deleting” those without Aadhaar from PDS lists is exactly how exclusions are presided over, with no concern towards the elderly, the infirm, those unwilling to get Aadhaar because of its several deficiencies. This, despite the individuals/families having ration cards/other identity proofs.
Welfare economist Jean Dreze has also been quoted in a number of reports on how “Point of sales” (PoS) machines installed at distribution outs are not able to authenticate the fingerprints of many, especially those daily wagers doing hard physical work and have calloused hands as a result. A large number of National Food Security Act (NFSA) beneficiaries are therefore left out of the welfare network, particularly in Jharkhand’s Ranchi district, because of Aadhaar. Dreze notes that the errors leading to exclusions occur at multiple points – the PoS machine, network connectivity, biometrics, remote servers, or mobile networks.
Not just in states like Jharkhand, even in Delhi Aadhaar-based PDS has seen a rise in exclusions. Though the claims are often of cracking down hard on corruption as well as efficiency, the ground reality is one of huge disruptions in lives of poor and the vulnerable who are cut off mercilessly from availing the benefits they are legally entitled to.
In fact, the government was criticised heavily when it decided to link essential welfare services/PDS/mid-day meals to Aadhaar, and letting children go hungry if they didn’t have UID. A DailyO columnist had written then: “In a country which has the highest number of malnourished children in the world, denying hungry kids the most important (and often the only) meal of the day because they do not have a particular identity card is not only shameful, it’s inhumane, and a recipe for humanitarian disaster.”
“Instead of prioritising children’s health, ensuring that they get nutrition benefits, improving the quality of the meals and implementing safeguards and rules for high quality food, the government is hell bent on taking away the meagre morsel that the children could get under the mid-day meal scheme as part of free schooling under Right to Education,” the article said.
The lack of empathy pointed out is at the heart of the Jharkhand starvation death of the 11-year-old Santoshi Kumari. However, those at the helm of Aadhaar, particularly Nandan Nilekani, have been boasting about “Aadhaar savings”, claiming about 9 billion US dollars have been “saved” because Aadhaar eliminated “frauds” and “ghosts” in the system.
In fact, a number of think-pieces and analytical reports have dissected the claims made by UIDAI, as well as the World Bank, which has been praising Aadhaar as an “efficient” welfare delivery programme, overlooking the gross negligence, the privacy breaches, the unpardonable exclusions as well as the Aadhaar frauds and commercial exploitation of Aadhaar-related data that have been amply reported by various media outlets.
Despite SC’s orders to the contrary, the Aadhaar juggernaut is on a rampage, trampling India’s poor, marginalised, elderly, the infirm and now the children. How will the UIDAI, which doesn’t even allow individuals and victims of Aadhaar to lodge complaints against it, or the government of Narendra Modi that’s imposing the Aadhaar condition on citizens’ right to life, liberty, food, education, privacy and other fundamental rights, defend itself against this unpardonable crime – starving a girl child to death?