The recent hunger deaths of Santoshi Kumari in Simdega, Vaidnath Ravidas in Dhanbad and Ruplal Marandi in Deoghar district of Jharkhand have exposed the violation of the mere right to life being caused by the mandatory requirement of linking Aadhaar with ration cards and the poor implementation of the National Food Security Act (NFSA) in the state. These are the most extreme cases, but denial of food entitlements under the NFSA is a routine matter in the state.
Even after two years of implementation of NFSA in Jharkhand, a large number of eligible households do not have ration cards either due to administrative lapses or because of errors in the data of Socio-Economic Caste Census (SECC), 2011 (the eligibility criteria of NFSA is based on SECC). As subsidised foodgrains are given on a per capita basis to the ‘Priority’ households, missing names from ration cards are causing denial of legal entitlements on a massive scale. Many people with ration cards are also denied foodgrains either because they do not have a Unique Identification (UID) number, this number is not linked with their ration card or other technical issues in the delivery of foodgrains using the technology of online biometric authentication. A recent study found the exclusion, due to issues related to the Aadhaar-based biometric authentication system, to be more than 10 per cent of the total cardholders in Ranchi district itself.
There is little doubt that public servants were complicit in the denial of ration in all the three cases of hunger death. Santoshi Kumari’s family was denied foodgrains as its ration card had been cancelled in the absence of its linkage with their UID numbers. Ruplal Marandi stopped getting foodgrains as he was unable to authenticate his fingerprints at the electronic Point-of-Sale machine at the local fair price shop. Vaidnath Ravidas’s family did not have access to grains under the NFSA as the family did not have a ration card despite applying for it several times.
The diktat to make Aadhaar-based biometric authentication mandatory in delivery of ration from the Public Distribution System (PDS) was issued by the top public servant of the state, the Chief Secretary, in March 2017.This instruction violates multiple orders of the Supreme Court which prohibit making Aadhaar mandatory for accessing any service. It seems that the local administration, in its bid to meet the target of linking ration cards with Aadhaar, cancelled several cards that were not linked to respective UID numbers. Incidentally, the government also claimed to have deleted 11 lakh ‘bogus’ ration cards.
In a surprise admission, the Minister for Food and Consumer Affairs has said that the Chief Secretary had issued the orders without consulting him, and despite his reservations his department implemented those instructions. The Minister recently cancelled the orders in an attempt to absolve himself of the government’s failure to ensure delivery of ration to the people.
The push for linking ration cards with Aadhaar is coming from the Union Government, but the role of the public servants of the state in blindly driving the linking-process indicates a general lack of accountability in the bureaucracy towards issues of people. Despite growing evidence and ground reports on the denial of food-entitlements caused by Aadhaar-based biometric authentication in the PDS, there has been negligible acknowledgement of these denials by the state government. At a recent event to celebrate 1000 days of the government, the Department of Food and Consumer Affairs claimed that all ration cards had been linked to Aadhaar and the government was successfully delivering entitlements to every cardholder in the state.
The lack of accountability is not just limited to senior bureaucrats; it goes down till the frontline officers too. The Deputy Commissioners of all the three districts have vehemently denied that the deaths were a result of starvation. It took the Dhanbad district administration less than a week to issue ration card to Vaidnath Ravidas’s family after his death, something that they did not do in the past several months despite repeated applications by the family. Highlighting of Ravidas’s death by the media and activists made the Dhanbad administration swing into action and issue an announcement inviting eligible households, excluded from NFSA, to apply for ration cards. One also wonders if the Deputy Commissioners realise the fact that it was under their watch that these families were living in extremely impoverished conditions.
The apathy of the local officials can also be assessed from the regular violations of right to work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). Large number of MGNREGA Job Cards which were not linked with Aadhaar were cancelled by frontline officers for meeting targets of Aadhaar ‘seeding’ in the employment guarantee act database. As a result, such households were denied their right to work. In 2016-17, large number of MGNREGA schemes of farm ponds, in which wages were still to be paid to workers, were marked as “complete” by the local administration in the Management Information System (MIS) of MGNREGA to meet the target of ponds-construction set by the state department. Since payments cannot be made in schemes marked as “complete” in the MIS, it left a staggering number of workers without their wages.
Local officers are also known to come up with innovative tricks to meet such targets. In the rush to meet the target of toilet-construction under the Swachh Bharat Mission, frontline officers often threaten people with denial of MGNREGA schemes or even ration to households without toilets.
The general lack of accountability of the bureaucracy can, in no way, mask the poor political commitment of the Bhartiya Janta Party-led government for welfare programmes in Jharkhand. Both the Chief Minister and the Food Minister have refused to acknowledge that starvation and lack of access to ration were instrumental in causing death of the people. The Chief Minister has not taken any action against the Chief Secretary, the Departmental Secretary and the respective Deputy Commissioners for their complicity in the cases of hunger deaths. On the other hand, it had taken the state government only three days to transfer the Deputy Commissioner of Saraikela-Kharsawan to some non-descript position after shoes were hurled at Raghubar Das and black flags were hoisted at a public meeting in the district a few months ago.
Neither has the state government shown any inclination to scrap Aadhaar-based biometric authentication in the PDS nor has it made any sincere attempt to fix the issues in the implementation of NFSA. The department has not yet established a regular process of deleting names of dead persons/those who have migrated permanently and adding names of newborns and other additions to the family. More than two-thirds of the positions of district and block supply officers and marketing officers are lying vacant. In the words of a frontline officer, “The Raghubar Das government is extremely eager to show its achievements on paper, but it is not interested in acknowledging the ground realities and addressing the issues in the implementation of the programmes.”
There is little doubt that the current dispensation may become the first government of the state, since its formation in 2000, to finish its full term. But the Chief Minister seems more inclined to utilise the political stability for bulldozing anti-people legislations such as amendments in the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act/Santhal Paragana Tenancy Act and Land Acquisition Act 2013 etc, than for making the state accountable towards the right to food of its citizens.
Siraj Dutta works on the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) and other welfare programmes in Jharkhand.