For In­dia's poor­est, an Aad­haar card can be the dif­fer­ence be­tween life and death

Financial Chronicle - - PLAN, POLICY - MAYANK BHARD­WAJ

PREM Mal­har says his 50year-old fa­ther died of hunger a few months ago be­cause he did not have the gov­ern­ment’s Aad­haar iden­tity card that would have given him ac­cess to sub­sidised food.

At least 14 people have died of star­va­tion in Jhark­hand, the state where the Mal­hars live, ac­tivists say. They say the deaths have oc­curred since au­thor­i­ties can­celled old hand­writ­ten gov­ern­ment ra­tion cards last year and re­placed them with the bio­met­ric Aad­haar card to weed out bo­gus ben­e­fi­cia­ries.

Tara­mani Sahu, an ac­tivist with the Right to Food Cam­paign, blamed the Jhark­hand gov­ern­ment for de­lays in is­su­ing the Aad­haar cards af­ter one mil­lion old cards were can­celled. For some who de­pended on the ra­tions for sub­sis­tence, the re­sults were fa­tal, she said.

In July, three sis­ters un­der the age of 10 died of hunger in New Delhi, spark­ing ac­cu­sa­tions of gov­ern­ment ap­a­thy. The deaths were not linked to pos­ses­sion of the Aad­haar card, but there has been wide­spread ou­trage that people are dy­ing of hunger in a coun­try where, ac­cord­ing to gov­ern­ment and in­dus­try data, grains and pro­duce worth 580 bil­lion ru­pees ($8 bil­lion), or 40 per­cent of to­tal out­put, go to waste ev­ery year.

Op­po­si­tion par­ties have seized on the is­sue ahead of three big state elec­tions this year and the na­tional elec­tion in 2019, whit­tling into sup­port for Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Modi’s of­fice did not re­spond to re­quests for com­ment on the star­va­tion deaths.

Nishikant Dubey, a BJP law­maker and a mem­ber of a par­lia­men­tary panel on the Aad­haar pol­icy, said link­ing the card to wel­fare pro­grammes was the best way to check si­phon­ing off funds meant for the poor.

On the deaths, he said: “The op­po­si­tion is be­ing ir­re­spon­si­ble by blow­ing it out of pro­por­tion for po­lit­i­cal mileage.”

Mal­har, who lives in a hut made of twigs, leaves and mud in a ham­let near the town of Ram­garh, says he and his brother now have the Aad­haar cards, but are still not el­i­gi­ble for sub­sidised food be­cause of what he called “bu­reau­cratic in­ept­ness”.

“My fa­ther died be­cause he couldn’t get his Aad­haar card dur­ing his life­time and I’m not get­ting food be­cause my Aad­haar card is not linked with the ra­tion shop,” said the 25-year-old, dressed in a red vest and tat­tered trousers.

Reuters spoke to three ra­tion shop own­ers in the area who said they could not give sub­sidised food to those who did not have Aad­haar cards or failed the bio­met­ric iden­ti­fi­ca­tion process. They said the Mal­hars’ cards were not linked to the sys­tem be­cause that had to be done by an­other gov­ern­ment depart­ment.

In the state cap­i­tal, Ranchi, Jhark­hand’s food min­is­ter Saryu Rai said he had or­dered lo­cal of­fi­cials to distribute sub­sidised food to the poor even if they didn’t pos­sess the Aad­haar card. But ac­tivists say those or­ders have not been trans­mit­ted to the shop level.

Rai told Reuters it was not clear that the deaths in Jhark­hand had oc­curred be­cause of star­va­tion. Of­fi­cials have pre­vi­ously said people had died be­cause of ill­ness, not lack of food.

“There must be a sys­tem to know what con­sti­tutes star­va­tion deaths and I wel­come food ac­tivists to work with us on this,” Rai said.

DIGI­TISE ECON­OMY

Of­fi­cials in other states say they have eased rules that in­sist on Aad­haar. Still, ac­tivists claim that the de­cree has de­prived some fam­i­lies of sub­sidised food in Ra­jasthan, that is also ruled by the BJP.

Aad­haar is part of an am­bi­tious ef­fort to digi­tise In­dia’s econ­omy, and al­most all trans­ac­tions with the gov­ern­ment are de­pen­dent on the card, in­clud­ing bank­ing, food sub­si­dies and tax and other pay­ments.

Among other things, the gov­ern­ment says the use of Aad­haar will plug theft and leak­ages in the $23.63 bil­lion a year food wel­fare pro­gramme that guar­an­tees ul­tra-cheap rice and wheat to nearly two-thirds of In­dia’s 1.3 bil­lion people.

Nearly a third of the food meant for the poor gets stolen ev­ery year, with mid­dle­men, traders and gov­ern­ment em­ploy­ees col­lud­ing to sell the pro­duce in the open mar­ket, economists es­ti­mate. The gov­ern­ment says nearly 30 mil­lion fake and du­pli­cate cards have been weeded out, sav­ing about $2.35 bil­lion.

But in a vast na­tion where many of the people are un­schooled and dirt poor, the Aad­haar sys­tem is far from fool­proof.

Some of the poor have not en­rolled in the pro­gramme, or their fin­ger­prints do not match those on the data­base, the largest in the world. Oth­ers suf­fer be­cause the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion sys­tem re­quires func­tion­ing elec­tric­ity, an in­ter­net con­nec­tion and op­er­a­tional servers, not al­ways as­sured in in­te­rior In­dia.

Ajay Bhushan Pandey, chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Unique Iden­ti­fi­ca­tion Au­thor­ity Of In­dia that runs the Aad­haar pro­gramme, has said that con­nec­tiv­ity and power prob­lems do crop up, but added au­thor­i­ties have been told not to with­hold so­cial ben­e­fits if people can pro­vide other, ac­cept­able iden­ti­fi­ca­tion.

“People are dy­ing be­cause of gov­ern­ment cal­lous­ness,” said He­mant Soren, the leader of the op­po­si­tion and a former chief min­is­ter of Jhark­hand. “Mark my words, vot­ers will teach them a les­son in the next elec­tion.”

In the ham­let near Ram­garh, Mal­har and other men took shel­ter un­der a tree as a light driz­zle came down, seep­ing through the makeshift roofs of their huts. They were joined by some women who said they were strug­gling to light damp fire­wood in­side their huts.

Mal­har lives with his 22year-old brother Videshi in the hut with four other fam­ily mem­bers - their sole pos­ses­sions are a few uten­sils and clothes that look like rags. They sub­sist on the broth­ers earn­ing be­tween 70 cents to $2.70 per day, pick­ing through trash or work­ing nearby rice pad­dies.

“We’ve lost our faith in the gov­ern­ment which is re­spon­si­ble for my fa­ther’s death,” said Prem Mal­har. “The most un­for­tu­nate part is that au­thor­i­ties still con­tinue to be cal­lous and their cal­lous­ness is starv­ing poor fam­i­lies like ours.”

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