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Aadhaar-for-food can’t be a mandatory requirement

Prioritise universal access of food grains since those dying of starvation are mainly the marginalised

opinion Updated: Feb 22, 2018 07:56 IST
People queue outside a ration shop in Delhi (File Photo)
People queue outside a ration shop in Delhi (File Photo)(Arijit Sen/ HT)

Forty-four-year-old mother, Amir Jahan, epitomised gallantry this Republic Day. There was not a morsel of food at home. So, while the nation celebrated, she quietly borrowed six rotis from a neighbour and distributed them equally among her three daughters, though she hadn’t eaten for four days. That night Amir died of starvation.

In the first month of 2018, there have been four similar deaths across India.

Four years after the enactment of the National Food Security Act, these hunger deaths are nothing short of criminal negligence by duty-bound governments at the Centre and state. The food law clearly spells out that three of every four rural homes are entitled to subsidised food grains. Alternatively, state governments are obliged to pay every excluded family compensatory ‘food security allowance’. In fact, most of these poorest of the poor families should have automatically been included in the Antyodaya Anna Yojana. But this has not been the case.

Over the last three years, more than 30 spates of starvation deaths have been reported in the media. Many more may be undocumented. Most of these tragedies have occurred in the states of Jharkhand, Odisha, Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Bihar. That apart, in Maharashtra, an estimated 17,000 toddlers died due to malnutrition two years ago with the majority in the tribal Palghar district. Madhya Pradesh is another state where child nutritional rehabilitation centres are hugely inadequate.

Clear patterns are also visible on these hunger frontlines. About 75% of the victims are Dalits, adivasis or Muslims. The elderly and children are more vulnerable. Of the adults, two-thirds are men, and among women most are widows. Most of these preventable deaths have occurred due to the denial of basic rights — food grains, pensions and work.

Sadly Jharkhand has recently emerged as the starvation capital. Since the mandatory imposition of the 10-digit biometric number, Aadhaar, to purchase subsidised food grains in 2017, seven starvation deaths have occurred in quick succession. Eleven-year-old Santoshi Kumari’s last words of “bhaat bhaat (rice, rice)” symbolise the depth of callousness of the bureaucracy, which denied the family food grains simply for want of Aadhaar linkage.

Now any family without an Aadhaar number is vulnerable to being simultaneously stripped of multiple survival lifelines. Sexagenarian widow, Etwariya Devi, died after her daughter-in-law was unable to authenticate her Aadhaar biometrics at the ration shop and the family was denied food grains for three months. The doorstep-banking correspondent also duped her of pensions by claiming failed authentication.

The winding queues outside ration shops for biometric authentication every month are equally worrying. In Delhi alone 25,000 families have been denied food grains due to frequent machine breakdowns and fingerprint mismatches.

Currently, the Supreme Court is hearing a swathe of petitions challenging Aadhaar. Another petition has also been filed on the number of starvation deaths. But even before these final verdicts, the government must immediately pull the plug on the needless monthly Aadhaar authentication at ration shops to save lives. Since the majority of these deaths are among marginalised communities, the State must also prioritise their universal access to food grains.

Swati Narayan is a research scholar at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai

The views expressed are personal