In certain circles of Jharkhand, a newly-minted term has become the source of heartburn and more — PoS-able. It refers to whether or not one’s fingerprints
match on the PoS (point of sale) biometric
readers in ration shops. Those whose fingerprints
match, access their allotted ration. For those whose fingerprints
don’t match, life becomes ‘imPoS-able’.
According to an ongoing study by Ranchi University
and IIT Delhi, led by economists Jean Dreze
and Reetika Khera, while 85 per cent of Jharkhand’s beneficiaries report receiving their rations (either because they or a family member is lucky enough to be PoS-able), 15 per cent of the state’s poorest have been excluded from the state’s public distribution system, even though they hold valid ration cards.
Here are some cases in point. In Rajabar village, Sarita Devi’s household has been unable to transact grains since their son, the only PoS-able member of the family, migrated to Delhi. He’s also the only phone owner, so she can’t access the OTP (one-time password) needed for a manual override. Not far away in Simdega, Lusiya Kullu and her husband’s Aadhaar numbers haven’t been seeded with their ration cards. In spite of their having submitted photocopies of their Aadhaar cards
to the dealer several times, they haven’t received their ration entitlement since March. Ashit Kumar Nag, a hawker from Raghunathpur, has to forego a day’s wage to collect his ration as the shop is far from his home. Ever since the introduction of biometric
identification, he’s often had to make three trips to collect one month’s rations due to connectivity issues.
Findings do not paint a rosy picture
Dreze and Khera’s study, which covers about 900 randomly selected households in 32 villages in eight districts of Jharkhand, is finding (the final results are being compiled) that despite the introduction of Aadhaar-Based Biometric
Authentication (ABBA), the disbursal of foodgrain under the public distribution system (PDS) is neither easy, nor efficient. “Households have reported increased transaction costs,” says Khera. “The queues are longer, more trips to the ration shop are needed to get each month’s entitlement and many say they need to pull their children out of school to get household rations.” The researchers also photographed, in some cases, the foodgrain disbursed, which was of very poor quality. While Khera points out that this isn’t the norm, the fact is that ABBA
only checks the bona fides of the beneficiaries, and is toothless when it comes to enforcing quality standards on the PDS.
More disturbingly, the study indicates that the introduction of ABBA
hasn’t addressed the basic problem with the mechanism of ration disbursal — Katauti, or cut. “Households report that the ‘cuts’ extracted (in kind) by PDS
dealers have remained more or less the same. The shopkeeper gives the beneficiary less ration than what s/he is entitled to, and sells the rest in the open market,” Khera explains. “This is continuing in spite of ABBA.
The story is the same elsewhere
Delhi and Rajasthan echo the litany of woes of the aged, infirm and indigent who are unable to personally go to collect their own rations. According to the data released by the Rajasthan government, since September 2016, when ABBA
was made mandatory in the state, over 25 per cent of ration card holders — who make up for 2.5 million families, or more than 10 million of the state’s most vulnerable citizens — have been unable to draw their rations. Even worse, after the government removed the manual override mechanism, which could be used when biometric
authentication failed, an additional 500,000 families became excluded in April-May 2017.
The Delhi Rozi-Roti Adhikar Abhiyan (DRRAA) has filed a PIL (public interest litigation) petition against the adoption of mandatory Aadhaar-based authentication for the purpose of foodgrain distribution by states. This includes more than 100 affidavits from PDS
beneficiaries who have been excluded because of Aadhaar. One of these is Bismilla, a 68-year-old indigent widow and priority card holder. She’s been forced to rely on financial support from her sons because she hasn’t been able to draw her rations. Having lost hope, she’s stopped even going to the ration shop anymore. The DRRAA
visited the 42 shops with Aadhaar-linked PoS devices which participated in the Delhi pilot study. “Most reported problems regarding connectivity and difficulty in authenticating biometrics, especially of the elderly, and those engaged in manual labour,” says Amrita Johri of the DRRAA.
Only 20 of these shops were using the PoS machine at the end of the pilot. In a joint audit with the Satark Nagarik Sangathan, the DRRAA
found that over half the ration shops were sometimes closed during working hours.
“By focusing on the Aadhaar as a means of weeding out ‘fake’ and ‘bogus’ beneficiaries, the government has somehow lost sight of what really matters — ensuring that social security benefits efficiently reach those who really need them,” says Khera. DRRAA
activists underscore the crying need for a strong grievance redress system in the PDS.
“Have toll-free helplines to record complaints, cancel the licences of errant shopkeepers, and ensure that people’s complaints are addressed promptly,” suggests Khera.
She also advocates switching from to ATM-like ‘smart’ cards that don’t rely on biometric
identification, such as the ones introduced by Mother Dairy. Most of all, perhaps the government’s social security measures need to look at their beneficiaries as human beings with genuine problems — not as people intent on ripping the government off, or, even worse, simply as a set of unmatched fingerprints.