Activists Ask UIDAI CEO to Take Action Against Jharkhand Chief Secretary for Violating Aadhaar Act

Raj Bala Verma, the state’s chief secretary, had said in April this year that all ration cards not linked to Aadhaar in the state should be considered null and void.

New Delhi: A group of activists in Jharkhand have asked Ajay Bhushan Pandey, CEO of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), to initiate legal action against the state’s chief secretary for violating Section 7 of the Aadhaar Act, which says that states and the Centre can use Aadhaar cards to identify people for the delivery of government welfare benefits. Bhushan has repeatedly said that Section 7 does not mean that people can be denied ration under the National Food Security Act, the activists have said in their letter dated November 4.

“The intention is to ensure that no one is denied any food benefits for lack of Aadhaar, lack of linking, or technical difficulty in biometric authentication. As long as a person is genuine, he has to be given the benefit, in this case, ration,” Pandey said in October this year.

The activists, including Jean Drèze, Dheeraj Kumar, James Herenj and Ankita Aggarwal, say in their letter that a large number of ration cards have been cancelled in Jharkhand recently because they were not linked to Aadhaar numbers. This was done on orders from the chief secretary of the state, Raj Bala Verma. The activists write:

Many of the cancelled cards belonged to people who have legal entitlements to food rations under the National Food Security Act, and who had been unable to get their electronic ration card linked to Aadhaar (if they had one) for no fault of their own. One example is Koili Devi of Karimati village in Simdega district, head of a destitute Dalit family, whose ration card was cancelled on 22 July 2017 according to Jharkhand’s Food Minister Shri Saryu Rai. Her daughter died of hunger on 28 September 2017.

You have repeatedly said and written that if anyone is deprived of food rations for lack of Aadhaar, that would be a violation of Section 7 of the Aadhaar Act and responsible officers should be punished. This is a case in point, as you have argued yourself. What you rarely mention, however, is that Section 47 of the Act prevents anyone other than the UIDAI (i.e., you) from initiating legal action against a violation of Section 7.

On March 3, chief secretary Verma announced that all ration cards which had not been linked to Aadhaar would be considered null and void from April 3. “She said that all the ration cards which have not been linked with Aadhar number will become null and void on 5th April. Aadhar based ration card will be considered for food grains by the PDS outlets. Nearly 3 lakh ration cards have been declared invalid,” an Information and Public Relations Department press release dated March 27 quotes her as saying.

On October 17, Jharkhand PDS minister Saryu Roy said that Aadhaar is not required to avail ration in the state, ignoring the fact that a large number of the state’s ration dealers have moved to an Aadhaar-based biometric authentication system. If any names were deleted from ration lists because of the lack of Aadhaar linkage, this was due to a “confusion”, he said. “When this (Verma’s order) came to light, I asked my officials in a written order on April 5 to ensure that no ration card gets deleted due to non-linking with Aadhaar. It is possible that some names got deleted due to the confusion,” Roy said. Drèze had then written in a response to Roy, “We have drawn attention for more than a year to the fact that ABBA (Aadhaar-based biometric authentication) is an inappropriate technology for rural Jharkhand. It has led to the exclusion of millions of people from the PDS, according to the government’s own data. The recent starvation death in Simdega is just an extreme example of the hardships they are facing. Despite these warnings, the Jharkhand government obstinately refuses to listen. In this case, once again, the government is trying to deny the facts instead of facing them. The central government, too, is in denial mode.”

The activists’ letter comes at a time when activists and the media have reported several starvation deaths in the state and outside, with families saying that the food crisis in the household started when they stopped receiving ration because of their Aadhaar cards not being linked. The state authorities, however, have claimed that these deaths occurred for reasons other than starvation – such as malaria, in the case of the 11-year-old girl mentioned in the activists’ letter.

In August this year, Bhushan had said that claims that Aadhaar is leading to the exclusion of people from government welfare schemes are “misrepresentations”. He had said that to “to claim that Aadhaar is responsible for denial is a misconstrued fact presented with malafide intent”. Activists including Anjali Bhardwaj, Nikhil Dey and Dipa Sinha had written to the UIDAI CEO then as well, saying, “Had Aadhaar in fact been a means of inclusion, empowerment, anti-corruption and efficiency in delivering entitlements to the poor and marginalized, we would have had no hesitation in presenting what we saw, and congratulating the government for its success. However, what we have seen is that as a result of the multiple government directions making Aadhaar mandatory for accessing rights and entitlements, countless numbers of people have been put through great distress to access their entitlements.”