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Tech blocked: why a fully biometric certified Ranchi goes hungry

Shriya Mohan | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:47 IST

Charo Oraon, a 60-year-old man who lives alone in Ranchi, finds it hard to make ends meet. The monthly trips to the ration shop were his only guarantee of food.

But June onwards the old register system was scrapped and biometric identification was made compulsory for all of Ranchi to avail subsidised ration grains.

Oraon was promised that all of Ranchi would be able to get their ration with the beep of a biometric thumbprint. Now Oraon has a UID but no food.

Despite trying repeatedly from June, he was told that the biometric authentication is not working for him. His fingerprints just don't work. He has received no PDS grain since the new system was introduced. That means going hungry all of June, July and August.

Before June, Oraon used to get it through the old register system. June onward the Aadhaar-based biometric authentication was made compulsory for users of the Public Distribution System (PDS) in Ranchi District, Jharkhand.

This involves installing 'point of sale' (PoS) machines at PDS outlets and verifying the identity of cardholders by matching their fingerprints against the Aadhaar database over the internet.

But all this has meant that Pilot district Ranchi has only gotten half its entitlements since June.

A press note shared by Jean Dreze states:

The government's own data, easily accessible from its exemplary National Food Security Act (NFSA) website, suggests that the system has run into serious trouble. In July 2016, NFSA cardholders in Ranchi District received barely half of their foodgrain entitlements from the PDS.

A similar pattern emerges from updated calculations for August, when NFSA cardholders received just 53% of their entitlements through the PoS system.

This failure is likely to reflect the inappropriate nature of Aadhaar technology for rural Jharkhand. The new system requires many fragile technologies to work at the same time: the PoS machine, the internet, the biometrics, remote servers, and the mobile network.

In addition, the data groundwork (including Aadhaar seeding) must be done correctly. Aadhaar seeding refers to properly linking the biometrics to the ration card. Many like Oraon have a problem because his fingerprint hasn't been linked correctly.

More problems

In Jharkhand, where there are huge connectivity problems even in the state capital, these are demanding conditions. No wonder that many people are finding themselves deprived of their PDS entitlements.

"The biometric system held a promise to reverse corruption. It has done exactly the opposite. The people whose biometrics are not working are told to go back home with no backup option of availing their right to food. The dealers are exploiting the confusion in the new system. Ultimately all the undistributed food grains are sold in black in the market," Dreze told Catch.

The Jharkhand Government has made claims to rapidly make biometric compulsory for all of Jharkhand in the coming months. For those like Oraon this only speedens the process of falling through the cracks.

Corruption on the rise

Officially, going through the old register system when an individual can't avail her ration through the biometric system, is not allowed.

"Even if it happens unofficially, this 'dual system', where some PDS grain goes through the PoS system and the rest through the fallback register system, it is the worst. The reason is that only the dealers know the modalities of the fallback register system, and they have no incentive to explain it to the cardholders. Quite likely, the new system has revived corruption in the PDS, in a state where much progress had been made, in recent years, in fighting PDS corruption through other means," says Dreze.

Incidentally, Supreme Court orders prohibit Aadhaar being made mandatory for the PDS. The Court did allow Aadhaar to be used in the PDS (e.g. for deduplication), but it did not make it compulsory.

This would violate earlier orders that prohibit Aadhaar being made compulsory for any public service to which people are otherwise entitled. Nor can the government invoke the Aadhaar Act to justify this move as the relevant section of the Act (Section 7) is yet to be notified.

None of this, unfortunately, seems to be deterring the state government. With growing evidence of failure from Jharkhand and Rajasthan, Dreze feels that that Aadhaar-based PoS machines "can turn into minor weapons of mass destruction as far as the PDS is concerned".

Dreze feels that there are many wonderful offline technologies that can be used to curb corruption.

But network or no network, the government is planning to extend this technology to the entire state within a few months, anyway.

How many hunger deaths will it take for the Government to realise that its technology can't be an experiment upon those already living on the fringes?

Edited by Jhinuk Sen

First published: 8 September 2016, 4:53 IST
Shriya Mohan @ShriyaMohan

An editor and writer of development stories at Catch, Shriya has 8 years of experience as a development journalist, holds a Masters degree in Public Policy from the National University of Singapore and is a two-time winner of the National Foundation for India media fellowship award. When she isn't exploring the universe with her two-year-old daughter, she chronicles public anger and shelters relevant stories that don't hang sexily on news pegs.