Since 1951 India’s Public Distribution System (PDS) has operated as a safety net for millions of poor households. The System provides fixed quantities of food grains at affordable prices. In recent times, PDS has become contingent on Aadhaar-based vetting of right-holders. This has left some of the most vulnerable right-holders unable to access affordable food.
In India, the right to food is an obligation under Article 21 of the Constitution after the Supreme Court’s ruling in the PUCL case, Article 47 of the Constitution, Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The National Food Security Act, 2013 (“NFSAˮ) crystallised this constitutional and international human right to food into a legal right to receive food grains. The PDS stands transformed from a privilege-conferring welfare program into the primary means of providing a legal right.
Section 12(2)(c) of the NFSA directs the leveraging of the Unique Identification program ‘Aadhaar՚ to distribute food grains through the PDS. The list of right-holders has been digitised and the biometric information of right-holders collected from Aadhaar has been linked to their accounts in the PDS database. Since the leveraging, a right-holder claiming entitlements for the month must submit her fingerprint to the electronic Point-of Sale machine in the PDS outlet. Over the internet, this machine verifies her fingerprint against the Aadhaar biometric information linked to her name in the PDS database. If the two fingerprints match, entitlements are distributed. Aadhaar leveraging is promoted as a tool of improving efficiency and checking leakages in the PDS as it allows the State to authenticate the identity of right-holders before distributing food grains. On the other hand, however, the leveraging has imposed unjust barriers and restricted the access of some of the most vulnerable right-holders to their entitlements.
Right-holders who lack an Aadhaar number or whose Aadhaar numbers are incorrectly seeded are excluded. Consequently, many households receive less food grains than their legal entitlement due to such exclusion of some household members.The leveraging is particularly problematic for households comprising only elderly, disabled or sick persons. They are at risk of exclusion as the leveraging requires one beneficiary from the household to visit the PDS outlet and submit to fingerprint verification by the Point-of-Sale machine. Prior to the leveraging, neighbours or relatives could collect grains on behalf of such persons by simply presenting the government issued Ration Card. The problem is worsened when viewed in light of the inadequate transport facilities, high costs and physical effort that must be expended to travel to PDS outlets, particularly in rural India.
Even if elderly persons are able to reach their PDS outlet, they may face further problems. The Point-of-Sale machines can fail to recognise the fingerprints of elderly persons as their fingerprint image quality can be poorer due to age. Those engaged in manual labour – in agricultural fields, brick kilns, factories, mines etc.- face similar issues because their fingerprints are prone to being worn down by occupational activities.
Furthermore, Point-of-Sale machines depend on internet connectivity to verify fingerprints from the Aadhaar database. Internet infrastructure in large parts of rural India is poor and rights-holders are thus forced to make multiple trips to the PDS outlet due to connectivity issues. Each additional visit to the PDS outlet can drain money and time from vulnerable households and deters the elderly, disabled and sick from accessing their right.
Reports from Delhi, Rajasthan, Jharkhand and Andhra Pradesh corroborate the everyday experience of barriers to accessing entitlements after the leveraging. Moreover, pilferages in the PDS can be successfully curbed by other measures that do not impose any unreasonable barriers. The Government plans on completing the leveraging by 2017 and section 7 of the recently passed Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and Other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Act 2016 makes it mandatory to enrol in the Aadhaar program to access services and benefits. The leveraging also enjoys the Supreme Court’s authorisation despite several of the Court’s orders directing that the Aadhaar program cannot be mandatory to access services and benefits. Without glitches and unreasonable barriers, the leveraging has the potential to make the PDS more transparent and accountable. However, in the present Indian context the leveraging is restricting access to a legal right and thus renders the legal right meaningless. Indian state institutions are duty-bound to provide the right to food by ensuring unfettered access to it.