The road through Chikkamagaluru district, located in the foothills of the Western Ghats in the Malenadu region of Karnataka, is unrecognisable but for the sight of mountains of varying sizes around you. Parched fields and dried up streams paint an ominous picture of a region reeling under severe water shortage. “It has been like this for the last two years. Usually, there would be onion cultivation around March but farmers have given up on cultivating until the rains come again in June,” says Rajappa (45), a resident of Arabala, a tiny village in Tarikere taluk of the district.
Inside their cramped house, Rajappa sits across from Doddamma who simply smiles when she is asked how old she is. “Some say I am over 90 but the truth is we never kept track of birthdays in my time,” she says. Doddamma is entitled to seven kilograms of rice as per the government’s Public Distribution System (PDS) scheme, but ever since the scheme was linked to Aadhaar, the biometrics-based database that assigns a unique 12-digit number to every resident of India, Doddamma says that she leaves the fate of her monthly ration up to the ‘fingerprint gods’.
For almost a year now, Doddammaa has had to go to the PDS shop in Bhoothanahalli, around 4 kms away, to match her fingerprint against the biometric data stored in the Aadhaar database before she is given subsidised food grains. “It does not match sometimes and there have been months when I have not received ration because of it,” she says with exasperation.
In search of stable internet
Jagadisha Shenoy, who manages the PDS shop in Bhoothanahalli, echoes Doddamma’s words and lays the blame on the biometric-based authentication system for denying ration to several people who are entitled to it. “The internet never connects here and we have tried several ways to solve this issue. Last year, we did the biometric authentication on our roof where we got connectivity through mobile hotspot on Reliance Jio. But when it stopped working abruptly, we had to go all the way up the hill and do the authentication near the Garagadahalli temple,” laments Jagadisha.
PDS Shop at Bhoothanahalli in Chikkamagaluru district.
In their attempts to find a stable and secure internet connection, Jagadisha and his aides have toured several places in and around Bhoothanahalli, setting up shop at odd spots on the side of the road or on top of a hill, to do the biometric authentication process. “We have toured all the places around our village – Arsinaghatta, Garagadahalli and even Antargatte which is 7 kms away - with the laptop and biometric authentication device in-hand in search of stable internet. It is not just the people receiving ration who are troubled but even I am facing difficulties,” adds Jagadisha
Residents in Arabala remember the days when they had to trek for a few kilometres up the Arsinaghatta hill at the end of their day’s work to complete their biometric authentication and avail subsidized food grains. “PDS shops usually start fingerprint authentication in the evening around 6 pm, but due to the lack of internet connectivity, we sometimes had to wait till midnight or 1 am to give our fingerprint. We would climb the hill after work and it would be a problem for women to venture out late,” says Shivamurthy, a coolie and resident of Arabala.
Arshinaghatta hill in Chikkamagaluru district. PDS Sellers climbed the hill in search of stable internet.
Shivamurthy, and many others like him in Arabala and its neighbouring villages, have sometimes had to set aside 3-4 days of the month for a process that took “a few hours at most” in the past. It also meant a loss of Rs 700 to 800 every month while they stood in line to avail their ration. "Often, the internet never works or there is a power cut and we have to come again the next day. There are times I have gone 3-4 days and waited to give my fingerprint," Shivamurthy adds.
The race to get ration
Around 40 kilometres away in Neeladanahalli, Parvathi had not received ration in the last few months. She stopped receiving ration as she had not linked her Aadhaar card to her ration card and in spite of repeated attempts to make an Aadhaar card, she was unsuccessful as officials could not record her biometric data.
While two other members of her family receive ration, Parvathi and Chandana, her 7-year-old niece, have to make do with the money they make from coolie work during the month. “All the money I earn is spent on food. I cannot buy anything else,” she says with a tone of resignation.
Parvathi, a resident of Neeladanahalli, has not received her monthly ration due to a lack of an Aadhaar link.
While Aadhaar linkage is the stumbling block for Parvathi, other residents of the village also complain that the nearest ration shop in Jodi Lingadanahalli was open on only 3 or 4 days of the month, leading to a ‘race’ between residents to take their cut of the ration every month.
“Ration used to be distributed by Ramdas Anna before but since the biometric system started, new people have started distributing the ration. They come only on select days in a month without informing in advance and people from six villages have to rely on word-of-mouth to know that ration is being distributed,” says Hegappa (62), a resident of Neeladanahalli
Heggappa’s claims are supported by data from the state’s Food and Civil Supplies Department’s comprehensive state-wide data on ration distribution which shows that ration was distributed in Jodi Lingadanahalli on only four days in March and April 2018. When TNM visited the shop in March, it was closed.
PDS Shop at Jodi Lingadanahalli. It was closed when TNM visited it in March
Led by Heggappa, residents of Neeladanahalli are currently fighting a case in the Chikkamagaluru district court against the PDS sellers in Jodi Lingadanahalli accusing them of illegally denying ration.
'No Aadhaar, no ration'
Ration is often denied for three predominant reasons – beneficiaries don’t have Aadhaar cards, they have not linked their Aadhaar cards to ration cards, or their biometric verification fails. “For some, it is the lack of an Aadhaar card link, for some others the biometric fails but ultimately, it is the elderly and the poorest that are facing exclusion. Many of those affected need the subsidised ration to simply put food on their table,” says Umesh, an activist who has led several struggles against denial of essential services due to lack of an Aadhaar link.
“You have to identify yourself by fingerprint recognition or you don’t get ration. PDS sellers are bound to maintain exemption lists for the elderly and for those who have not linked their Aadhaar cards to ration cards but on the ground, it has always been ‘No Aadhaar, no ration’,” he adds.
Data released by the Food and Civil Services Department of the Karnataka government too revealed that the system is not functioning smoothly. Of the 1.2 crore ration cards linked with the biometrics database in Karnataka, nearly 99 lakh cards recorded transactions in February 2018. Of these, fingerprint authentication did not work for over 18.6 lakh cards, almost one in five families in the state.
The weighing machine at the PDS Shop in Bhoothanahalli has been left unused for weeks.
'Solving internet connectivity is the way to go'
Despite its problems, the Food Department is adamant about continuing the use of fingerprint authentication at all ration shops, except those in areas without any connectivity, as authorities believe that it has reduced pilferage of food grains and ‘saved costs’ for the state.
"It has encouraged transparency because now we can keep track of every PDS seller in the state. Before this, there were no state-wide records available," says says MC Gangadhar, Deputy Director of the Public Distribution System in Karnataka.
However, officials confirmed that Aadhaar is not mandatory for availing ration. “Aadhaar has not been made mandatory for availing ration. People can link it to their ration cards and then avail ration by identifying themselves through their fingerprint, but there is also an exemption category for those who have not linked their Aadhaar cards,” he added.
Even though the government mandates an ‘exemption’ list for people like Parvathi to avail ration without an Aadhaar card, activists in many parts of the state allege that PDS sellers in rural areas do not maintain exemption lists at all. Conversations with several PDS sellers across the state reaffirmed that the working principle remained ‘No Aadhaar, no ration’ on the ground.
The issue gained some attention when forty Dalit families in Chowdadenahalli in Chikballapur took the extreme step of spreading out mats and eating raw vegetables, protesting denial of ration for one-and-a-half years, for not linking their Aadhaar cards. They were compensated with all one-and-a-half years’ worth of ration when the issue came to the notice of officials at the Food and Civil Supplies Department in Bengaluru.
Residents of Chowdadenahalli in Chikballapur district protest against denial of ration due to lack of an Aadhaar link in January 2018.
Gangadhar however defended the system and said that incidents like the one in Chowdadenhahalli were a ‘one-off’. "What we should be doing is solving the internet connectivity issues in rural areas," he said.
The Karnataka government appears to be in favour of continuing its drive to administer ration via Aadhaar based biometric authentication. In February 2017, it passed a bill titled ‘The Karnataka Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and Other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Bill 2018’ making “proof of Aadhaar number necessary for receipt of certain subsidies, benefits and services”. The bill was passed by voice vote and gained support from both Congress and BJP in the state, even though the Centre had retracted its earlier order and instructed state governments in October 2017 to not deny ration to those who do not have an Aadhaar card or have not linked their ration cards to Aadhaar.
In repeated orders since 2013, the Supreme Court too has stressed that an Aadhaar card link cannot be made compulsory to avail government welfare benefits. The Aadhaar Act, specifically section 7, which allows the use of Aadhaar to deliver government services does not specify that it is a mandatory requirement.
The Right to Food campaign, a network of individuals and organisations working to implement the right to food in the country, has filed 300 affidavits and over 1000 petitions from Karnataka in the Supreme Court, highlighting the struggles of residents in availing essential services. The Supreme Court is currently hearing a case that challenges the constitutional validity of Aadhaar. The verdict in the case will affect all other Aadhaar related cases in courts across the country including the one being fought by Heggappa.
Residents of Neeladanahalli huddled in a discussion. Hegappa (seated centre) is leading the villagers' struggle for ration in the Chikkamagaluru district court
'Only widespread protests will help bring change'
The fine-print of the rules however has never affected the situation on the ground in Bhoothanahalli and several other villages in the state, as residents have had to toil for their monthly ration ever since the biometric based authentication system was put in place in early 2017.
Activists say that a lack of awareness among residents in rural areas about their individual rights, and apathy of civic officials and PDS sellers, has contributed to the systemic problem denying ration to citizens. "Only widespread protests in rural areas like the one in Chowdadenahalli can help bring about change, " says Umesh.
Residents of Begur Gram panchayat to which Bhoothanahalli and Arabala belong, held a protest on January 12, 2018, over the issue of denial of ration and also sent a letter to the then Karnataka Food and Civil Supplies Minister UT Khader. Their pleas however fell on deaf ears and are now banking on the new government to change their stance on the issue and ensure that ration is given to every resident in the state as promised.