In Kavalaganahalli, an idyllic village set amidst rock formations of various shapes and sizes 4 kilometres away from Chintamani in Chikballapur district of Karnataka, the sun is scorching over Munirajappa's ramshackled house.
Standing at the threshold of his house, Munirajappa enquires with his wife who hobbles to his side on one foot, asking who has come to meet them. Munirajappa is visually impaired while his wife lost one of her legs in an accident few years ago.
It has been years since Munirajappa last received ration. He stopped receiving ration as he had not linked his Aadhaar card to his ration card and in spite of repeated attempts to make an Aadhaar card, he was unsuccessful as officials could not record his biometric data.
“The idea here is 'Give Aadhaar or you don’t get ration',” says Shashiraj, an activist from Chintamani who has led several struggles against denial of essential services due to lack of an Aadhaar link.
Shashiraj estimates that there are hundreds like Munirajappa who have been denied ration because of various reasons that eventually boils down to lack of an Aadhaar link.
“For some, it is the lack of an Aadhaar card, for some others the biometric fails. But in the end the result is the same - exclusion,” he says.
Hundreds of kilometres away, in Banashankari in Bengaluru, 78-year-old Kannairam has a valid ration card linked to a valid Aadhaar card but he still has trouble receiving ration regularly. “I leave it up to the gods,” he says describing his predicament sitting inside his tiny house in Vijaya College slum. “In the last six months I have not received ration because my fingerprint is not registering,” he says with a look of resignation.
Kannairam lives with Adhilakshmi (72), his two granddaughters Mohanadevi and Muthubharati and grandson, Srihara. Before fingerprint identification became mandatory to receive ration, Kannairam would ask one of his grandchildren to make the journey to the local Nyaya Bele Angadi (Fair Price Shop) and avail the 10 kg of rice earmarked for him and his wife every month. However, after officials made an Aadhaar link mandatory to stop card manipulation, Kannairam says it is a burden not only because he has to spend on auto-rickshaws but also because it is exhaustive for him to do it.
Kannairam (78) and his wife Adhilaksmi (72) at their home in Vijaya College Slum in Banashankari, Bengaluru
Dhanalakshmi, an activist working with Right to Food campaign, a network of organisations and individuals working to implement right to food in the country, says there are hundreds of people in Bengaluru who have been denied ration for a variety of reasons that come under three levels of exclusion - the first where when people don’t have a valid Aaadhaar number, the second where people have not linked their Aadhaar cards to ration cards and third, when biometrics do not match.
Vijaya College Slum in Banashankari, Bengaluru
“It is not just ration that is being denied, some have also been denied scholarships because they have not had an Aadhaar card. In most cases, it is the poorest who are doing manual work like coolie work that have been affected,” says Dhanalakshmi.
Ramya (12), a sixth standard student at the Govt. Tamil Higher Primary School in Bhavani Nagar in Bengaluru is one of those who have not only been denied ration but also scholarship in her school.
Ramya at her home in Bhavani Nagar in Bengaluru
Her mother Saraswati (38), a coolie worker, does not know why her Aadhaar card was struck down and has visited the Bengaluru Development Authority complex five times to fix the problem, to no avail. “When I have to leave for the BDA, I have to dedicate an entire day because usually I will end up waiting till 3 pm or 4 pm,” she says.
Saraswati (38) lives with her husband Venu, her sons Vignes and Sathish and daughter Ramya
The working principle in the cases in Bengaluru is eerily similar to the one followed in Chikballapur i.e ‘No Aadhaar no ration’.
Constant flip-flopping of rules
This, even after Centre had 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 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.
Despite this, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Jharkhand and Haryana were among a number of states that made Aadhaar-linked biometric authentication compulsory to receive ration at government-run PDS shops. This has led to several legal battles in courts across the country.
The Centre which had made the linkage compulsory in a government order in February 2017 retracted its order in October of the same year and instructed states to not deny PDS.
The Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), the authority that issues Aaadhar, followed suit with its own order saying no essential service can be denied for want of the biometric national ID.
The Karnataka government passed a bill called ‘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” only two days ago.
But tell Kannairam, Saraswati or Munirajappa this and they will never believe you.
“PDS sellers have long internalised the fact that Aadhaar is mandatory to avail ration, bill or no bill,” says Shashiraj.
'No Aadhaar no ration'
The constant flip-flopping of the compulsion of an Aadhaar link has had little or no impact on the ground in Karnataka where many citizens have had to adhere to the ‘No Aadhaar no ration’ working rule.
In February 2017, Sukanya, a tailor from Channapattana in Ramanagara moved the Karnataka High Court after she was denied subsidised foodgrain due to a lack of an Aadhaar link. The court ordered the concerned government departments to provide subsidised foodgrain without the production of an Aadhaar card.
In July 2017, a fact-finding report by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) raised questions about whether three men who died of starvation in Uttara Kannada were denied PDS grain because their ration card was not linked to Aadhaar. In the same month, Mysuru district officials deleted 80,000 ration cards that were not linked to Aadhaar labelling them as ‘fake’ cards.
In October 2017, in a public hearing organised by the Right to Food campaign, over twenty people from various districts of Karnataka shared their stories of struggle and helplessness. The testaments from various people reiterated the fact that ration shops in the state continued to deny them essentials.
In January 2018, 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 1-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.
Dalit families in Chowdadenahalli in Chintamani protest against denial of ration on January 8 2018
Shashiraj, Dhanalakshmi and several other activists in Karnataka agree that the apathy of local civic officials is not an aberration but a systemic problem in many parts of the state including Chikkamagaluru, Belagavi, Ramanagara districts and can only be fought by holding widespread protests and spreading awareness. The Right to Food campaign has filed 300 affidavits and more than 1,000 signed petitions to the Supreme Court in Right to Privacy cases.
The Supreme Court is also currently hearing a case questioning the constitutional validity of Aadhaar. The result of the case will have an impact on all other Aadhaar related cases across the country. "We are waiting to see what happens in the Supreme Court. After all, this made people in our village halt their lives and sit out in the sun in protest," Shashiraj says.