The Supreme Court on Wednesday said it was a “very serious” matter if the Centre has really cancelled around three crore ration cards, including those of tribals and the poor, solely because they could not be biometrically linked with Aadhaar.
A Bench led by Chief Justice of India Sharad A. Bobde asked the Centre to respond to allegation made in a petition by Koili Devi, represented by senior advocate Colin Gonsalves, that such cancellations had led to starvation deaths across the country.
“The insistence on Aadhar and biometric authentication had led to the cancellation of nearly four crore ration cards in the country according to the Union of India. The Union of India casually gives an explanation that these cancelled cards were bogus. The real reason is that the technological system based on iris identification, thumb prints, non-possession of Aadhaar, non-functioning of the internet in rural and remote areas, etc, led to largescale cancellation of ration cards without notice to the family concerned,” a report submitted by the petitioner side said.
Speaking to The Hindu, Mr. Gonsalves said the “petition is based on reports that an estimate of roughly two to four crore ration cards have been cancelled in the country without prior notice to the beneficiaries”.
Right to food, which the ration card symbolised, cannot be curbed or cancelled because of lack of Aadhaar.
Koili Devi’s 11-year-old daughter, Santhoshi Kumari, is allegedly a victim of hunger death in Jharkhand in 2017. She said the family's ration card was cancelled due to non-linkage with Aadhaar. She has sought an independent investigation into the starvation deaths, restoration of the cancelled ration cards and compensation for the death of her daughter.
Mr. Gonsalves said the government’s continued emphasis on Aadhaar was unfortunate as the Supreme Court had laid down in clear terms that “no insistence on Aadhaar can be done for statutory entitlements”.
“Tribals either do not have Aadhaar cards or the identification does not work in tribal and rural areas. Because of this reliance on Aadhaar cards, can you imagine three crore cards are gone...” Mr. Gonsalves submitted
“Three crore cards have gone?” Chief Justice asked incredulously.
“Yes, starvation deaths are taking place. Three crores ration cards have gone... I can show the Union of India’s declaration. It is an announcement of the Prime Minister,” Mr. Gonsalves responded.
He argued that the States were in a denial mode, blaming the deaths on diarrhoea and malaria. “In fact, anything but lack of food. This cruel exercise deprived millions of Indians living below the poverty line of food and led to starvation deaths in Jharkhand, U.P., Odisha, Karnataka, M.P., Maharashtra, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh and other States,” the petitioner’s side said in a report prepared after going through the responses obtained from the States.
Additional Solicitor General Aman Lekhi said the statements made by the petitioner side were misplaced. Issuance of ration card was not dependent on the Aadhaar card. Alternative mechanisms were in place. Besides, the issuance of ration cards was primarily the responsibility of the State governments.
Mr. Lekhi said the petitioners should ideally move the respective High Court, rather than file an omnibus petition in the apex court. He said the petitioners had come directly to the apex court without raising their issue with the grievance redressal mechanism under the National Food Security Act.
“We are persuaded to consider this case because of their [petitioners’] statement that ration cards have been cancelled... That is a very serious matter,” Chief Justice Bobde said in response to Mr. Lekhi’s submissions for the Centre.
Even as the government highlighted the redressal mechanism within the Food Security Act as the right place to go, the petitioner side countered in its report to the court that “not a single State has appointed independent nodal officers or district grievance redressal officer under the Act”.
“All the States have mechanically granted additional designations to existing officers. In many cases, the officers given additional designations are from the Food Supply Department, and they are the main persons responsible for corruption in the food distribution system,” the report said.
It referred to the directions imposed by the Supreme Court in the Swaraj Abhiyan cases on the implementation of the Food Security Act, which included social audits, framing of rules and setting up vigilance committees.
The Hunger Watch Report of the Right to Food Campaign in 2020 characterised the hunger situation in India as “grave”. India ranks 94 out of 107 countries in the Global Hunger Index 2020 and is in the ‘Serious Hunger Category’.