Mahi Soren and Surendra Soren have four children. The six-member family lives in Baliapal, a tribal hamlet that falls under the Danagadi Block of Odisha’s Jajpur district. The family was not allowed to draw its rice quota from the ration shop or public distribution system (PDS) centre last month and nobody knows when they will be able to do so next. The reason? The family’s ration card has not been linked to its Aadhaar card.
Their ordeal began after the Odisha government implemented the Centre’s ‘one nation, one ration card’ programme in September, when the process of “seeding” ration cards with Aadhaar cards was finalised. Many families in the hamlet managed to complete this process, and so were able to draw out rations. But many like the Soren family are clueless about what “seeding” means, and many don’t even have an Aadhaar card yet. Till this new programme was launched, nobody in Baliapal ever had any problems getting their PDS ration quotas.
There is a reason why the Soren family has not been able to link its ration card with Aadhaar cards. Surendra Soren’s first name has been spelt in three different ways: in the non-transferable patta papers that he was given for the forest land on which their house is built, he is called Surendra Soren; on his Aadhaar card, his name is spelt Sure Soren, and on his voter identity card, he is Surei Majhi. In Mahi’s case, her name in the ration card is Mahi Soren, while it is Mahi Dei in her voter identity card and Aadhaar card as well. Both Surendra and Mahi don’t know how these anomalies can be corrected.
Even more tragic is the story of three orphan girls in the neighbouring hamlet of Barabanki, which comes under Tamka Forest Block. The three girls have been living with their uncle and aunt following the death of their parents. Their mother died three years ago of snakebite when she was out foraging in the jungle, and their father died of tuberculosis two years ago. Their eldest sister, Pani Tiria, is married and lives with her husband.
Kabita Tiria, the eldest of the three, has an Aadhaar card, but when she went to buy rice from the PDS shop a few days ago, her fingerprints did not match. This is a blow because the girls’ uncle, on whom the three are now fully dependent, needs every grain he can get. Already, for his family of four, he can draw rice only for three because he does not yet have an Aadhaar card for the youngest child.
And these hamlets are located just 7 km from Kalinganagar, Odisha’s steel hub, a place that has seen quite a bit of development. For hundreds of people who live in remote areas in interior Odisha, the situation can be worse.
A recent survey by Odisha Khadya Adhikar Abhijan, an informal network that works on the right to food and nutrition, found that Aadhaar cards had not been seeded with ration cards for 574 of 1,626 members belonging to 348 households spread across eight blocks in Nabarangpur, Nuapada and Malkangiri districts. Worse, the survey found that around 31% of those whose ration cards were not seeded are children below 10 years of age.
The reasons vary. Around one-fifth of the people unable to draw rations, roughly 20%, said they have submitted their Aadhaar cards but they were linked to their PDS accounts and they don’t know the reason for this. Around 12% of them said that they don’t have an Aadhaar number at all and so are unable to link it with their ration cards. Others fell through the gaps for various other reasons.
The number of people unable to draw rations is estimated to be much higher since the situation is similar across the State, especially in the remote districts. Already, some 7 lakh applications are pending for approval in the Ration Card Management System (RCMS) points set up in 314 blocks and in 62 of the State’s urban centres, according to officials in the Food Supplies and Consumer Welfare Department. The number of such applications is likely to increase if the RCMS centres fail to resolve the issue of new Aadhaar cards or don’t carry out the corrections that will ensure the linking of Aadhaar with the respective PDS outlets.
“The government should make the entire data public and all the RCMS centres should be made functional to see that the thousands of genuine people who have been denied their quota are brought back under PDS and given their entitled rations,” said Sameet Panda of Odisha Khadya Adhikar Abhijan.
Lakhs left out
Based on population figures from the 2011 census, the National Food Security Act (NFSA) had sanctioned coverage of about 32 million people in Odisha. But the population growth in the interim left out lakhs of people. Which is when the State government launched its own food security scheme to cover those left out of the NFSA scheme.
The Aadhaar seeding exercise was helpful in one way because government officials say that around 25 lakh people, whose names figured in multiple ration cards, have been removed from the list of beneficiaries. With these ghost names removed, authorities say that they have been able to bring an equivalent number of people from the State Food Security Scheme under the NFSA banner.
However, the State Food Supplies and Consumer Welfare Minister, Ranendra Pratap Swain, was candid enough to admit that many deserving people have indeed been left out following the linking of Aadhaar due to various reasons. He said that efforts were on in full swing to ensure that not a single deserving person is denied his or her quota of rice. According to him, those who could not be covered under NFSA for both rice and kerosene, would be provided at least rice under the State’s food security scheme.
Swain said that corrections were being carried out on a daily basis at the grassroots level to ensure that those people who were terminally ill or whose thumb impressions did not match were provided their quota without delay.
For the government, linking the Aadhaar card to welfare programmes may be a good way to check the siphoning off of rations meant for the poor, but the denial of benefits to people due to administrative mistakes or because they cannot fully grasp the new digital processes is unpardonable.
It looks as if we may have to wait many months before a fool-proof and responsive mechanism is put in place that makes foodgrains and other benefits easily accessible to people in remote areas with little access to basic services.