The recording of biometric data to ensure absolute surveillance of all Indian citizens has met with criticism from different quarters such as the recently enshrined Right to Privacy, and from civil liberties groups that aim to secure constitutional rights. This process implies that all movements of citizens, from their expenditure and consumption patterns, to their personal preferences about websites, cultural products like films and music etc. and ultimately to the exercise of their fundamental freedoms, can be easily tracked by the state. In other words, the state grants freedom, but also restricts it in the style of Big Brother from George Orwell’s 1984. Such a system of intrusive statistical reduction of individuals and groups to biometric data that can be easily misused, as was evident from a newspaper investigation revealing that the accounts of functionaries having access to this data could be easily hacked, thus rightly sparks off fear. However, linking essential services to the Aadhar from bank accounts to the reception of public distribution services, is also a severely limiting factor because the malfunctioning of a machine can literally determine life and death, to a more scary extent than before.
Scroll.in has investigated a series of starvation related deaths in Jharkhand because of the failure of unlettered people to link their Aadhar cards to government schemes. This has caused their families to die of starvation because of failure to avail themselves of services otherwise guaranteed by ration cards, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (which grants an assured 100 days of work a year to the unemployed) etc. Social activist Harsh Mander explains the case of the death of Koili Devi’s daughter due to starvation, along with the callousness of the administration that forced the grieving mother to change the fact of her daughter’s death to one caused by malaria, to avoid responsibility. His narrative goes as follows, “Critically dependent on the subsidised rations they receive through the public distribution system to keep hunger at bay, catastrophe struck the family when the state administration made it mandatory for all ration cards to be linked to biometric identification through Aadhaar. Koili Devi’s was only one of around 11 lakh households whose ration cards were cancelled in the state because they failed to link these to Aadhaar. Subsidised grain was the thin thread that held the family aloft above hunger. When this thread snapped, the family plunged into starvation. This was aggravated with the collapse of a range of other social entitlements as well. There was no wage work available under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act…because contractors illegally used big machines and wage registers were fudged…The child finally died, crying “bhaat, bhaat” (rice, rice), her mother recalled.” Economist and social activist Jean Dreze further examines this problem and points out the fallacies of ‘seeding’ the Aadhar verification, “The main reason is that Aadhaar-based biometric authentication is now compulsory in about 80% of ration shops in the state. It requires at least one member of the family to have an Aadhaar number correctly seeded into the system, which is not a trivial matter by any means. In addition, it requires internet connectivity, a working point of sales machine, and successful fingerprint recognition. Despite various safeguards, such as the “one-time password” option, whereby those who are unable to authenticate themselves using fingerprints can get a password on their mobile phones, the system often fails.” Dreze suggests that this can be read as the failure of a litmus test originally meant to be conducted all across the country. If about a million ration cards have been cancelled because of this failure of seeding in Jharkhand alone, imagine the fate of the poor in the rest of India.
Meanwhile the government continues to subscribe to the blame game model and dismiss lower level officials, while simultaneously compelling Koili Devi into changing her narrative about government irresponsibility. The Aadhar, or foundation, is too cracked to be of any value. It is shallow, discriminatory against the poor and disadvantaged, and a threat to the minorities. One can only expect what the structure being built on this base will look like—glossy, superficial and reeking of the wealth of the sixth richest country in the world with tragic notions of progress. Our development is only limited to our roads and to our aggression against the other, while vast sections of society that are already vulnerable are being erased out of existence even further. The deaths of innocent children like the numerous deaths caused by midday meal scams in Bihar caused outrage. Yet, these Aadhar related starvation deaths are not being publicised anywhere in the media, and there is no one to hold the government culpable for the death of Koili Devi’s daughter. Instead, she has been threatened with removing the child’s body from her grave for a post-mortem, because dying of hunger is too unthinkable a reality for shining India.
-Contributed by Tript
Picture Credits: nytimes.com