COVID-19: Thousands pushed to starvation due to faulty biometric system in Bihar

Poor, elderly not able to match fingerprints on system, not getting food grain as a result

By C K Manoj
Published: Friday 24 April 2020
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Thousands of poor villagers have been pushed to the brink of starvation in Bihar as the biometric system installed to curb leakages in the public distribution system (PDS) is proving to be the stumbling block on their way.

The Food and Consumer Protection Department in the state has made it mandatory for use of Aadhaar-based biometric authentication at the PDS shops after complaints of large-scale irregularities in distribution of rations to ration card holders.

The system involves installing point of sale (PoS) machines at the PDS outlets and verifying the identity of the cardholders by matching their fingerprints against the Aadhaar database over the internet but this has caused a new problem for the poor.

The main worry for the beneficiaries is that the machines are not identifying them as their fingerprints have either faded or have almost vanished due to long hours of hard labour in the field.

This is a common problem with the elderly and labourers, who work as daily wagers. The result is that the PDS dealers are refusing to give them free rations even though they own a ration card.

According to an official report, there are a total of 1.68 crore ration card holders in Bihar. Around 85 per cent people living in villages have ration cards whereas 72 per cent of those living in urban areas have the cards, according to the government.

“I waited patiently for my turn to come for about an hour hut when I put fingers on the machine, it didn’t authenticate,” 80-year-old Suga Devi, a resident of Ram Krishna Nagar locality in Patna, said.

“I did it twice, thrice, but it didn’t accept. I kept saying that I was a genuine card holder and in dire need of food grains but the dealer didn’t listen to my appeal and asked me to go away,” she added.

There are thousands like her who have been cursing the dealers every day after being denied food grains by dealers, owing to similar reasons.

Jean Dreze’s appeal

“The biometric system must be done away with at this critical time when the poor are severely battling food crises as a result of loss of jobs due to the lockdown,” prominent economist Jean Dreze told Down to Earth by phone on April 24, 2020.

“The experience of states like Jharkhand with PoS machines too has been very negative,” he added.

Dreze is a Belgian-born Indian economist who has worked on several developmental issues facing India such as hunger, famine and gender inequality, and also had conceptualised and drafted the first version of the Mahatma Gandhi National Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA).

He said the first priority of the government at this moment should be to provide emergency supply of food grains to the poor while keeping the technology aside.

Dreze also shot off a letter to Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar on April 13, urging the latter to supplement the PDS with other means of emergency food assistance including community kitchens for the urban poor.

He said the PDS is likely to be the most crucial lifeline of poor people in Bihar during the next few months and it needs the highest possible vigilance.

Dreze suggested that the Bihar government request additional food grain allocation from the Centre.

“A special food grain quota could be used by the Bihar government to provide food rations to households that do not have a ration card, as well as for other emergency relief measures such as community kitchens which could save villagers from hunger and starvation,” Dreze said.

“We feel that universalising the PDS in rural areas and urban slums may not seem like an urgent matter since PDS coverage in Bihar is already supposed to be close to universal (84 per cent),” Dreze wrote in his letter.

“However, the actual coverage is barely 70 per cent, because of population increase since 2011, ignored by the central government,” he added.

“Even if only one third of the excluded 30 per cent consists of households vulnerable to hunger, this would mean that 10 per cent of the population of Bihar (about 13 million persons, based on projected 2019 population) is exposed to hunger at this time. This is bound to take a lasting toll on the health and well-being of the people of Bihar – it cannot be allowed,” he said.

Dhirendra Jha, general secretary of All India Agriculture and Rural Labour Association, said the introduction of PoS has given birth to new troubles rather than solving the existing problems in the PDS systems.

“Poor people are returning homes without grains after waiting for long in queues since their fingerprints don’t match the Aadhaar database. How can you expect the labourers’ finger marks will be safe after their hard labour? This is sheer injustice,” Jha said.

He said every poor household should be given 25 kg free ration for three months without any delay and without following any technology to let them survive at this hard time.

He also demanded that every MNREGA labourer should be given at least 200 days of work and their daily wage should be hiked to Rs 500.

Currently, the daily wage of a MNREGA labourer is only Rs 197, that is less than even the minimum wages of Rs 277 as fixed by the government.

Dalit Vikas Samiti, a non-profit working among the downtrodden sections of the society, said it was pathetic to see many poor go without food even at this critical juncture.

“This is a very hard time. We all have to come forward to rush food to the poor without any discrimination,” the Samiti’s Assistant Director Father Jose, said.

The government said it was trying hard to solve the problem. “We too have come to know about this problem and are trying hard to sort this out as soon as possible,” Dinesh Kumar, director of Consumer Protection Directorate, Bihar, said.

“We have directed the officials to ensure the ration card holders are not denied food grains at any cost,” Kumar said. He said the ration card holder would be given food if anyone from his / her family had Aadhaar Cards and their fingerprints matched with the Aadhaar database.

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