India’s Supreme Court demands answers on Aadhaar biometrics and canceled rations cards
India’s national biometric identity system Aadhaar has been steadily increasing links with a number of public services across India in recent years. This has meant that registration on the platform often goes hand in hand with access to various benefits, and allegations of denied services causing needless suffering and even starvation have surfaced.
Food rations cards
India’s government has been criticized for the denial of food rations following a failure to link ration cards to individual’s biometric Aadhaar accounts, reports DW. Now, the country’s Supreme Court has demanded a response from the government to the allegations, referring to the cancellation of ration cards as a “serious matter.”
The government had previously set a deadline for people to link cards to Aadhaar accounts, yet some faced difficulties in connecting the two before the deadline, resulting the cancellation of 30 million official documents, including food rations cards, and ultimately in denial of food rations. Even though this is not a new issue, with reports of starvation due to digital ID-related exclusion going back to at least 2018, the problem is still ongoing.
That same year, the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) threatened legal action against any entity denying essential services to Indians without an Aadhaar number.
The country passed a National Food Security Act (NFSA) in 2013, and the Public Distribution System (PDS), yet activists say that linking the two is driving food insecurity. Activists suggest alternatives to biometric documentation, such as a smart card, which activists say would be more efficient for people in rural areas whose identity cannot be authenticated with Aadhaar biometrics or its offline verification methods.
Jean Dreze, a developmental economist and activist says that though there are different reasons why connecting the card and the account were not possible for some, the main reason is that the biometric technology is not reliable; “linking cards to Aadhaar is one problem; other problems include biometric authentication, which sometimes fails…. Hunger is a national issue, but unfortunately the central government is not addressing it.”
A lawyer told DW that people have died of starvation in at least 10 of India’s 27 states and seven territories, and also that the cancellation of the benefits cards was unlawful because it failed to meet legal notification requirements.
Though Aadhaar account holders can block their biometrics, they cannot exit the identity system, an issue which has sparked concern among rights advocates.
Meanwhile, the use of Aadhaar’s biometrics is expanding not just in the realm of public services; the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology allowed a set of rules entitled ‘Aadhaar Authentication for Good Governance (Social Welfare, Innovation, Knowledge) Rules, 2020.’ These enable any government entity to offer Aadhaar authentication, resulting in the potential denial of government benefits.
Last year, the state of Telangana ruled that biometrics would not be required for government aid disbursement, and therefore supporting the move towards voluntary biometric authentication in the country.
Citizens of the state of Kerala who have deformities which prevent biometric data capture of fingerprints or iris are also facing difficulties in registering with Aadhaar to claim government benefits. Individuals will be required to produce a certificate from a doctor to certify an exemption from registering on the system, reports The Times of India.
In cases where the applicant does not have fingerprints or irises, a photograph showing the applicant’s hands and face is required. Aadhaar can be issued if either fingerprints or iris biometrics can be captured.
Local bodies in the state were directed to give social welfare pensions only to those whose Aadhaar or food rations card had been linked to the pension system. Therefore, some may face issues in claiming access to services if unable to gain a doctor’s letter approving an exception.