“When none of our fingerprints were recognised by the machine at our local ration shop, we realised that our ration card was not operational,” Ali Bin Hussain, a 34-year-old resident of Hyderabad, told me over the phone on 4 August. Hussain first faced this problem in early 2019, when none of his family’s fingerprints were recognised by an electronic point-of-sale device—called an ePos device—at their local fair-price shop in the Kala Pathar locality of Hyderabad’s old city. The family’s ration card, issued in 2006, was registered in the name of Fatima Begum, Hussain’s mother, and after repeated attempts by the family of six to draw rations in 2019, the dealer announced that the ration card had been cancelled. “All of us tried, but none of our fingerprints worked,” Hussain said. “I’ve been to the civil supplies corporation office repeatedly since then to try to get it activated or get a fresh card.” His family’s struggle to access food was exacerbated during the lockdown. “We were unable to get subsidised food from the fair price shop and survived on food that was distributed in our area,” he said. Hussain was not sure if the distribution was carried out by government agencies or private charities.
Hussain’s family’s plight is not an isolated case. The government of Telangana deactivated the ration cards of several lakh people over the last six years. It is unclear whether they were able to access subsidised food during the pandemic. These deletions occurred as part of a deduplication process after Aadhar numbers—from the Unique Identification Authority of India database—of NFSA beneficiaries in Telangana were added to the states’ PDS database. According to an affidavit submitted by the civil-supplies department of Telangana to the Telangana High Court on 22 June, the state has cancelled 18,61,171 ration cards since 2014. The affidavit, submitted in reply to a petition by a Hyderabad-based activist on the cancellation of ration cards, stated that a bulk of the deletions were because the cards were “bogus” or “duplicate.” Despite deep flaws in linking the public distribution system with the Aadhaar database, which surfaced again in recent months when families with cancelled ration cards were deprived of subsidised grain during a pandemic, the Indian government hopes to implement Telangana’s model across the country.
With the formation of the state of Telangana in 2014 and with the National Food Security Act of 2013, both the population to whom ration was distributed and its mode of accessing this food changed. In undivided Andhra Pradesh, two kinds of cards were used to draw rations—white ration cards for those below the poverty line and pink ration cards for those above it. After the formation of the state of Telangana in 2014, the new government decided to issue food-security cards in place of both ration cards. Apart from being proof of residence and an identity document, white ration cards had been linked to the state’s Aarogyasri health scheme—a targeted health scheme for BPL families in Andhra Pradesh—while the food-security cards were meant for the sole purpose of drawing ration. Telangana also raised the income limit for BPL families from Rs 60,000 to Rs 1.5 lakhs in rural areas and from Rs 75,000 to Rs 2 lakhs in urban areas, thus bringing more people under the ambit of the public distribution system.