“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.
The National Food Security Act, rather than enforcing any criteria by which states would determine who accesses ration, determined that 75 percent of the rural population and 50 percent of the urban population should be covered under it. This was meant to be the target population that were given the new food security cards. “In Hyderabad the government has not started issuing FSCs physically,” SQ Masood, a civil- and environmental-rights activist based in the city, told me. It was Masood who filed the public interest litigation in the Telangana High Court regarding the cancellation of ration cards, on 25 April. “But they have generated FSC numbers and seeded the PDS database with these numbers and linked them to Aadhaar. Each family gets one FSC, and all the family members’ details are linked to it. To draw rations, they need to download the beneficiary details and give their Aadhar number at the ration shop.”
Masood explained that after issuing the FSC numbers, the government seeded the beneficiaries’ Aadhaar numbers into the PDS database and began a process of deduplication to cancel “bogus” ration cards. According to the civil-supplies department’s affidavit, in 2014, 11.71 lakh ration cards were deleted. Every year since then, the Telangana government has deleted more ration cards. After 2014, the largest numbers of cards were cancelled in 2016, with 5.21 lakh cards being declared “bogus.” In 2019, another 40,684 cards were deleted.