Cancelled ration cards deprived Telangana’s poor of food rations amid lockdown

A man gives his finger print on a biometric machine after purchasing food ration in Prayagraj on 2 April 2020. The government of Telangana deactivated the ration cards of 18.6 lakh families over the last six years. It is unclear whether they were able to access subsidised food during the pandemic. Rajesh Kumar Singh/AP Photo
21 August, 2020

“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.

Mohammad Ahmad Khan, a tailor who does embroidery work on saris, lives in the Fateh Darwaza locality of Hyderabad’s old city. Khan’s ration card was among those cancelled. He said that apart from his youngest son, none of the other family members had been previously able to draw rations, as the ePos machine did not recognise their fingerprints. That too changed in 2019. “The shop dealer told me one year ago that our card had been discontinued,” Khan told me. “I kept making requisitions at the ration office for a new card, but received no help.” During the lockdown, Khan got no work and the family’s income and savings completely dried up. Khan said his family, too, had survived the lockdown only on food that was being distributed locally.

Both Begum—Hussain’s mother—and Khan are mentioned in Masood’s petition. The petition stated that the cancellation of ration cards deprived lakhs of poor people of their right to food during the pandemic. It termed the cancellations “arbitrary” because none of the families were informed and they realised that their cards were no longer valid only when they were denied ration by the fair-price shop owners. The petition argued that PDS should be universalised during the course of the pandemic and the use of biometrics and point-of-sale devices at fair-price shops should be stopped, since it might risk the spread of infection.

On 22 June, the civil-supplies department of Telangana filed a reply to Masood’s petition acknowledging that Begum and Khan’s cards were cancelled. The reply said that Begum’s ration card was issued in 2006 and cancelled in 2016 because “she has not drawn ration for the previous six months, it is clearly showing that she has possessed the ration card for other purpose, and not for getting ration.” Khan’s card was also issued in 2006 and was cancelled in 2017, for similar reasons, the reply said. When I asked Khan and Hussain why they had not drawn rations for six months, they replied that they had tried, but the ePos machines were not accepting their fingerprints. In its affidavit, the Telangana civil-supplies department said that in case fingerprint scans failed, every shop would also have an iris scan that the beneficiary could use. Both Hussain and Khan told me that their local fair price shop did not have an iris scan machine. They said they were from poor families and required access to subsidised food. Neither family received any intimation from the government that their card would be cancelled.

“The arbitrary cancellations of ration cards without following due process is depriving people of their rights,” Masood told me. “The computer will throw up ration card numbers meant to be deleted, but government officials should send the families a notice and verify their status through ground-level inquiries before deletions, which they haven’t done.”

On 13 May, the Telangana High Court passed an order stating that the civil-supplies department would have to issue fresh ration cards to Begum and Khan. The court further stated that the department needs to reissue ration cards to all previous holders whose cards were deactivated without issuing any notice to them. But when I spoke to Hussain and Khan in the first week of August, both confirmed that they had not received new ration cards.

“I am not aware of the details of this particular court case, but as per press reports, there are eight lakh ration cards in Telangana that were cancelled because no one was picking up rations against these cards for the past two or three years,” Mareddy Srinivas Reddy, the chairman of Telangana’s civil-supplies corporation, told me. “The central and state governments spend money on subsidising food. When people do not pick up rations, the dealers pilfer those rations and sell it in the open market. I am not aware why the cards have not been restored as per the court order.” Masood said that the civil-supplies department had not yet reissued cards because that would point to flaws across their system. “If the Telangana government restores these cards as per the court order it will be a tacit admission that their methodology for cancelling the cards is flawed,” he told me. “That is probably the reason why they have not been restored.”

According to the department’s affidavit, around 2.8 crore people in Telangana are covered by food security cards. Telangana has so far introduced ePoS devices in 16,877 of the state’s total 17,016 fair price shops. In April 2018, intra-state portability of ration cards was introduced, which would allow card holders from any part of the state to withdraw rations in any fair-price shop in Telangana if they passed biometric authentication checks. In August 2019, this was extended to card holders from other states too under the “one nation, one ration” pilot scheme.

The Telangana civil-supplies department argues that such portability requires Aadhaar seeding of food-security cards. The department claims to have seeded 95.28 percent of food-security cards. This would allow the food-security database of the PDS to be verified with other databases including the Aadhar database, the socio-economic and caste census, as well as electoral data. “This will result in the creation of a centralised database at the state level with clear processes for its updation,” the department said in its affidavit.

The department uses various metrics to cancel a person’s food security card eligibility. According to the affidavit, the Telangana government has seventeen parameters to ensure that the database of food-security holders does not contain “bogus” names. For example, beneficiaries whose Aadhaar numbers were cancelled or were not available in Telangana, as sourced from the UIDAI database, are not eligible for food-security cards. The treasury, health and police departments can also cancel the eligibility of beneficiaries on the grounds that they are government employees. Individual names can be cancelled from food-security cards if district tehsildars attest that a beneficiary has died, migrated or was married. The transport department can also delete the food-security card of a holder if they own a four-wheel vehicle. The Telangana government argues that a singular database is necessary that merges all of this data because various departments of the government play a role in this de-duplication process.

“The issue with de-duplication is, it is often secret and uses data obtained about an individual without their knowledge or consent,” Srinivas Kodali, a Hyderabad-based independent researcher working on data and governance, told me. “If there was an error in deletion of people’s ration card, the individual has no idea how or why it happened.” Kodali said that the government of Telangana had built a centralised database for de-duplication of every resident, irrespective of whether they need ration or not. “Such a state-resident data hub is illegal and it was debated heavily as part of the Aadhaar petition,” he told me, referring to a legal challenge to the UIDAI mounted by privacy activists. This resulted in a Supreme Court judgement in 2018 that decreed that Aadhar was constitutionally valid. Kodali said that the government needs to make its algorithmic deletions process public and it needs to be transparent about the software used.

On 6 August, I spoke to an official attached to the Telangana civil-supplies department about whether due process was followed in the cancellation of ration cards. “No,” the official said, on the condition of anonymity. “If we were to follow the legal process, then the department would have to send a notice, but since lakhs of cards have been cancelled it is not practical to follow this process.” The official added, “When the ration cards are deactivated and the beneficiaries informed by the shop owner, they come to us and if it is a genuine case we verify and give them a fresh card.”

Sayeeda Abdulla, a Hyderabad resident, is one such case. The civil-supplies department’s affidavit mentions that her card was cancelled and a fresh one was issued upon re-verification. When I called Abdulla’s family, they confirmed that they had got a card in May. The affidavit filed by Masood mentions four people whose cards were cancelled including Abdulla. In its reply, the civil-supplies department said that two of them had had their cards restored upon verification. However, there is no data to quantify how many of the 18.7 lakh cards have been restored.

Despite the shortcomings of Telangana’s data-integration model, the Indian government is determined to replicate it in other states too. In the India Economic Survey 2018-19—a document annually presented by the ministry of finance describing the state of the economy— Krishnamurthy V Subramanian, the chief economic adviser praised Telangana’s data integration model. The report read, “The Telangana Government’s Samagra Vedika initiative gives a flavour of the potential benefits of integrating data sets. The initiative links around twenty-five existing government datasets using a common identifier-the name and address of an individual … Each individual was then further linked to relatives such as spouse, siblings, parents and other known associates. The initiative also puts in place all the necessary safeguards to preclude any tampering of data or violation of privacy.”

Activists, however, are alarmed at the possibility of Telangana’s model being exported to other parts of the country. “The recommendation of Telangana model to be implemented across the country without evaluating the system and blindly terming it a good governance practice is not how technology systems need to be built,” Kodali said. “Telangana’s 360-degree database systems are illegal and have been built without public knowledge, in secret, without backing of any laws. No one in the state knows how these systems operate, but the officials keep calling them world’s best practice.”