On September 27, 2018, a day after the Supreme Court’s Aadhaar judgment, Chunni Bai of Panton Ki Anti, Rajsamand district, Rajasthan died of starvation. She and her husband Uday Singh, both over 75 years old, had not eaten a meal in five days. For two months, they had not received their pensions or rations. Every time Uday went to the ration shop, the dealer would send him back empty-handed saying his biometrics weren’t working. The Aadhaar-linked “foolproof” POS machine would fail to authenticate Uday’s fingerprint. Even more tragically, Chunni passed away on a day when activists from the MKSS (Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan) visited their home and helped them procure their rations — through a “bypass” (special exemption granted to individual beneficiaries by the sub-divisional magistrate), obtained after a long and complicated process.
Uday, and Chunni Bai, symbolise Gandhiji’s last man — the poorest and weakest of Indians. They have a halfconstructed Indira Awaas house that has no doors or windows. They have to live outside under a plastic tarpaulin. All their life’s belongings lie in a small tin box. There is a half-broken cot kept outside, on which Uday’s disabled wife would spend her entire day and night. Uday would cook rotis, and do his best to look after both of them. When they had nothing, they would go to sleep hungry.
Last Thursday, Uday brought home 70kg of wheat — two months of ration. But it was too late for Chunni Bai.
On Wednesday, the Supreme Court delivered a judgment upholding the constitutionality of most of the Aadhaar Act with a 4-1 majority. In particular, the judges upheld that “Authentication under Section 7 would be required as a condition for receipt of a subsidy, benefit or service”. The Supreme Court stated, “The entire aim behind launching this programme is the ‘inclusion’ of the deserving persons who need to get such benefits. When it is serving a much larger purpose by reaching hundreds of millions of deserving persons, it cannot be crucified on the unproven plea of exclusion of some.”
For millions of poor working people, biometric authentication is a harrowing, tension-filled test. Many have just taken it to be their fate that their fingerprint does not register. For millions of disabled and elderly people like Uday and Chunni Bai, it actually does not matter if their biometric authentication is counted in the ‘successful’ 99.76%, or the failure rate of 0.232% cited in the judgment. Just having to reach a ration shop several kilometres away and authenticate, is exclusion. The mere fact that the internet does not work for hours or days leading to POS machines not working is exclusion.
The Supreme Court said that “enrolment in Aadhaar of the unprivileged and marginalised section of the society, in order to avail the fruits of welfare schemes of the Government, actually amounts to empowering these persons.”
Uday and Chunni Bai are not alone in their fight for survival. The Rajasthan government’s own figures show that over the last year, an average of 23% people did not take their subsidised rations. Not 0.23%, not even 2.3% but a hundred times more at 23%! These are not “wine- drinking, cheese-eating” people like “us”, who have refused to get Aadhaar. These are NFSA (National Food Security Act) beneficiaries who have Aadhaar numbers. In absolute numbers this means that more than 20 lakh families, and almost one crore individuals, haven’t been picking up their Rs 2 per kg wheat — thereby contributing to the thousands of crores of ‘savings’ the Modi government keeps talking about.
So where would Chunni Bai go? We have a callous and cruel administrative system that knows what is happening, but is willing to look the other way. We have a court that is innocent of ground realities, and has ruled based on figures that are nothing less than a flight of fancy. We have so-called “safeguards” consisting of empty assurances that do nothing more than help keep our conscience clear. Finally, we have a political class assisted by technocrats and corporates, determinedly driving this platform.
The judgment states: “We have taken on record the statement of the learned Attorney General that no deserving person would be denied the benefit of a scheme on the failure of authentication.” Given the past record, it is clear that this assurance too will be breached. It is also clear that for the excluded poor to fight back, they have to target the political establishment. Despite a powerful and forceful dissent, the court has ruled that the legislation is not unconstitutional. However, through sustained democratic assertion, people can bring decisive legislative change.
The writers are social activists and two of the petitioners who challenged Aadhaar in the Supreme Court