As COVID-19 cases rise to 75 across the country, state governments are suspending the various touch points that could be a potential source of infection.
The Kerala government’s Food, Civil Supplies and Consumer Affairs department has decided to suspend biometric authentication for the public distribution system (PDS), popularly known as fair price or ration shops, in all districts till March 31. The number of people confirmed to have the COVID-19 disease in the state stands at 17. COVID-19 has been declared a pandemic by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Dr Narasimhugari TL Reddy, Director of Civil Supplies, told TNM that the order will be implemented by Thursday evening.
Post the suspension of fingerprint authentication, the distribution through PDS shops in Kerala will be through one-time password (OTP)-based authentication mode or non-authenticated mode (simply based on ration card number entered manually by an official). “If not by today evening, by tomorrow morning we will suspend it (fingerprint authentication) everywhere,” Reddy said.
The authentication devices that PDS shops use are updated over the air in each district and changes to the authentication system will only take effect once this is completed.
The Kerala government had earlier suspended fingerprint authentication for PDS in Pathanamthitta district. At least 969 persons are under observation in Pathanamthitta, the highest amongst all other districts in the state.
An email sent to the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) asking if there is any plan to suspend biometrics for PDS remained unanswered. “We have not issued any orders to suspend the biometrics, but the state governments are doing it at their end,” said an official from the ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution, Government of India.
The Delhi government suspended biometric authentication on March 5. “It has been suspended across departments in all areas where it is used till March 31. We will take a call on restarting it after March 31,” said Somnath Bharti, Member of Legislative Assembly, Delhi government. The number of people who have tested positive for coronavirus in Delhi stands at six.
In the meanwhile, the Karnataka government has not yet taken a call on biometric suspension. “We still have no such orders. We can’t comment on whether we will be suspending it or not,” said an official with the Food, Civil Supplies and Consumer Affairs department of Karnataka. Five people in the state have COVID-19.
“Biometric authentication for PDS is a huge issue. It has a huge potential to spread the infection if it is not managed. Also, it is not easy for the government to suspend the biometrics. But if it cannot be suspended, the machines have to be sanitised after every use to prevent infection,” said Dr V Ravi, a virologist with Bengaluru-based National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (Nimhans).
Besides government offices, many private sector companies that use biometrics for marking employee attendance have suspended it as well.