If Jharkhand goes hungry, New Delhi must know why

By Santwana Bhattacharya  |

NEW DELHI: Amid controversial reports of hunger deaths inJharkhand due to PDS beneficiaries being turned away, economist Jean Dreze says that even official records show that a significant proportion of people are being deprived of food rations every month.

In an interview with New Sunday Express, the prime mover behind the NREGA welfare scheme said “this does not mean that Aadhaar is solely responsible for the failures of the PDS, but the point is that compulsory biometric authentication is making things worse.”

Critical of “over-enthusiasm for sophisticated technology” and adoption of “inappropriate technologies,” Dreze said excess centralisation is affecting welfare programmes such as the PDS, NREGA and Integrated Child Development Services.

“There is no reason for these programmes to be held hostage to sweeping instructions from New Delhi. The worst situation is where the central government controls social programmes but has no serious commitment to them. That is the way things are going today.”

Man-made famines are part of India’s cultural memory, dating back to colonial times ending with the Bengal famine that killed millions in the 1940s. Recent reports of hunger deaths in Jharkhand have brought the focus back on food security, particularly among populations that are crucially dependent on the Public Distribution System (PDS).

That after so many years of independence, India still struggles to reach food to hungry mouths and shows up big on the world map of malnutrition, despite its overflowing granaries, speaks volumes about the country’s serial administrative failure. The latest move to link Aadhaar to food rations seems to have compounded the problem, though ironically it was devised to supply foodgrain to targeted populations without intermediate pilferage and corruption.

The Sunday Standard got in touch with development economist Jean Dreze, whose work on food security in India is well-known and who has been specifically studying the Jharkhand situation, to understand what’s ailing the system.

Dreze believes the policy of linking Aadhaar to PDS is not so much the problem as the insistence on online biometric verification at the village level. What succeeded in Andhra Pradesh failed in Jharkhand, resulting in hunger and deaths, because of inadequate infrastructure. Smart cards would be a far better option, if not offline Aadhaar, he suggests in an email interview.

Excerpts from the interview:

The recent hunger deaths that have been reported from Jharkhand, are they entirely a fallout of the policy to make Aadhaar mandatory for access to food rations? Or are they the compounded effect of chronic malnutrition?

Chronic undernutrition is certainly the larger problem. It creates a dependence of millions of people on the Public Distribution System for food security. When the system is disrupted, as is happening today, intensified hunger is the logical consequence. As far as Aadhaar is concerned, the main problem in Jharkhand is not just that Aadhaar is mandatory for food rations but that Aadhaar-based biometric authentication is compulsory in most villages.

In a recent article you cited studies showing how Aadhaar has adversely impacted the already delicate food security situation, ration intake, particularly in an impoverished tribal state like Jharkhand. As a general assumption, this may be a valid one to make. But had Aadhaar been solely responsible, would there not have been a wider effect clearly and demonstrably occurring post-Aadhaar?

There are indeed clear and demonstrable effects, visible for instance in official statistics and field surveys. Even in Ranchi district, more than one year after biometric authentication was made compulsory, the official records show that a significant proportion of people are deprived of food rations every month. This does not mean that Aadhaar is solely responsible for failures of the Public Distribution System, as you put it. The point is that compulsory biometric authentication is making things worse.

If the insistence on seeding Aadhaar to a food rations obtained through PDS is having a disastrous effect, do you think immediate corrective measures should be taken? What do you suggest — an immediate rollback of the order or an alternative mechanism where the targeted food subsidy/ration reaches the right homes/recipients without pilferage?

By way of immediate damage control, I would suggest switching the entire system to offline mode. There is an offline option in the system, which does not require connectivity or biometric authentication. The next step would be to assess carefully whether this offline option is adequate as a permanent arrangement, or whether there are better options, such as a simple smart-card system. What must be avoided at all cost is dependence on connectivity and biometrics at the ration shop.

No political party or government in a democracy would subject the population to obvious harm, or consciously adopt a lopsided policy that results in hunger deaths. Do you think the recent cases are a result of insensitive administration, an entrenched official apathy at all levels?

I think that it is a combination of over-enthusiasm for sophisticated technology and lack of clarity or concern about the hardships that inappropriate technologies can cause to poor and powerless people.

Or do you think the sudden shift towards a very centralised policy planning far removed from ground realities that’s causing the distress? After all, in Chhattisgarh, another tribal state, we have a CM who is called ‘Chawal Baba’ — whose cheap rice distribution scheme is seen to be one of the reasons for his electoral success.

I think that centralisation is indeed a growing problem with many social programmes in India including the PDS, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, the Integrated Child Development Services and social security pensions. There is no reason for these programmes to be held hostage to sweeping instructions issued from time to time in New Delhi, often without adequate understanding of their consequences. The worst situation is where the central government controls social programmes but has no serious commitment to them. That is the way things are going today.

Was underdeveloped Jharkhand, with a large tribal BPL population, a wrong choice to run the Aadhaar-PDS scheme? Given the fact that the state simply does not have the infrastructure to seed the Aadhaar numbers to ration cards or the online facilities that could help run the scheme efficiently?

Yes. Biometric authentication in the PDS was tried earlier in Andhra Pradesh, with somewhat better results. But there is a world of difference between Andhra Pradesh and Jharkhand, both in terms of infrastructure and state capacity. Even in Andhra Pradesh, there are significant problems with biometric authentication, and this should have alerted the central government to the fact that this technology is not suitable for states like Jharkhand. But the central government is not interested in evidence, it is sold to Aadhaar and determined to promote it come what may.

Though the Food Security Act came into being during the fag end of the UPA, isn’t it true that the priorities of successive governments since liberalisation have been lopsided, which is what gives us these terrible human indices? Do all policy initiatives on food, nutrition, cheap housing, drinking water, healthcare, basic education have to be tokenisms? As a throwaway line that says, ‘oh, we think about the poor too’?

There’s some truth in that. Social policy should be regarded as the first and foremost responsibility of the state, but in India it tends to have low priority. This bias goes back to 1947, it did not begin with liberalisation.

Back to Aadhaar, as a form of immediate course correction, should the elderly and women-led households be left out of its ambit? Because it’s not just the poor and hungry in interior hamlets who are being hit by it but also the middle class in urban areas — an elderly woman living alone has to trudge to the bank to get her account linked to Aadhaar to access her money….

It is true that Aadhaar-based technologies such as biometric authentication tend to be particularly difficult to use for the most vulnerable. For the elderly, in particular, biometric failures are very common. But rather than creating exemptions, I would prefer to put in place a system that works for everybody. One possibility is smart cards. This is a well-tested technology that does not require biometrics or connectivity. It is used in ATMs, metros, milk booths, shopping centres, what have you. Why not the PDS?

How far do you think the hunger situation has been compounded by demonetisation?

Nobody really knows. But it stands to reason that demonetisation must have made things difficult for many people who lived on the margin in the first place. As far as Jharkhand is concerned, we conducted two small surveys of the effects of demonetisation in Ranchi last year, one of small traders and one of casual labourers. Both suggested that incomes had declined by about 40 per cent on average, during the two months that followed demonetisation. That alone would mean intensified hunger for many. Pushing so many people to the wall, without any clarity about the goals of the exercise, is a grave injustice.