Monday, 30th October 2017

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No fingers? No monthly ration

Launched to curb graft, biometric device denies rice to leprosy patients

By A.S.R.P. MUKESH in Ranchi
  • Published 14.09.16
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Murli Goswami (grey-haired, with white gamchha) along with other leprosy patients at Indiranagar in HEC area of Ranchi on Tuesday. Telegraph picture

Ranchi, Sept. 13: The Aadhaar-enabled public distribution system (PDS) launched in Ranchi on pilot basis threw up a tragic loophole today when around 50 leprosy patients turned up at their ward councillor's office, saying they had not received ration for the past three months as they lacked thumbs and fingers to verify their biometric identity.

The 50-odd leprosy patients, including women, told ward 43 councillor Chanda Devi their very survival was at stake. Every month, a ration-cum-Aadhaar cardholder is supposed to get 1kg salt, 2 litres of kerosene, 2kg of sugar, 3kg of rice and 2kg of wheat, all at heavily subsidised rates.

Among the 450-odd leprosy patients who live in Indiranagar, many have fingers and thumbs. But, those who lost them due to the debilitating disease are now blocked from getting PDS items despite having all valid documents.

Under the biometric ration system, Aadhaar cardholders punch thumb or fingerprints on point of sale (PoS) devices at PDS outlets to get their identity verified against the database uploaded in it to get ration.

Though the state food and civil supplies department wanted to curb corruption and exclude fake beneficiaries with this system, the plight of the leprosy patients points out how the state forgot practical challenges faced by the differently abled.

Councillor Devi said they had written to state food and civil supplies minister Saryu Roy about a month ago on this. "The department told us they were working on an alternative, but as of now, we're waiting," she said.

Devi's husband Krishna Kant Ram, the representative of Hatia MLA Naveen Jaiswal, said the problem surfaced three months ago. "It's ironical that all Indiranagar residents have ration and Aadhaar cards but many can't get ration now," he said.

On how fingerless leprosy patients got Aadhaar cards in the first place, Murli Goswami (55), one of the many afflicted, said: "They took my eye (iris) impression." His friend Raghunath Mahto, in the same quandary, said: "They scanned my eye to give me the card but now they say they need my fingers to give me rice."

As PoS devices don't have iris scan, Mahto's acute observation remains only that.

S.B. Mehra, special rationing officer of Ranchi district, said the food and civil supplies department suggested issuing ration via a one-time password on mobile phones as an alternative in these special cases. "For this, we will have to feed mobile numbers against beneficiary names in PoS machines. But, no final orders have come in this regard," Mehra said.

Does everyone have a cellphone? Mehra believes most do, irrespective of economic class. Among leprosy patients, some do but many don't.

Jean Drèze, architect of MGNREGA and social activist, said practical realities have derailed the biometric-enabled PDS system in poor pockets and in rural belts of Ranchi.

"The new system requires many fragile technologies to work at the same time: the PoS machine, the Internet, biometrics, remote servers and mobile network. Data groundwork (including Aadhaar seeding) must have been done correctly. Jharkhand faces huge connectivity problems even in the capital. No wonder, then, that many people are finding themselves deprived of PDS items they are entitled to," he said.

Drèze also recounted an anecdote.

"On August 26, I went to a PDS shop in Ratu block in Ranchi to get a first-hand report of glitches. I saw some households with no UID, biometric systems showing fingerprint recognition snags, machines coming up with error messages that neither the dealer nor the cardholder could understand, let alone fix. Connectivity problems and remote server failures are part of this larger issue," he said.