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How Jharkhand widow died of starvation because of aadhaar-related problems

Premani's house
By Siraj Dutta and Sakina Dhorajiwala* 
A 64-year old widow, Premani Kunwar, died of hunger and exhaustion on December 1 in Danda Block of Garhwa district (Jharkhand). Contrary to some media reports, there was no money in Premani’s bank account when she died. Two months earlier, the aadhaar-based payment system had redirected her pension money to a different account, without her knowledge. She was also denied her grain entitlement in August and November.
A destitute widow who lived alone with her 13-year old son would receive her monthly pension of Rs 600 in her aadhaar-linked bank account at the State Bank of India. From October onwards, however, her pension was redirected to another account (in the name of Shanti Devi, her husband’s first wife), unbeknown to her or her family or the local bank.
The reason is that Shanti Devi’s account (a suspicious account, she died 25 years ago) was somehow linked with Premani’s aadhaar number. Under the current system of aadhaar-enabled pension payments, a person’s pension is automatically paid to whichever of his/her accounts was mostly recently seeded with aadhaar.
But most people in rural Jharkhand are unaware of this rule, which is a source of endless confusion for pensioners and National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) workers, who do not know where to look for their money. Premani’s death epitomised their hardships.
An example of objectionable banking practices associated with aadhaar, aadhaar-linked bank accounts (e.g. under the Jan Dhan Yojana) are opened without the consent or even knowledge of the concerned person. Sometimes bank accounts are opened in this casual manner by wholly unaccountable “business correspondents”.
In 2016, ICICI Bank opened accounts of around 6,000 NREGA workers in Boram block of East Singhbhum district without their consent and linked them to their aadhaar. Most of the workers did not know that their NREGA wages were being credited in the ICICI bank accounts. Shell accounts have been used to siphon off NREGA wages, a recent investigation in Mahuadanr Block (Latehar district, Jharkhand) has revealed.

Denial of food rations

Premani was also deprived of her food rations from the public distribution system in August and November. Premani had an Antyodaya card, which normally enabled her to buy her monthly quota of 35 kg of rice (minus a 2 kg cut) at Re 1/kg from the local ration shop.
In September, Premani had to use most of her food ration to return what she had borrowed in August to survive. In November, the dealer took her fingerprint (biometric authentication is compulsory for food rations in Jharkhand, in the online system) but told her that he would give her rice later. Meanwhile, she died.
These irregularities are directly related to aadhaar. The reason why there was no distribution in August is that local dealers were not allotted any rice for that month. Instead, they were told that they should distribute from the accumulated stocks that had been generated in preceding months due to transaction failures (e.g. due to lack of connectivity or biometric failures).
Meanwhile, however, many dealers had sold these stocks in the market. So in August they simply told the cardholders that they had nothing to distribute.
In addition, dealers started tampering with digital records in order to hide accumulated stocks. One way they do this is to separate authentication and distribution – get people’s fingerprints, tell them that they would get rice later, and then play hide-and-seek. This seems to be what happened to Premani in November.
Deprived of both food and cash, Premani lived in a state of semi-starvation from August (if not before). Sometimes her son brought leftover rice from the midday meal at school, but there was little else to eat most of the time. Before she died, she had gone without proper food for 15 days. No food had been cooked in her house for eight days preceding her death.
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*With Right to Food Campaign, Jharkhand. Click HERE for Right to Food Campaign's investigation into Premani's death

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