When biometric authentication systems fail fading fingerprints
66-year old Jija Baliram Adsul is a single woman who lives in the Ambil Odha Vasahat at Dandekar Pul. Jijabai has never been married and lives by herself in the same neighbourhood as her brother for support and a sense of community. She has worked as a waste picker for much of her life and is a member of the waste pickers’ trade union Kagad Kach Patra Kashtakari Panchayat (KKPKP). Jijabai’s brother and his family support her as and when necessary but she doesn’t want to impose on them and but she as she says, “I can eat only if I work. My brother and his family are very supportive but how much can I impose on them?” Not surprisingly, the period of the pandemic and lock down have been very hard on her, however, she has maintained a brave and practical attitude through it all. “All my work has come to a standstill during these past few months, but I have to survive, and have got by on others' kindness and my brother and his family’s support.”
“I have all the necessary cards,” she says, “PAN card, Aadhaar card, ration card, I got them all done so that I am not turned away for the lack of documents.”
The public distribution system is therefore an important institution for her, one which provides for subsidised ration to her and millions like her. However, what should be an easily accessible system for the poor is mired in issues that are deeply exclusionary and only make matters worse for the likes of Jijabai. The National Food Security Act of 2013 provides for subsidised food grains to the poorest citizens of the country. Under the provisions of the Act beneficiaries of the Public Distribution System receive 5 kilograms per person per month - Rice at 3 Rs. and Wheat at 2 Rs. per Kg. at – -Jijabai made sure that she had all the necessary paperwork to access the grain that she is entitled to. “I have all the necessary cards,” she says, “PAN card, Aadhaar card, ration card, I got them all done so that I am not turned away for the lack of documents.” However, since October 2019, she was faced with a problem that she hadn’t quite anticipated. Jijabai’s fingerprints were no longer recognised by the biometric system. Consequently, her card was deemed ineffective and with immediate effect Jijabai was denied ration at subsidised prices.
The government ration shopkeeper in her area started selling 5 kgs of rice and wheat at Rs. 48/- , four times that of the usual rate. As the lock down came into force, an additional scheme was introduced to support the urban poor. Initially, the ration shopkeeper of the area refused to give her grains she was entitled to under the new scheme. It was at this juncture that Jijabai called the helpline for waste pickers run by the union. Her case was registered and a karyakarta from the union spoke to the ration shopkeeper and negotiated with him so that she at least continued to receive ration at the fixed prices of Rs. 12/- and Rs. 8/- under the temporary scheme introduced during the lockdown.
However, this was a temporary fix and since Jijabai’s card had been discontinued, it was necessary to register her again. The KKPKP karyakarta has helped her in finding out what forms need to be filled out and what paperwork needs to be submitted for her to restart her card. The karyakarta and Jijabai have since then approached different ration officials for restarting her card. She has filled out the necessary paperwork and submitted copies of her ration and aadhaar cards. The official has called them back after 15 days.
Additionally, in anticipation of her fingerprints not getting authenticated, the union karyakarta is exploring alternatives to the fingerprints authentication system. These include, using the manual system in the authentication process to punch in the aadhaar number, taking ration in another person’s name using their biometric identification or to have a letter issued from a ration official sanctioning her access to the grains she is entitled to. However, these processes take time as officials are not interested in taking up a lone case of a single, poor woman like Jijabai. It is fairly common among the elderly, especially those who have done heavy manual labour during their lifetimes, to have their fingerprints fade over time. Jijabai’s case is no different in this respect and sure enough, she has been let down by a system apparently put in place to help the poor and stamp down on corruption.
This is not the first such case where the biometric authentication system has created conditions for manipulation and corruption of the PDS (among other social justice schemes). Time and again there have been reports, from across the country, of people being denied their rightful share of ration because of failure of the biometric authentication system based on fingerprints. Several studies have questioned the wisdom of using an authentication system that rests solely on fingerprint identification as the elderly and people who undertake heavy labour are prone to having faded fingerprints. Furthermore, when such issues crop up, the poor have little information about avenues for recourse and redressal mechanisms, more so in a crisis situation such as the present.