Challenges with Aadhaar

The case involved the death of an 11 year old girl due to starvation. The government had put in place a new Aadhaar digital identity system and the people had to biometrically verify their identity and register through a "seeding process" to be eligible to claim benefits such as subsidized grain. Due to high levels of illiteracy and poor internet connectivity, many of the impoverished were unable to complete the required steps to register themselves, and hence could not claim the subsidized grain that they were eligible for. The government authorities administering the program were also inflexible and did not extend any assistance to these disadvantaged communities in applying for these benefits. Hence the disadvantaged were excluded from receiving subsidized food and it resulted in a number of deaths due to starvation.

The doctrine of "lucas standi" dictates that the claimant must have a significant connection to the case to be allowed to raise an action in court. However, the impoverished and illiterate that were affected could barely afford food and barely knew how to register for benefits. It would be an insurmountable task for them to afford to travel to the courts and to navigate through complex paperwork to file a claim. However, India has a unique form of litigation known as "public interest litigation", where concerned parties could file claims in court on behalf of the aggrieved to request for the provision of fundamental rights such as the right to food, right to education and the right to work. Hence, Gonsalves proceeded to file such a claim.

Gonsalves faced numerous political issues. Government officials claimed that physical ration cards were susceptible to fraud as people could obtain multiple cards, hence the digital identity system was required. Government officials also claimed that the deaths were due to illnesses or due to other factors instead of starvation. There was also widespread denial and the reluctance to address the issue as many did not believe that starvation was still occurring in a country which was rapidly developing and relatively wealthy. Others felt shame and humiliation and thus preferred to avoid the issue altogether.

Prior to the implementation of the Aadhaar system, the courts ruled that individuals had the right to food and hence the subsidized food programme was made available to 700 million people who could purchase grain at half of the market price. Students were also provided with a mid-day meal. Parliament eventually passed the National Food Security Act 2013 which formalized it as a statute. However, the implementation of Aadhaar introduced issues because the ration cards of the disadvantaged were canceled, and they were not able to access the digital systems that were now a prerequisite to continue receiving benefits. At the time of the dialogue, the courts had accepted the evidence and were requesting the governments to provide a response to that matter. However, one criticism is that the Supreme Court did not order a stay of execution. Hence, while the case is ongoing, governments official are still insisting on the use of Aadhaar to disburse benefits and the disadvantaged continue to be excluded, resulting in ongoing cases of deaths due to starvation.

[1] Colin Gonsalves, 'Biometric IDs: Battling Aadhaar in India' (7 October 2021) accessed 17 March 2024.

  • This post is a summary of the dialogue session in source [1], hence every sentence is attributed to that source. To preserve legibility, I have not added references to the footnotes at the end of every sentence.