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Death of 11-year-old in India sparks debate on tying welfare to identity card

by Rina Chandran | @rinachandran | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 18 October 2017 15:08 GMT

Village women stand in a queue to get themselves enrolled for the Unique Identification (UID) database system at Merta district in the desert Indian state of Rajasthan in this 2013 archive photo. REUTERS/Mansi Thapliyal

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"The girl's family told us they had not eaten for six days when Santoshi died"

By Rina Chandran

MUMBAI, Oct 18 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The death of an 11-year-old girl in India, who campaigners say died of hunger because her family's ration card was cancelled, has sparked debate about linking welfare to identity cards.

Activists say Santoshi Kumari died last month after her family was denied subsidised grain because their biometric identity card, known as Aadhaar, was not linked to their ration card in government records.

"The girl's family told us they had not eaten for six days when Santoshi died," Dheeraj Kumar with advocacy group Right to Food Campaign told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"They had complained to the local officials about the faulty card several times, but no one had helped."

State officials in the northern Indian state of Jharkhand said the girl died of malaria, not starvation, and the chief minister has ordered an investigation.

"While there could be doubts over the cause of death, we have to ensure that no ration card is deleted because of non-availability of Aadhaar," state welfare minister Saryu Roy told reporters. "If someone has done this, then it is wrong."

More than 1.1 billion Indian residents have an Aadhaar card, which uses fingerprints and irin scans to identify them.

The database was set up to streamline welfare payments. But the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been keen to mandate the use of Aadhaar for everything from filing income taxes to the registration of mobile phones.

Activists say large numbers of the poor have been denied welfare benefits because of errors in the system.

The government made Aadhaar mandatory for welfare, pension and employment schemes this year, despite a 2014 Supreme Court ruling that it cannot be a requirement for welfare programmes.

"These are poor, illiterate people with no knowledge of technology. They are suffering because someone did not (link) the card properly," said Kumar.

"States are under pressure to show they have linked all ration cards and other benefits to Aadhaar. But the system is riddled with errors, and there is no follow up, leaving poor people in the lurch."

Kumar said more than 1 million ration cards had been cancelled in Jharkhand, one of India's poorest states, after a directive in April saying they must be linked to Aadhaar cards.

Last year, funding cuts in welfare schemes contributed to the starvation deaths of about 600 children in the western state of Maharashtra, activists said.

(Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran, Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.)

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