One morning last December, Uttam Kunwar awoke from a terrible dream in which his mother had died. Any relief he felt lasted only until he turned over on the floor, beneath the blanket he shared with her, to find her dead. We spoke on the last day of February, in a tiny settlement at the eastern edge of Jharkhand, an Indian state near the Bay of Bengal. Uttam sat on a khatiya, a bed of bamboo and cord mesh, beside logs left from the pyre. “She died of hunger,” he said. I asked how he knew, and he stared at me. “She died of hunger,” he said.
The bulb above us sputtered. Uttam brought out a passport picture glued to his mother’s bank-account book. Villagers offering directions to her home had spoken of her madness, and I looked for signs in the photo. Premani Kunwar confronted the camera with a frown, the drape of a patterned sari falling on a lean, oblong face. Uttam folded his arms and pressed his curled toes into the ground.
Three days after Premani died, members of the Right to Food Campaign, a loose partnership of activists, economists, and researchers, drove down from Ranchi, the capital of Jharkhand. They scattered over the open country for two days, interviewing neighbors, family, and the rations supplier who gave the village its monthly share of subsidized food. One of the researchers, Siraj Dutta, a former engineer who has studied people living beneath Mumbai’s bridges, said that he was jolted by the Kunwars’ poverty. “They had no utensils to store grains,” he told me. “In most homes, you find some kind of storage for food.” Uttam and Premani had subsisted on a diet of rice and salt. Occasionally, if lurking rats hadn’t pruned their supplies first, they sold a portion to splurge on dal, sugar, and oil.
Dutta’s investigation found that Premani hadn’t received food from the rations supplier, but that the final nudge had come from elsewhere. When the researchers visited her local bank branch—“a typical, small rural branch where everyone is confused,” Dutta recalled—the manager showed them his screen in surprise. At some point, Premani’s pension had been diverted to the account of a person who died in 1992. This happened, the manager declared, because someone had linked the dead person’s account to Premani’s twelve-digit national identification number, known as Aadhaar. Premani, who was almost sixty-five, knew nothing of this. During the last week of her life, she was driven quiet by hunger, and her movements were strained. The fact-finders concluded that she had died “hungry and penniless.”
Aadhaar, which is the largest biometric identification database in existence, has lately been the subject of intense debate in India. The system, launched in 2009, was created by the billionaire software entrepreneur Nandan Nilekani, who was Profiled in this magazine. It uses an individual’s photograph, fingerprints, and iris scans to generate a unique I.D. number, which is then linked to a range of services, including welfare benefits, traffic tickets, cell phones, and pensions. Nilekani’s belief, as he wrote in a 2011 report, was that India’s future could be dramatically improved if the government’s resources were managed by “private companies with a public purpose.” Aadhaar is a federal effort, operating under the Unique Identification Authority of India, but when it came into law, in 2016, it was formalized as an independent entity, in keeping with that spirit. When questioned about its workings, Aadhaar’s officials often invoke national security, and Nilekani recently alleged that there was a “an orchestrated campaign” to “malign” his creation.
The linking of Aadhaar to welfare benefits has proved especially controversial. Originally, the idea was meant to address the system’s talent for making food disappear. In parliamentary records from the eighties and nineties, ministers ask how food meant for one district ended up in Bangladesh, whether officers subverting welfare would be punished, and if the whole system should be shut down “to dismantle a huge chain of vested interests.” In one instance, a minister wondered why New Delhi had more recipients of welfare than actual residents. Nilekani was in his twenties then, but not much has changed. Subsidized food leaks at every stage of the process. In 2018, India set aside $24.9 billion, just over one percent of the country’s G.D.P., to buy and deliver this food, aware that a significant portion would vanish.
For Nilekani, Aadhaar was the answer to “ghosts,” the fake or duplicative identities that haunted the system. What could better authenticate a recipient of welfare than their very body? But under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the system has further expanded its purview. Registration, first promoted as a voluntary scheme, has gradually become mandatory for many public and private employees. So far, more than a billion citizens have surrendered their biometric data. This has turned privacy-conscious holdouts in to a conspicuous minority and put them on the defensive. Over the last year, in interviews, conversations, and messages on Whatsapp, activists and lawyers fighting over Aadhaar’s limits in India’s Supreme Court expressed a half-expectation that they would eventually lose. They mentioned the weight of disapproving neighbors, friends, and family. “ ‘Don’t questions elders’ is the line we’re taught at school,” Anantha Subramanian, a project manager, said. “That’s why a majority of people take the government at face value.”
Nilekani claims that Aadhaar has saved India over nine billion dollars by eliminating fraud. But Reetika Khera, an assistant professor at the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi, wrote, “What passes as ‘savings’ is often the result of denial of legal entitlements for lack of Aadhaar.” The idea of Aadhaar—technology uniting a nation, purging it of corruption and fraud—can often seem more important, to the government, than the reality on the ground. In Nilekani’s book “Rebooting India,” he begins with a rousing anecdote, from 2010, about Aadhaar’s first registrant, a housewife named Ranjana Sonawane who lived in the remote village of Tembhli. In 2016, Sonawane told the Times of India that her Aadhar card was “useless.”
In February, I met Swati Narayan, a researcher for Right to Food, at a coffee shop in Ranchi. She told me that had been keeping a spreadsheet tracking “a wave of deaths” that came after welfare recipients were told to link their benefits to Aadhaar. In September, a child died after her family’s ration card was deleted because they hadn’t linked it. A paralyzed woman who couldn’t visit the ration shop for an Aadhaar fingerprint authentication died of hunger, as did a seventy-five-year-old man after his daughter’s biometric authentication failed. In all three cases, as in others, the government denied that starvation was at fault, often blaming sickness instead. (“Yes, she was sick,” one of Premani’s neighbors told me. “But she fell sick because there was no food.”) Starvation is not new in India’s villages, but Narayan’s spreadsheet was revealing: the ‘caste’ column of the victims brimmed with those people that the country tends to shun, including Muslims, Dalits, and members of remote tribes.
For the past two years, food campaigners have watched in alarm as Aadhaar has taken hold in India’s bureaucracy. In Jharkhand, it’s now mandatory to link rations to Aadhaar, which campaigners say has led to people’s removal from ration lists. In public hearings, people from the state have spoken about their problems with biometric readers—some reject thumbprints outright, while others don’t get mobile reception—and describe a system that has turned accessing their monthly supply of food into a game of chance. “Why have the deaths happened here in Jharkhand? Because people here are starved. They’re at the edge of survival,” Narayan told me. “Logically, it was going to happen.” When I asked her about Nilekani’s frequent references to “ghosts,” or fake beneficiaries, she laughed.
Aadhaar’s reach is only growing. In October, just outside Ranchi, the local government announced that it would conduct a limited experiment: instead of giving people food, it would deposit money directly into accounts linked to Aadhaar. Campaigners told me they heard of the scheme, called Direct Benefit Transfer, when villagers began to protest. At Upar Kudlong, a village near a coal plant, I talked to Salgi Devi, who hushed her teen-agers who were standing nearby and said that she only learned about the new ration system when her food didn’t arrive. She said that no one had prepared her for D.B.T. “There’s no benefit in this,” she said. Devi said that she now spent money to get the money she was due. As we spoke, others gathered around to share their stories. Several people hadn’t received money or food, and had visited banks several times over half a year. At the banks, officials couldn’t say why the money hadn’t come. One man said that he stood in a winding line for three days to withdraw a thousand rupees. To him, those were three days of missed work. In three months, he had taken ten days off to stand in line. The woman beside him was startled. “Ten days in three months!”
D.B.T, a simple solution in the minds of its inventors, had met reality: devilishly rule-abiding rural bank officials, an inconsistent flow of information, poor transportation networks, and everyday dysfunctions familiar to residents of the country’s interior. I asked people from four villages across a half hour’s drive why they hadn’t complained. The answer everywhere was virtually the same: “Who do you go to?”
Aruna Chandrasekhar, a journalist and former researcher for Amnesty International who’s studied land conflicts in Jharkhand for the past six years, told me that she was mystified that the digital experiment took place in Jharkhand. “Of all the states . . . ” she said. “You’re providing no governance, people are struggling to prove ownership over their own land, and you want to do this to their food?” Narayan said the experiment was a violation of rights. “People would not allow this in a normal democracy,” she said. “ ‘Let’s try things out on people and see how it works.’ It’s like they’re guinea pigs.”
For those who favored digital intervention, the new system hunted people who had no business receiving welfare. For the recipients of cash transfers that hadn’t arrived, the system erased lines of responsibility and authority. As for the hungry, the system removed them from its ledger altogether. I asked Chandrasekhar if Aadhaar’s lack of a mechanism for redress had created another barrier between people and the government. “This is a place where you’ve seen the state, forest departments, and miners take control of your village and your land. You have the feeling that you don’t have the right to complain,” she said. “And so you assume that the state is not going to help you.”