Starvation death highlights flaws in Aadhaar-bank linkage
Moneylife Digital Team 28 December 2017
Rethink Aadhaar, a non-partisan campaign concerned about the Aadhaar project, has raised serious queries, supported by documentary evidence, regarding the Aadhaar-bank linkage in the context of the death of a 64-year old widow, Premani Kunwar, due to hunger and exhaustion on 1 December 2017 in Danda block of Garhwa district in Jharkhand. The death underscores the vulnerability of the Aadhaar-bank integration system, which victimises the defenceless poor at the grassroots.
 
Till September 2017, Premani Kunwar received her old age pension in her State Bank of India (SBI) account in the Danda branch. Thereafter, without her knowledge, her pension amount was redirected to the SBI bank account of Shanti Devi in Piprakala branch (22 km from Danda). Shanti Devi, who died 25 years ago, was the first wife of Premani Kunwar’s husband, the late Mutur Mahto.
 
Following the release of the fact-finding report on Premani Kunwar’s death by the Right to Food Campaign, the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) conducted an inquiry on 8th December. Its report acknowledges that Premani Kunwar’s old age pension had indeed been credited to Shanti Devi’s account, which was linked with Premani Kunwar’s Aadhaar number on 10 October 2017. 
 
The report also acknowledges that Premani Kunwar did not receive her ration for the month of November 2017, even though the dealer authenticated her biometrics in the point of sale (POS) machine for that month and also made an entry of 35kg in her ration card. The issue of denial of ration was discussed at length in an earlier press release of the Right to Food Campaign on 7 December 2017.
 
According to a news report published in the the Economic Times on 23rd December, as per the report of the local police, Premani Kunwar, along with her youngest step-son, Sunil Mahto had “fudged her Aadhaar card” to avail Shanti Devi’s family pension. Shanti Devi’s account was being credited with a monthly family pension amount of Rs849 from the Coal Mines Provident Fund. As per the report submitted by the branch manager of Piprakala to the inspector of Garhwa police station, Shanti Devi’s account was operated by Premani Kunwar and her family members. It further states that a sum of Rs30,000 was withdrawn in the name of Shanti Devi on 6 November 2017. The police arrested Sunil Mahto on 13th December for this withdrawal.
 
The reports of UIDAI and The Economic Times leave many pertinent questions unanswered. As per the UIDAI report, the name in Premani Kunwar’s Aadhaar (UID no XXXXXXXX7606) was changed to “Shanti Devi” on 23 September 2015. This report fails to explain how, despite this change, Premani Kunwar continued to receive her pension in her Aadhaar linked bank account till September 2017. There is also no explanation of how a bank account could be opened in the name of Shanti Devi in 2007, given that she died over two decades ago.
 
Even the know your customer (KYC) record of Shanti Devi’s account was last updated on 7 December 2017, just a day before the UIDAI team’s visit. This draws suspicion on the complicity of bank functionaries, among others, in the fraudulent withdrawal of money from this account. The bank manager of the Piprakala branch of SBI refused to share with the Right to Food Campaign fact finding team, the KYC documents that were used to open Shanti Devi’s account. There is also no explanation from UIDAI on how UID no XXXXXXXX7606 was linked with the bank account numbers of Premani Kunwar as well as Shanti Devi.
 
These issues highlight the vulnerability of the Aadhaar-bank integration system. Recently, a massive scam of opening Aadhaar-linked Airtel payment bank accounts of Airtel network subscribers without their consent was unearthed. In 2016, ICICI Bank opened accounts of around 6,000 workers under National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) in the Boram block of East Singhbhum district without their consent and linked them to their Aadhaar. Shell accounts have been used to siphon off NREGA wages, as a recent investigation in Mahuadanr block (Latehar district in Jharkhand) revealed. A member of parliament (MP) also recently became a victim of fraudulent withdrawal after fraudsters used the one time passcode (OTP) sent to the MP’s mobile to authenticate Aadhaar-based online transfer of fund.
 
The police report holds Sunil Mahto solely responsible for the fraudulent withdrawal of money from Shanti Devi’s bank account. Even if he was involved in this misdeed, he could not have done so without the complicity of bank functionaries involved in opening Shanti Devi’s account in 2007; persons who verified the change of name from Premani Kunwar to Shanti Devi in UID no XXXXXXXX7606; bank functionaries, who linked Premani Kunwar’s Aadhaar number with Shanti Devi’s account and bank functionaries, who updated KYC of Shanti Devi’s bank account on 7 December 2017.
 
The bare, two-room, dilapidated kutcha house of Premani Kunwar stands witness to her death amidst abject poverty. In the absence of the public distribution system (PDS) grain, she had to borrow rice from her neighbours to survive. There is no doubt that Premani lived in a state of semi-starvation. It is now well established that she did not receive her grain entitlement for August and November and her pension for September and October.
 
 
Premani’s death is a grim reminder of how vulnerable people like her routinely experience uncertainties in accessing their lifelines owing to complex systems like Aadhaar. Premani Kunwar’s son, Uttam Mahto has clearly testified in a video as well as a written statement that his mother died due to starvation. However, as per the report of the block development officer (BDO) of Danda, Uttam Mahto testified to his mother’s death due to illness. This exposes the local administration’s attempt to cover up the actual cause of Premani Kunwar’s death.
 
 
Further, the administration lodged complaints against the local whistle-blowers who drew attention to Premani Kunwar’s death due to starvation. It filed first information reports (FIRs) against Birendra Chowdhary, Pramukh of Danda, Kalicharan Mahto and Sushma Mahto for “causing disruption of government inquiry and for instilling fear in the government inquiry team”. It is also alleged that they tore government documents in the process which the defendants have denied.
 
As in the cases of previous deaths due to starvation in Jharkhand, the government has denied the role of Aadhaar integration with welfare programmes or administrative lapses that led to the denial of entitlements. It has instead been harassing the surviving members of the families suffering from starvation. The Right to Food Campaign demands that the FIRs against the local whistle-blowers be withdrawn. It also demands answers to these puzzling issues:
 
  • Why – and by whom - was the KYC of Shanti Devi’s bank account updated on 7 December 2017, a day before the UIDAI inquiry report?
 
  • How was an account opened in the name of Shanti Devi (who died 25 years ago) in the Piprakala branch of SBI in 2007?
 
  • On what basis, was Premani Kunwar’s name of changed to Shanti Devi in UID number XXXXXXXX7606 in 2015?
 
  • If Premani Kunwar had indeed changed her name in the Aadhaar to Shanti Devi in 2015, why did it take two years to get her Aadhaar number linked to the SBI account of Shanti Devi?
 
  • How was UID no XXXXXXXX7606 in the name of “Shanti Devi” (since 2015) linked to both Shanti Devi and Premani Kunwar’s bank accounts and the latter’s old age pension?  
 
  • Premani Kunwar’s son, Uttam Mahto has clearly testified that his mother died due to starvation. Why then does the BDO’s report claim that Uttam ascribed his mother’s death to illness?
 
Comments
Kumar Swamy
4 years ago
Porinju Veliyath on Twitter: "Why Aadhaar Privacy is not any big deal: https://t.co/rIlHFQCObo"
Kumar Swamy
4 years ago
There is an orchestrated campaign to malign Aadhaar: Ex-UIDAI chairman Nandan Nilekani
http://www.moneylife.in/article/starvation-death-highlights-flaws-in-aadhaar-bank-linkage/52610.html
Amitabha Bhattacharjee
4 years ago
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