New Delhi: In a move that will likely accelerate the acceptance and impact of Aadhaar, the Supreme Court has recommended that the government make the unique identity (UID) programme the centrepiece of the revamp of the public distribution system (PDS).

The court has also shaped all further discourse on the country’s proposed food security legislation by setting down parameters.

The apex court’s suggestions include exclusion of people living above the poverty line (APL) from the purview of PDS and the shift to a per capita regime of providing subsidized foodgrain as opposed to the existing practice of allocations per family.

The recommendations of the court come ahead of a meeting of the National Advisory Council (NAC) on 30 August to review the role of UID in revamping PDS. Ahead of this, a sub-committee of NAC has already begun meetings with officials at the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) to discuss elements of the proposal that has already been put up on the Aadhaar website.

To be sure, the government has been given two weeks to respond to the recommendations of the Supreme Court. The matter has been listed for hearing on 12 August.

“The Supreme Court’s order puts a stamp of approval on the system which UIDAI has been proposing," said a senior UIDAI official, who didn’t want to be identified.

The apex court bench comprising justices Dalveer Bhandari and Deepak Verma said in its verdict on Tuesday: “The Union of India may consider computerization in consultation with the specialized agencies like the Unique Identification Authority of India or any other agencies."

Aadhaar is the government’s ambitious programme launched under UIDAI to provide the residents of India a unique identity number.

The Supreme Court bench was dealing with a report submitted by the justice D.P. Wadhwa committee that has come down heavily on the PDS system, saying that there was “huge corruption and pilferage in the PDS all over the country".

The Supreme Court’s suggestion to link PDS with Aadhaar came at a time when NAC, which serves as the political interface between the government and the Congress party, is locked in a debate with the government on the scope of the proposed National Food Security Act. The basic disagreement has been on the size of the allocation as well as the scope of the food security programme, particularly with respect to APL.

The court’s judgement also said that the government must “take into consideration" the recommendation of NAC.

NAC, in its 14 July meeting, had recommended universal PDS be restricted to a quarter of the blocks or administrative areas.

UIDAI has in the past approached the department of food and public distribution for a tie-up with the PDS scheme, specifically in Haryana and the Union territory of Chandigarh, though this is yet to materialize.

Haryana and Chandigarh are already working towards a biometric-based PDS system. In his letter to Alka Sirohi, secretary, department of food and public distribution, UIDAI director general R.S. Sharma has suggested that PDS should follow a biometric-based approach, which is UID-compliant. “The UIDAI can then de-duplicate the details and help eradicate bogus ration cards from the system," added the UIDAI official cited in the first instance.

Economist and chairman of the Institute of Rural Management, Anand, Y.K. Alagh welcomed the apex court’s directives. “I am sure the Supreme Court’s directive will give the team working on it the incentive and energy to go ahead and continue with the work as soon as possible," he said.

Alagh said that other government initiatives such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act—which ensures 100 days of work to a member of every rural household—and financial inclusion programmes could be helped by a similar mandate requiring a UID.

“They all need the same thing. So when you move one along, you move along the others too," Alagh, a former Union minister, added.

The Supreme Court also suggested that the government consider providing rations according to family members, instead of on the basis of cards. “If there is one member in the family, he must be given ration accordingly and if there are five members, then they must get five times more ration. The state government can fix the maximum limit," the ruling said.

The court’s judgement is a shot in the arm for Aadhaar, said an expert in the area of e-governance.

“The success of the UID project largely depends on the fact that it has a large user base. The project will get a great boost if even one national scheme like the PDS makes it mandatory to have a UID for all its beneficiaries," added this person, who didn’t want to be identified.

The Wadhwa panel, set up on 12 July 2006 to examine the functioning of PDS and suggest remedial measures, had submitted its report in March.

Karen Leigh also contributed to this story.

Tracking Hunger is a joint effort of the Hindustan Times and Mint to track, investigate and report every aspect of the struggle to rid India of hunger.

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