When the Aadhaar project was launched in 2009, the Unique Identification Authority of India’s (UIDAI) publicity agency sold it as a project that would slay corruption and enhance efficiency in welfare programmes. Their strategy succeeded in making Aadhaar synonymous with something good, but most people fail to explain why it is so.
An analysis of UIDAI’s documents as early as 2010 revealed that the claims they made about corruption and efficiency were ill-founded and highly exaggerated. For example, the main form of corruption in the PDS was “quantity fraud”: after people signed for, say, 25 kg grain in the Public Distribution System (PDS) dealer’s register, the dealer could bully them and give them less than what they signed for. Without any recourse to a grievance redressal mechanism, people submitted to this quantity fraud. Now, with Aadhaar-based biometric authentication (ABBA), they authenticate a purchase of 25 kg with their fingerprints but, as before, the dealer gives them less. Quantity fraud continues.
There are cases of identity fraud. The most common perhaps is, if at the end of the month, some ration cardholders do not buy their monthly entitlement (due to illness or travel), the dealer can sell grains thus “saved” at higher market prices. Some state governments have found a simple non-Aadhaar cure for such “savings”. Ration does not lapse for three months - if a ration card holder comes in December to claim November’s grain, the dealer is obliged to give it, making it difficult to siphon off grain.
Another early warning about the dangers of ABBA, acknowledged in UIDAI documents, was regarding biometric failure. For the elderly and for those who do manual work, error rates in biometric matching have been high during trials. Despite these warnings, the previous government and the current one have pushed ABBA aggressively in pensions also.
With old-age pensions, sometimes fingerprints do not match at all, and at other times, the elderly are forced to make repeated attempts, including being told to re-enrol at distant Aadhaar centres. For the elderly, even the niggardly pension (ranging from Rs 200 - Rs 1,400 per month) serves as a lifeline. The hassles – getting an Aadhaar number, opening a new bank account, linking Aadhaar numbers to bank accounts, re-enrolling if biometrics fail etc., sometimes mean that they give up on this crucial support system. In Rajasthan, with pressure to integrate pensions with Aadhaar, old women no longer have the postman delivering it in the village, they have to go to the banks.
In many rural areas there is no public transport. Widows and other single women have become dependent on family members to withdraw their pension. Sometimes, they feel obliged to share a fair part of the pension with whoever was kind enough to take them to the bank and help them withdraw their pension. Pensions were meant to enable them to be independent, to have some resources over which they have full control. The first step towards ABBA – from post offices to banks – has ended up making them dependent again.
On the other hand, in some cases, ABBA in PDS has opened the door to corruption, where with some difficulty corruption was slowly decreasing. In the Ranchi district of Jharkhand, when ABBA commenced in August, only 53% of grain could be sold successfully through it. The reasons for failure are varied – lack of Internet connectivity, server issues, biometric failures etc. The purchase of PDS grain requires six different steps to be successful for an ABBA transaction to be completed.
There has been some improvement since August, but the figure remains well below 90%. Some contend that if the technology works for 90% that’s good enough. But would that be acceptable if we were among the 10% for whom it fails?
Similarly in Rajasthan, ABBA success rate has been stagnating just under 70% between July and October. The rest have not been able to purchase their PDS entitlements. Faced with high failure rates, PDS dealers are instructed to try Aadhaar-based sales until the 25th of each month. So if a transaction didn’t go through the first time, you had to keep going back till it succeeded. Thereafter, sometimes, dealers were given (informal) permission to make manual register-based sales.
Unsurprisingly, dealers do not necessarily convey this information to ration card holders. The uncertainty arising from the dual system opens the door to corruption again. From available data, one cannot tell whether dealers make these manual sales or siphon it off. Are there any checks to ensure that the ABBA-failures have been rectified through manual sales? Ration card holders are told that “machine mana kar rahi hai” (the machine is refusing your transaction). Note that many of these were people who, though vulnerable to quantity fraud, were getting their grain!
Instead of pausing and taking stock of such difficulties, the government is behaving like ostriches. One indicator of this is the food ministry’s data on fake ration cards. The data is unreliable because some states report the number of families deleted, whereas others – West Bengal for example – report the number of persons deleted. The ministry adds up the two different units, reporting it as families deleted. Earlier, low-tech mechanisms to detect fakes and duplicates – painting ration card lists on the gram panchayat walls, which helped residents identify fakes and duplicates, appear to have been abandoned.
ABBA in the PDS and pensions has resulted in exclusion and even corruption, yet it is spreading like a cancer to other welfare programmes. Given the even more tenuous role of Aadhaar in healthcare, school admissions, scholarships etc., the real purpose could well be to create opportunities for data mining, profiling, tracking and even surveillance.
(The writer, a development economist, teaches at IIT-Delhi)