Aadhaar: India's big fix or big flub?

Aadhaar: India's big fix or big flub?

Aadhaar: India's big fix or big flub?

Aadhaar, India's grand programme to provide a unique 12-digit identification number to each of the country's 1.3 billion residents, appears to be collapsing under its own ambitions.

When it was set up by the Congress-led UPA government in 2009, it was touted as a voluntary biometric ID system that would ensure the smooth delivery of public services - notably welfare benefits and subsidised food for the poor - while limiting the risk of fraud.

The Bharatiya Janata Party, then the main opposition party, was among the project's fiercest critics at first, calling it too costly and a "political gimmick." But after it came to power, in May 2014, the BJP went further than the Congress had ever dreamed of: since then, it has made Aadhaar mandatory for accessing numerous public services, as well as for some private transactions.

So far, Aadhaar - "the foundation" in Hindi - seems to have helped neither with welfare nor against corruption, all the while creating new problems, including by exposing people's personal data to theft or predation by the private sector.

Last Wednesday, the Supreme Court began hearings in a long-running collective case challenging the programme's constitutionality. In their opening statement, the petitioners argued that Aadhaar, if fully implemented, would "reduce citizens to servitude," since not having an Aadhaar number - that "electronic leash" - in effect meant "civil death."

Failed system

On the one hand, having an Aadhaar number does not in itself guarantee access to the country's welfare benefits - among the least generous in the world. On the other, the need to have one and to link it to one's various accounts and benefits has prevented some citizens from obtaining state assistance.

Several states require people to enlist in Aadhaar before they can claim rice or wheat at subsidised prices under the Public Distribution System, an important source of food security in the country's poorer areas. Among them is Jharkhand, where only about 7% of residents aged 6 to 23 get an adequate diet.

In September, an 11-year-old girl there died of hunger after her family was struck off the beneficiaries registry because it had failed to link its ration card to an Aadhaar number. (The government has contested this account, claiming the girl died of malaria.) A half-dozen other Indians are reported to have died because of similar reasons.

These deaths are the starkest and most tragic example of the system's shortcomings. But many, many thousands of Indians, perhaps even millions, are at risk - if not of dying, at least of losing access to food, pensions or other benefits they sorely need. And all of this, precisely as a result of a system that was supposed to help them get state help.

To buy subsidised grain in some states, for example, a beneficiary must authenticate her identity by placing the tip of a finger on a hand-held machine. Collecting a readable fingerprint this way requires functioning electricity, an internet connection and operational servers. In large swathes of rural India, such as in Rajasthan, all of this is a steep ask. Yet, if any one of these steps fails, applicants are denied food assistance.

Previously, an infirm, older person could send a relative or neighbour with the relevant paperwork as a proxy to collect monthly rations. Now, the biometric identification system requires one's physical presence.

In 2017, several economists and I conducted a survey of 900 households in Jharkhand, comparing villages that did and did not implement the Aadhaar system for buying grain. We discovered that the percentage of households that failed to obtain any grain at all was five times higher in the villages where Aadhaar authentication was compulsory (20%) than in those where it was not (4%).

In theory, biometric identification could help reduce identity fraud, but there has never been much evidence of large-scale identity fraud in India's welfare programmes.

The main problem with, say, the main food aid programme is that officials and intermediaries appear to misreport official disbursements and skim off some of the aid.

In a survey of about 2,000 randomly selected households in eight states that the economist Jean Drèze and I conducted in 2013, the households collected only 87% of their entitlements; the rest of the resources were misdirected.

There is no evidence that Aadhaar has put a dent in corruption. In our 2017 survey, we found that among households that succeeded in buying grain, skimming levels were the same - about 7% - in villages with or without the Aadhaar system.

Expanding presence

Despite these problems, Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led NDA government has expanded the reach of Aadhaar over the past year, requiring it for a host of public services beyond welfare benefits - such as to register marriages or file income tax returns.

Worse, the government wants to make it compulsory to link bank accounts and mobile phone numbers to Aadhaar numbers. Online shopping portals have also started asking for the ID from people simply trying to buy a book or a pair of shoes.

Some critics have warned that Aadhaar could turn into an instrument of mass surveillance. At a minimum, it already raises grave concerns about data security and privacy, neither of which is currently protected under Indian law. (The Supreme Court affirmed, in a landmark judgment, that privacy was a fundamental right under the Constitution last year.)

The government has admitted that last year millions of Aadhaar numbers had been carelessly displayed on more than 200 government websites. Earlier this month, an investigative reporter for The Tribune newspaper claimed to have found a way to buy unrestricted access to the details of any Aadhaar number for just Rs 500, from people operating on WhatsApp.

Given the many ways in which the Aadhaar system is broken, at the very least it should be made voluntary again, and the data of anyone who opts out should be destroyed.

Aadhaar was supposed to showcase the government's forward thinking about efficient administration; it has only exposed the state's coerciveness. It was supposed to ease the poor's access to welfare; it has hurt the neediest. It was supposed to harness technology in the service of development; it has made people's personal data vulnerable.

One of the government's biggest banner projects has become a glaring example of all that can go wrong with policy-making in this country.

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