he central government has been invoking Section 7 of the Aadhaar Act to push for its compulsory use in the National Food Security Act, National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, and other cash transfer programmes such as maternity entitlements and social security pensions.
There are two steps in this process: One, “seeding”, or linking Aadhaar numbers with the names of all beneficiaries, and two, compulsory Aadhaar-based biometric authentication (ABBA) each time people draw benefits. What is the rationale for ‘seeding’ and ABBA in these programmes?
As far as seeding is concerned, the reason given is to weed out ‘duplicate’ and ‘ghost’ beneficiaries. But the government is mum on estimates of ghosts and duplicates. In the early years, when Aadhaar was being pushed through the back door, there was no clinching evidence of the existence of ghosts and duplicates. The case was made out entirely on anecdotal evidence. In late 2017, the Odisha government released data according to which 27,000 duplicate ration cards (about 0.3% per cent of the total in circulation) were cancelled. The benefits of weeding duplicates out is likely to be small, but it has already caused hardship, cancellation of cards and the death of 11-year-old Santoshi in Jharkhand.
Even more damning is the use of ABBA each time beneficiaries draw rations. This means that when any member listed on the ration card goes to the PDS outlet, there must be electricity, internet connectivity, the servers of the food department and of UIDAI must be available and biometric authentication must be successful. If any one of these fails, the person has to try again. This has created exclusion and hardship, which is by now well documented. In villages of Jharkhand which were forced to adopt ABBA, exclusion is estimated to be five times higher than in villages where it is not compulsory. (Seven hunger-related deaths since September 2017 have been linked to Aadhaar related failures.)
What is even more striking is that ABBA has done nothing to reduce corruption. There was a time when the dealer would make entries for full sales, make people authenticate this, but actually give people less. As people became aware, and states — including Odisha — initiated PDS reforms, such cheating declined substantially. According to official data, PDS leakages in Odisha fell from over 75 per cent in 2004-05 to about 20 per cent in 2011-12, the latest year for which data is available. According to our own survey in 2016, people were getting almost their full ration.
In the pre-ABBA days, people going to ration shops either placed their signature or made their thumb impression on a register to ‘authenticate’ receipt of allocated ration. With ABBA, the paper register has been replaced with a ‘point of sale’ (POS) machine. But people are still forced to authenticate full sale electronically. This is what two large surveys found in Jharkhand. ABBA cannot stop quantity fraud in PDS.
In fact it has increased waiting time, number of trips and other transaction costs for those dependent on PDS. ABBA in PDS has been ‘pain without gain’.
As far as social security pensions are concerned, different states have different modes of payment in place. In some states, pensions are paid by post (either as money orders or into post office accounts), in others it is by cash; yet others use bank accounts.
Pension payment is another area in which the central government is pushing Aadhaar, even when some states have expressed reservations. For instance, in Odisha, pensions are paid each month through panchayat offices by the panchayat secretary. The system works, is convenient for pensioners who get their pension (more or less) at their doorsteps and regularly, with little evidence of corruption. It makes no sense to push feeble, old people to post offices and banks that are farther away and often not as accessible by public transport as panchayat offices and towards a system that requires internet connectivity and biometrics.
Evidence from Jharkhand demonstrates the problems with integrating Aadhaar with pension payments. Sometimes names of pensioners were struck off when they failed to submit their Aadhaar numbers (either because no one informed them, or even if they were informed, they were unable to do the running around to link Aadhaar with bank accounts and the welfare department). In other cases, errors during the linking process meant disruption or discontinuation of pension payments (for example, even a single digit of the Aadhaar number being entered incorrectly will cause such problems). Mismatch between the age as recorded by the welfare department (which administers pensions) and the Aadhaar ‘card’ or database can also lead to disruption until the mismatch is rectified. It is worth recalling, that all these requirements are being imposed on aged people, who are often least informed about these requirements, and even when they are informed may find it difficult to complete formalities without help from an able-bodied person.
In the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) also, the wage payment mechanism is in similar disarray owing to the integration of Aadhaar with the existing bank payments system.
Section 7 of the Aadhaar Act is a key challenge in the Aadhaar case in the Supreme Court. The cases discussed show there is some truth in Virginia Eubanks’s argument in ‘Automating Inequality’ that when welfare became a legal right in the US, it led to an increase in welfare spending. The response of the reluctant political class was to make welfare administration more technology-driven, in the hope that the technocratic process would create the necessary barriers to help bring down the welfare numbers (and budget) within what was politically acceptable. Similarly, nearly two decades ago, legal scholar Daniel Solove argued that the correct metaphor for databases is not so much Orwell’s ‘Big Brother’, but rather Kafka’s ‘The Trial’ to signify the disempowerment and loss of control over one’s life. Aadhaar is both. In welfare, centralised administrative control disempowers the poor as we have seen in Jharkhand and Odisha, at the cost of their lives.
The writer teaches economics at IIT Delhi.