By Jean Drèze and Sneha Menon
Aadhaar-based biometric authentication was recently made compulsory for users of the Public Distribution System (PDS) in Ranchi District, Jharkhand. This involves installing “Point of Sale” (PoS) machines at PDS outlets, and verifying the identity of cardholders by matching their fingerprints against the Aadhaar database over the internet.
The government’s own data, easily accessible from its exemplary NFSA website, suggest that the system has run into serious trouble. In July 2016, NFSA cardholders in Ranchi District received barely half of their foodgrain entitlements from the PDS (see Annexure). A similar pattern emerges from updated calculations for August (available on request), when NFSA cardholders received just 53% of their entitlements through the PoS system.
This failure is likely to reflect the inappropriate nature of Aadhaar technology for rural Jharkhand. The new system requires many fragile technologies to work at the same time: the PoS machine, the internet, the biometrics, remote servers, and the mobile network. In addition, the data groundwork (including Aadhaar seeding) must have been done correctly. In Jharkhand, where there are huge connectivity problems even in the state capital, these conditions are very demanding. No wonder, then, that many people are finding themselves deprived of their PDS entitlements.
It is not clear whether those for whom the system does not work are getting any rice through the old “registers” system. Officially, that is not allowed, according to local dealers and officials. Even if it happens unofficially, this “dual system”, where some PDS grain goes through the PoS system and the rest through the fallback register system, is the worst. The reason is that only the dealers know the modalities of the fallback register system, and they have no incentive to explain it to the cardholders. Quite likely, the new system has revived corruption in the PDS, in a state where much progress had been made, in recent years, in fighting PDS corruption through other means.
Short of going from house to house, we found it virtually impossible to understand whether PDS dealers are still doing, and allowed to do, register transactions. Enquiries from cardholders in several villages of Ratu Block suggest that very little rice, if any, is reaching them outside the PoS system.
Incidentally, Supreme Court orders prohibit Aadhaar being made mandatory for the PDS. The Court did allow Aadhaar to be used in the PDS (e.g. for deduplication), but not making it compulsory – this would violate earlier orders that prohibit Aadhaar being made compulsory for any public service to which people are otherwise entitled. Nor can the government invoke the Aadhaar Act to justify this move: the relevant section of the Act (Section 7) is yet to be notified.
None of this, unfortunately, seems to be deterring the state government. Despite growing evidence (not only from Jharkhand but also from other states, especially Rajasthan) that Aadhaar-based PoS machines can turn into minor weapons of mass destruction as far as the PDS is concerned, the government is planning to extend this technology to the entire state within a few months.
A case study
On 26 August 2016, we made a surprise visit a PDS shop in Ratu Block, just outside Ranchi. This block has a much better record of PoS transactions than the district average. We visited the PDS shop closest to the block headquarters, among those that were open that day. In other words, this was a best-case environment for the new system.
Yet, within minutes we were surrounded by a small crowd of women and men who complained bitterly that they were unable to collect their PDS rations, for a range of reasons:
No UID: Some households (not many in Hurhuri), known as UID-less, have no UID, or are yet to get one of their UIDs “seeded”, i.e. entered in the system and linked with their ration card.
Faulty seeding: Some households had one or more UIDs seeded, yet the system does not work for them because of data entry errors.
Biometric failure: Sometimes the system does not work, despite correct UID seeding, because of fingerprint recognition problems.
“Zero quantity”: Even after successful biometric authentication, the PoS machine often returns a “zero quantity” message. The reason for this was not clear.
Miscellaneous error messages: Sometimes the machine returns error messages that neither the dealer nor the cardholder are able to understand.
In addition to this, the system sometimes fails due to connectivity problems, remote server failures, machine defects or other glitches.
Some of the testimonies were heart-rending. Consider Charo Oraon, an old man who lives alone and finds it hard to make ends meet. Charo had been trying his luck repeatedly that month from 16 August (chawal divas, when distribution officially starts). His fingerprints just don’t work. He has received no PDS grain since the new system was introduced – none in June, July or August. Before June, he used to get it through the old register system. Until August, he had no UID; now he has a UID but biometric authentication is not working for him.
Even those for whom the system works face huge inconvenience. Often they have to make repeated trips to the PDS shop, or send different members in turn, until the machine cooperates. Sometimes they have to ask school children to skip classes to try their luck at the PDS shop. This unreliable system causes a colossal waste of time for everyone.
Incidentally, the time-waste factor applies to PDS dealers as well. In this PDS shop, the dealer used to be able to distribute the monthly quota within 4 days. Now, he said, he has to distribute almost continuously, because it is difficult to manage more than 15-25 transactions per day. This is not an exaggeration: the PDS website – as of 26 August – confirms that this dealer distributed grain every day from the 16th (chawal divas), with an average of 17 transactions per day. This waste of time gives dealers a ready excuse to siphon off some grain, just to recover their costs.
By the end of the month, only 282 successful transactions had occurred in this PDS shop according to the website, against 500 ration cards. Contacted on the phone, the dealer claimed that he actually managed 419 transactions. The reasons for this discrepancy are unclear.