Biometric failures have been recorded in states using Aadhaar as well as non-Aadhaar biometrics

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Excerpts from the paper “Impact of Aadhaar in Welfare Programmes” by Reetika Khera, economist and social scientist, Sulaiman Mutawa Associate Chair Professor at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences of Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi:

Aadhaar-integration is planned in two ways.

One, “Aadhaar-seeding” refers to adding an Aadhaar number field to the Management Information System (MIS) that is used to administer these programmes. This is supposed to be a one-off activity, yet it is not quite as simple as it sounds. For each scheme, each entitled person needs to be informed of what is needed, a range of supporting documents may be required, the number may not be correctly entered, etc. Further, in many cases, re-enrolment of biometrics has been necessary as fingerprints or iris scans become outdated. Aadhaar-seeding can help with eliminating identity fraud by weeding out ‘bogus’ beneficiaries (e.g., dead, non-existent persons etc.). Once 100% Aadhaar-seeding is achieved, beneficiaries in the MIS without Aadhaar numbers are deemed to be bogus and are deleted.

Two, Aadhaar-Based Biometric Authentication (ABBA) refers to the practice of installing a Point of Sale (POS) machine with a fingerprint reader and authenticating a person each time she accesses her entitlements. For instance, at the time of purchase of Public Distribution System (PDS) grain each month, any one person listed on the ration card needs to authenticate themselves; similarly for pensions, elderly persons must go to the point of delivery (e.g., post office or Gram Panchayat office) to authenticate themselves. ABBA serves the role of signatures (in the earlier preAadhaar days). ABBA on POS machines is currently a monthly activity, so each of its attendant technologies (correct Aadhaar-seeding, mobile connectivity, electricity, functional POS machines and UIDAI servers and fingerprint recognition) need to work for a person to get her entitlement.

ABBA is contributing to exclusion from the PDS in a number of ways.

One, families or individuals without Aadhaar numbers cannot register, so they cannot get the rations to which they are legally entitled. In Delhi, for instance, if the aadhaar number is not given names are not included on the National Food Security Act (NFSA). Central government directive requires that as long as any one member’s Aadhaar number is linked, everyone listed on the ration card will get grain. While Jharkhand follows this rule, in Delhi, Andhra Pradesh and Rajasthan, the quantity of ration provided is according to the number of Aadhaar numbers that are linked to the ration card. Missing Aadhaar numbers mean ration is cut.

Two, outright exclusion can also be because no member of the family is “POS-able”, (a POSable person is one who is Aadhaar-linked and whose fingerprints are recognized by the POS machine). Biometric failures have been recorded in states using Aadhaar as well as non-Aadhaar biometrics (e.g., in Gujarat).

Apart from these field studies, questions in Parliament also corroborate some of these issues: e.g., the government stated that in Rajasthan, in February 2017, “78% of NFSA beneficiaries have been provided wheat through POS transactions” and it is claimed there that there were alternate arrangements (e.g., One-Time Password, OTP) for the others. The government admitted that “the disruption in the Aadhaar authentication services in Rajasthan” were on account of “inadequate server capacity of the Rajasthan Government”, ‘insufficient lease line capacity”, “poor mobile signal at POS devices”, “incorrect seeding of Aadhaar numbers in PDS database”, etc..

Official data from Rajasthan shows that, from July 2016 to June 2017, between 25-30% of one crore cardholders in the state (accounting for 12-35% of allotted grain), do not buy grain from PDS outlets. Earlier studies show that demand for PDS grain is high, and that eligible households would not purchase PDS grain only under very compelling circumstances (e.g., entire family being out in a particular month). The state food portal does not show whether of those who did not buy in any particular month, any of them tried at all.

Apart from outright exclusion, ABBA is leading to sporadic denial of ration and higher transaction costs. E.g., only those members whose Aadhaar number is seeded in the PDS database can withdraw rations. Technology failures (e.g., connectivity, failure of fingerprint authentication, server issues etc.) also contribute to these problems.

A recent survey of 900 households in Jharkhand corroborates the findings that when ABBA works for entitled households, it comes with higher transaction costs and little protection against quantity fraud. Those who are excluded by ABBA tend to be the most vulnerable – elderly who cannot walk, widow with young children, etc.

National Rural Employment Guarantee Act

While the gains from Aadhaar-integration are dubious, it has led to several new problems in the implementation of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA). Work can only be registered through the MIS, and the MIS requires the Aadhaar number of an applicant to proceed. Further, for payments to be processed, correct Aadhaar-seeding in the MIS and at banks is required. This has led to hardship, especially for those who are unaware of these requirements.

It has been nobody’s business to inform NREGA workers of what is required of them. The administrative arrangements for this are inadequate (e.g., the task of seeding as well as routine NREGA work falls on the same person), so ultimately the whole programme has suffered from a slowdown. In some cases, the re-engineering of NREGA to make it Aadhaar compliant has meant that workers job cards are deleted.

In others, wrong seeding has led to delays in payment (even non-payment) of wages. Adding to the confusion, due to multiple waves of enthusiasm over ‘financial inclusion’ over the years, workers have ended up with several accounts. The bank account in the NREGA MIS may be different from the one that is Aadhaar seeded. For these reasons, wages are either seriously delayed, rejected or, even ‘lost’. The MIS shows that the worker has been paid, but when workers enquire at the bank, their account has not been credited.

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Ritika Khera

A Glimpse of future disruption

Currently, the government only wants to ensure that children enrol for Aadhaar by making it compulsory for midday meals. Even the push towards enrolment is likely to be hugely disruptive – it will likely derail not just the mid-day meal programme, but also educational activities in schools. Teachers and (over-stretched) school administration will be forced to make arrangements for Aadhaar enrolment. Once that is done, Aadhaar-seeding will waste their time.

ABBA in schools has not yet been fully operationalized. If the government proposes to move towards daily ABBA before serving meals in the future, the move will cause further damage. The technology failures discussed earlier (connectivity, authentication failures) can arise here too resulting in a waste of time as well as exclusion. Some glimpses of what lies ahead were visible in a residential school for tribal children in Jharkhand, where ABBA had started.

Out of 232 enrolled children, 190 were Aadhaar-linked. Out of these though, while the online real-time portal was showing that only 132 students were present, in fact, a headcount at the school resulted in about 230 children being counted. Thus, out of the 190 who were registered, not all were being recognized by the machine. Similar numbers came up at other residential schools in the area. In yet others, due to lack of electricity the machine was not being used, teachers complained of time wasted due to the slowness of the system etc.

Download full paper HERE

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