Monday, February 13, 2017

Linking of Aadhaar to a growing number of government entitlements is misguided - By Swati Narayan

LAST week the Union food ministry issued an unprecedented diktat. It has insisted that each family member must possess an Aadhaar number within four months, to be eligible for subsidised foodgrains under the National Food Security Act. This ties in with the larger plan for all ration shops by 2019 to verify Aadhaar biometrics at every transaction. So, not only must 210 million families possess unique numbers for each member, they must also queue up every month to prove their thumbprints. But does this make any logical sense?

First, the ration dealer can still give less grain than the printed receipt. Only in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu are electronic weighing scales connected to stem “quantity deception”. But they too work only when there is electricity. Besides, the greatest pilferage occurs from godowns, not ration shops.
Second, to weed out ghost cards and “identity fraud,” a one-time exercise to match ration cards with the population census would have been more than sufficient. Already, every single card nationwide has been digitised and two-thirds Aadhaar-seeded to purge 20 million fake cards.

Finally, if the aim was to ensure that unsold foodgrains are not siphoned off with “accounting dodges”, there are far simpler alternatives. Bihar’s barcoded coupons have reduced leakages from 91 to 24 per cent within six short years. Previously, Tamil Nadu had relied on offline handheld billing devices (similar to those with bus conductors). Andhra’s ration shops now use iris scanners, with a lower error rate than biometrics. Instead, the insistence on Aadhaar biometrics has already wreaked havoc. The Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan estimates that in the last few months, 38 per cent of households in Rajasthan have not been able to match fingerprints. In Madhya Pradesh, 20 per cent of devices have malfunctioned and have been returned to vendors. Similarly, in Jharkhand’s capital, at the outset almost half the cardholders were not able to prove their identity. Five hundred leprosy survivors without fingers in Ranchi were insensitively denied foodgrains for three months — for want of fingerprints.

The ouster of these eligible, impoverished families is often then heroically projected as savings. But even the best of technologies are often no match for large-scale insider fraud. Recently, across Karnataka, 45,000 bogus ration cards linked to fictitious 12-digit Aadhaar numbers were discovered. Biometrics are not foolproof — the calloused fingers of labourers and the elderly frequently throw up errors. Aadhaar also requires continuous access to mobile signals or the internet, which is a tall order in rural areas that barely have electricity.

A decade ago, the British Parliament passed the Identity Cards Act. The intent was to create a National Identity Register database of all citizens with biometrics, iris, face scans and longitudinal records of residence. But after public outcry and escalating costs, in 2010, a new coalition government repealed the law and the nascent database was permanently destroyed. Australia and New Zealand too have abandoned the idea of national biometric archives.

India’s Aadhaar project, however, has ballooned since its birth. Surprisingly, the apex court recently ruled that every mobile number should be linked to Aadhaar within a year. From April, Aadhaar will also be a must to demand work under the MGNREGA. The Karnataka government plans to track the progress of every school child with fingerprints. Soon newborns in Maharashtra will also be enrolled for the magic numbers in hospitals. Never mind that their fingerprints and irises are yet to be fully formed.

In this “Big Brother” Aadhaar mania, the HRD ministry has finally sounded the alarm bell. It has questioned the Centre’s push to link these unique numbers to student scholarships, which is in clear violation of earlier Supreme Court orders. Despite the furtive enactment of the Aadhaar Act through the backdoor as a money bill, the apex court has repeatedly pronounced that the unique number must be “purely voluntary” and cannot be made mandatory for any government entitlement, till the matter is sub judice.

India ranks 97 of 118 countries on the Global Hunger Index. Two of every three Indians are guaranteed foodgrains under the National Food Security Act. One of every five rural households depends on MGNREGA work. Let an increasingly Orwellian “Digital India,” in the guise of Aadhaar, not eat into these lifelines.


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