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In its current form, Aadhaar is very coercive and invasive: Jean Dreze

Sadiq Naqvi | Updated on: 5 August 2017, 19:51 IST
(Ramesh Pathania/Mint/Getty Images)

The Supreme Court of India is inching towards a decision on whether privacy is a fundamental right - a debate that has popped up because of the various policies surround the Aadhaar that are being introduced on a daily basis.

The ruling, which is expected in the next few days, will have ramifications on the fate of the ambitious programme, which has come under severe criticism. Its detractors, which include civil rights activists, have spoken of how such a unified database could have serious consequences on the rights of an individual - of how it could lead to a surveillance state.

The authorities, meanwhile, have been taking on the criticism by taking recourse to arguments like how "there is nothing private in this online era" while also claiming how there are safeguards built in the Aadhaar Act to ensure that it is not misused.

Meanwhile, in states like Jharkhand, Aadhaar Based Biometric Authentication (ABBA) has become a must for anyone who wants to avail services and subsidies like the PDS.

Recently, a group of independent researchers, including economist Jean Dreze, conducted a survey to take stock of the programme in the state. The initial findings of the survey found that some of the poor could not access PDS since ABBA was enforced due to several issues including problems with biometrics, even as the older issues of leakages remain.

UIDAI, meanwhile, has defended Aadhaar by claiming that blaming Aadhaar for exclusion is like barking up the wrong tree when the Aadhaar Act has provisions that no Aadhaar holder is left out. And that how those who have not registered themselves have voluntary decided to forego the benefits.

Catch decided to speak to Jean Dreze about the issue. Excerpts from the interview:

What are the key findings of the survey?

The survey data are yet to be analysed, but some tentative conclusions can be drawn from the fieldwork and debriefing workshop. The good news is that Jharkhand's public distribution system has radically improved during the last few years.

Today, most rural families have a ration card and receive the bulk of their entitlements every month. For a state where the PDS was virtually non-functional ten years ago, this is a major achievement, even if many irregularities remain.

The bad news is that the recent imposition of Aadhaar-based biometric authentication (ABBA) on the public distribution system in Jharkhand is not helping to remove the remaining irregularities. Private dealers continue to take a cut from the cardholders, much as before - biometric authentication is powerless to prevent that. Meanwhile, ABBA has created new problems.

One major problem is the exclusion of a significant minority of people for whom the system does not work. Even in Ranchi district, where the system has been in place for a whole year, more than 10% of cardholders are still unable to buy their monthly rations, according to the Jharkhand government's own website. Further, those who are excluded tend to come from the most vulnerable sections of the population, for whom the PDS is a critical lifeline.

Another problem is that ABBA creates considerable inconvenience and waste of time even for those who are able to use the system, especially in areas with poor connectivity.

Has Aadhaar been able to weed out corruption in PDS? Or is it that it has given rise to new corrupt practices?

As I said, the cuts continue much as before. That was the main source of corruption, and it continues more or less unchanged, although there is a sustained trend of declining cuts over time, independent of Aadhaar.

During the last few months, however, ABBA has been associated with a new form of corruption. Every month, rice is sent to PDS dealers according to the number of ration cards on their list. Most of it gets distributed, but whenever people are unable to buy their rations, due to biometric failure or other glitches, there is a surplus. This surplus, it appears, is simply appropriated by the dealers.

In theory, the government is supposed to adjust it against the next month’s allocation, but in practice, these monthly adjustments are not being made, at least not yet. This means that a significant proportion of PDS rice is being siphoned off by private dealers every month. It may be a temporary problem, but it has already gone on for many months, and it shows how ABBA sometimes enhances corruption instead of reducing it.

Time and again, the government says that the number of people who cannot transact after Aadhaar is minuscule. It has said that this is maybe because all of these people may have migrated or are not going to the PDS dealers. What does the survey show?

The government's own website shows that the proportion of people who are unable to buy their food rations at the moment is at least 10%, probably more. On this, the official data are consistent with the field survey. That may not seem like a very large number, but in absolute terms, it translates into something like 2.5 million people in Jharkhand being deprived of their food rations.

The idea that most of these people are excluded because they have migrated, or because they don’t show up at the ration shop, makes little sense, and receives no support from the survey. The survey also brings out that many of those who are excluded belong to the most vulnerable groups. That is perhaps the most serious problem with the biometric system.

Is Aadhaar necessarily a bad idea or is it just not being implemented right?

I would say that it is a bad idea in its present form, no matter how you implement it. I am not opposed to a voluntary Aadhaar card, as an optional identity document delinked from biometric authentication. In its current form, however, Aadhaar is very coercive and invasive. Having said this, these are larger issues. Our immediate concern is with the damage ABBA is doing to the public distribution system in Jharkhand.

Jharkhand data says an overwhelming majority of people have Aadhaar. Do you not see these exclusion issues as teething trouble and expect them to resolve as people adapt to the system?

It is true that most people in Jharkhand have Aadhaar. The survey itself corroborates that. The fact remains that transaction failures are common. They can happen for a variety of reasons: faulty Aadhaar seeding, poor connectivity, biometric failures, server problems, breakdown of the PoS machine, to mention a few. Some of these problems, for instance faulty seeding, can be resolved, but others, such as biometric failures, are more resilient.

That is why transaction rates are still well below 100% even in Ranchi district, one year after ABBA became mandatory. It is also the reason why the government is finding it difficult to extend the system to the entire state. Many areas are still “offline”.

What should the government do to ensure nobody gets excluded?

My sense is that a simpler, well-tested technology such as smart cards would be more appropriate for Jharkhand. A well-designed smart card system would deliver most of the benefits of ABBA, without the problems associated with ABBA's dependence on biometrics and the internet.

The main benefit, in both cases, is reliable recording of transactions. ABBA supposedly has the added advantage that fingerprints, unlike a smart card, cannot be appropriated by someone else. But I doubt very much that many people would part with their PDS smart card if they had one.

Further, the fact that ABBA prevents anyone from collecting rations in your name is not necessarily a good thing. For old people, being able to let a neighbour or relative go to the ration shop on their behalf is an important facility. In that respect, smart cards would be better than ABBA. West Bengal is planning to try smart cards in the PDS, let us hope that this shows a possible way forward.

First published: 5 August 2017, 19:51 IST
 
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