The Supreme Court verdict that Aadhaar cannot be made mandatory to receive benefits reflects the concern that it may increase exclusion errors, either by leaving people out of the net or through technological malfunction. Is this a serious concern?
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A legitimate concern in the early days of UIDAI (Unique Identification Authority of India) was that it too might exclude millions of Indians who have no acceptable proof of ID. That was the genesis of the “Introducer” concept, which allows such residents to enroll based on affidavits by certain designated “well-known” persons. Unfortunately, local Registrars responsible for appointing Introducers have had no incentive to actualise the concept and consequently very few people have been enrolled using this exception route.
Yet, looking at statistics presented by the government (example, 93% of adults enrolled to date) it seems that UIDAI has found other ways to enroll such vulnerable groups. It will likely make more special efforts to do so in the coming months, as now required by the Aadhaar Law. There is already talk of special enrolment camps and mobile enrolment vans to reach out to remote/infirm populations.
Given the above, I have a lot more confidence today that Aadhaar will indeed cover the last mile to reach previously excluded groups. Looking back, however, had NGOs that work with under-served communities taken a more proactive role in the enrolment process, faster progress could have been made on this front. Sadly, many prominent NGO leaders have taken an adversarial view of Aadhaar, and UIDAI on its part has been reluctant to welcome NGOs as true partners.
In the meantime, it is worth noting that the Aadhaar Law requires that no one otherwise eligible for government subsidies may be turned back just because they do not have Aadhaar. UIDAI has recently made reference to this provision as well as to potential exclusions due to technology failures and has stated that the upcoming Aadhaar Regulations will make adequate provisions to mitigate exclusion errors.
The Supreme Court did nothing more than to give a plausible interpretation to the government’s repeated claim that Aadhaar is voluntary. If Aadhaar is voluntary, then surely it cannot be made mandatory for basic services that people are entitled to as a matter of right. Even if making Aadhaar mandatory did not lead to exclusion errors, citizens should still have a right to freedom from State surveillance.
As it happens, it is also the case that making Aadhaar compulsory leads to major exclusion problems. I have seen this at close range in Jharkhand. To illustrate, when MNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) functionaries came under pressure to achieve 100% “Aadhaar seeding” of Job Cards, they cancelled Job Cards en masse to achieve the target. An experiment to pay social security pensions through Aadhaar-enabled Business Correspondents in Ratu Block had to be discontinued, partly due to biometric failures. Last but not least, Aadhaar-enabled “Point-of-Sale” machines are threatening to disrupt the Public Distribution System (PDS), right in the middle of a drought year. The failures rates are really high, even just outside Ranchi.
Aadhaar is a wholly inappropriate technology for Jharkhand and especially rural Jharkhand. For one thing, it creates a permanent and ubiquitous dependence on internet connectivity. This dependence has already proved disastrous (before Aadhaar) in various contexts, including the implementation of MNREGA. In order to work, Aadhaar authentication requires not only internet connectivity but also biometrics and mobiles to work at the same time. In many villages of Jharkhand, not one of these technologies can be relied on. The result is not just an “exclusion” problem, but inconvenience and uncertainty for everyone.
With Aadhaar enrolment exceeding a billion people the lack of an Aadhaar ID is unlikely to be a cause for exclusion errors. The key question is whether ID authentication is reliable and speedy for it to be used in all locations and contexts. Where it is not, it may lead to exclusion errors. A more subtle form of exclusion may arise if Aadhaar identification requires institutions (example, banks instead of post offices) that are not customarily accessed.
The exclusion errors with Aadhaar should be compared with the exclusion errors that exist currently. The procedures for obtaining other forms of identification (example, ration card for food subsidies) are cumbersome and so Aadhaar will do better on this score.
Given that the a priori case for Aadhaar
in MNREGA, PDS and social security pensions was so weak, it is not surprising that its imposition has caused disruption and exclusion in these programmes. Emerging evidence shows how Aadhaar
is hurting existing welfare programmes and beneficiaries. I have written about it here
The most heart-breaking case is that of linking old age, widow and disability pensions with Aadhaar. The work of Rinku Murgai and her co-authors has shown corruption has not been a serious issue in the pensions programme. The government’s insistence on linking it with Aadhaar has caused grievous disruption and exclusion. The necessary paperwork is difficult for old people; the technology is unreliable (biometrics, server and connectivity issues). This has resulted in irregularity of payments for some people and increased transaction costs (because instead of getting it at their doorstep, they have to find a way to reach the bank) in Rajasthan, who were earlier getting pensions reliably. Here, the lesson is – if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it.
Similar instances of exclusion and disruption are also appearing in MNREGA (example, Jharkhand, Karnataka
) and PDS (Andhra Pradesh
). If a priori there was a role for Aadhaar
in these programmes one could have set them aside as teething problems.