Sita of Karkala village, Lassadiya Panchayat, was one of many who spoke at the annual MKSS Mazdoor Mela in Bhim on May 1. “I have no Aadhaar card, I don’t know why they say my fingerprints don’t show. Without Aadhaar, I am denied work under the MGNREGA, and get no rations. I am a single woman, and have no other source of income. What will I eat, and how will I survive?” she said. Her anaemic condition is apparent, and she should be classified as a gross administrative failure, triggering emergency corrective action. But for the ruling elite in Delhi and Jaipur, she is just a digit — one more, or one less in a policy framework they are determined to impose for their own ends.
There are many women who share Sita’s anguish. Though already enrolled in Aadhaar, “voluntarily” as the government would have it, the biometric eco-system, for one reason or another, has failed to authenticate them, denying them access to rations, pensions, work. They speak with the pain and frustration of having repeatedly and unsuccessfully tried to get the rations due to them. Their words carry the clarity of experience and analysis that comes from being the object of a mass experiment where exceptions and exclusions are diabolically counted as proof of success. It doesn’t seem to matter to policymakers that rations, or pensions, so basic and vital to survival, are denied. Their numbers have reached Jaipur and Delhi, to be grandly proclaimed as the “frauds”, the “dead”, the “bogus”, and the “duplicate people”, successfully eliminated by the government, resulting in saving large sums of money.
This is Aadhaar in welfare: A vast mechanism that is turning the government’s dismal failure to deliver into a means of erasing a large number of people. It is part of a new war on poverty, where, instead of eliminating hunger, it is an elimination of the poor and the destitute. The ringmasters in Delhi have found a digital whip that can do no wrong.
Unfortunately, many people still do not understand that the “Aadhaar card” is no card. The government rests all the tall claims of Aadhaar on positive biometric authentication, which even the UIDAI admits is their only reliable service. The challenge of capturing and authenticating on a central server millions of biometric transactions daily gives rise to a host of failures because of biometric mismatch, poor internet connectivity, and machine malfunction. The ration dealer holds the trump card as he knows just how to (mis)represent even a positive answer. The beneficiary is left to carry the blame for all these lacunae, and suffer the karma of exclusion.
The numbers being excluded are staggering. Rajasthan is an enthusiastic and pioneering state for Aadhaar-based “reform”. Seven months of mandatory UID-based foodgrain distribution under the National Food Security Act, and the implementation of JAM — Jan Dhan bank accounts, Aadhaar authentication, and Mobile-based delivery of social security entitlements — have caused chaos and disaster. Since September last year, when UID authentication was made mandatory in the state, the food department website shows that over 25 per cent of ration card holders with Aadhaar seeding have been unable to draw their rations. That amounts to 25 lakh families, or more than a crore of the most vulnerable people. An already shaky and tenuous manual override mechanism, has been even more uncaringly removed two months ago resulting in an additional 5 lakh families being excluded in April and May 2017.
Under the pension “reform”, 10 lakh social security pensioners disappeared from the lists and their pensions were stopped. Under pressure from senior officials to explain why they had not been enrolled, they were classified as “dead”, “duplicates”, or simply “other reasons”. When the MKSS accessed the list, eight out of the 12 people in our village in Rajsamand district classified as “dead” were found to be alive. But their pensions had been stopped. One of the “living dead” was 80-year-old Dakhu Devi, who had not got pensions or rations for eight months. Under great pressure, she got her arrears but was so frail and starved by then that she died soon after. One thousand, three hundred and ten persons out of the 2,900 classified as “dead” or “duplicates” in Bhim Block were found to be alive. Many others had died after their pensions were cut off.
Almost a year later, the government is yet to complete a state-wide re-verification exercise. Many acknowledged by the government to have been wronged are still waiting to receive their full arrears. No action has been taken against the officials who wrongly classified them as dead or duplicates. When a “senior” or vulnerable citizen dies from hunger and destitution due to their lifeline being cut off, should it not be classified as involuntary manslaughter? Should there not be a provision for criminal liability? The Aadhaar act is called the The Targeted Delivery of Financial and other Subsidies, Benefits, and Services Act. Welfare beneficiaries are only the first targets. As Aadhaar enters all other areas of governance, there are going to be many other “targets”, with additional dangers of comprehensive surveillance and commercial exploitation. The vast figures of exclusion of vulnerable people in welfare delivery should have brought the mandatory nature of the programme to a halt long ago. The huge digital machine, however, is heartless, and its spin doctors have learnt to classify all numbers as achievements.
Those calling UIDAI an exercise in “empowering” the poor have obviously not spent even a day in a ration shop in a remote village, or at an MGNREGA work site, or at a bank with a pensioner trying to access her Rs 500 monthly pension. They have not bothered to address the concerns of the 30 lakh excluded families and restore rations to those entitled. If policymakers can’t guarantee inclusion, they must halt this digital nightmare.
The claim that Aadhaar has ended corruption is another misrepresentation of facts. The dealer’s pilferage continues unchallenged by technology. People are bewildered and angry. The administration turns a deaf ear to complaints of exclusion. Thousands of crores are supposed to have been saved in this massive anti-corruption drive, but not a single criminal case has been filed.
It is delusional to celebrate the Aadhaar tidal wave, and criminal to turn a blind eye to hard facts about exclusion. But where is the forum to complain? Parliament has been craftily managed. The Supreme Court’s orders are successfully ignored. The executive has become the law and the executioner.