A new study on the use of Aadhaar in the functioning of the Public Distribution System (PDS) in Jharkhand has found that biometric authentication did little to reduce leakages, while increasing the transaction costs for beneficiaries and, more importantly, excluding genuine beneficiaries.
“Overall, biometric authentication in Jharkhand’s ePOS (electronic Point of Sale machines) was not a free lunch: depending on how it was used, it either did not reduce errors of inclusion or leakage or did so at the cost of increased exclusion error,” it states.
Conducted between 2016 and 2018, the study had a sample size of around 4,000 ration cards and was “representative by design” of over 15 million beneficiaries in 17 of the 24 districts of Jharkhand.
Titled ‘Identity verification standards in welfare programs: Experimental evidence from India’, the study was undertaken by three researchers — Karthik Muralidharan and Paul Niehaus (of University of California, San Diego) and Sandip Sukhtankar (of University of Virginia) — and published in US’ National Bureau of Economic Research. It is the first-ever study to have analysed the impact of Aadhaar on a welfare scheme using the Randomised Control Trial (RCT) methodology, popularised by Nobel winners Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, under the aegis of Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL).
Reacting to the findings of the study, economist Jean Drèze said: “The J-PAL study reinforces earlier evidence that compulsory biometric authentication severely disrupted the PDS in Jharkhand, with dire consequences for many poor households. Unfortunately, none of this evidence seems to affect the central government’s determination to impose this technology across the country”. The use of Aadhaar for authenticating beneficiaries in welfare schemes like PDS, which provides subsidised food grains to numerous poor Indians, has been a polarising issue since its inception.
Its proponents have argued that use of Aadhaar would reduce identity frauds (also referred to as ‘ghost ration cards’) and provide significant financial savings for the government. Its opponents, like Drèze, however, have long argued that most of the “leakages” from the PDS were essentially in the form of quantity fraud (for example, fair price shop owners delivering just 2 kg of subsidised rice to a beneficiary instead of the 5 kg that one is entitled to), and not identity fraud. In fact, Dreze and other critics have repeatedly argued that use of Aadhaar is not a solution for curbing quantity fraud, and will lead to a high number of deserving candidates being “excluded by design”. That is because of a variety of issues ranging from poor internet connectivity to failure of biometrics, to the inability of the poor to transition to a more technical-demanding system.
The study estimates ghost accounts at just 3 per cent at most. “This is noteworthy as it suggests that the scope for eliminating leakage by removing ghosts (or non-existent households) from the beneficiary list was relatively limited in this setting,” it states.
In their conclusion, the researchers point to the use of smart cards for PDS delivery — a solution preferred by activists like Drèze — instead of Aadhaar. “Our findings … also caution against a simplistic attempt to characterize the effects of new technologies such as biometric authentication without paying careful attention to design details and to the beneficiary experience,” they state.