Ironically, in the week that the UIDAI revealed its draconian face, serving a legal notice to those who exposed flaws in the Aadhaar eco-system, Ajay Pandey (CEO, UIDAI), wrote, “The critics tend to forget that Aadhaar empowers the people, not the state” (‘Criticisms Without Aadhaar’, IE, May 13). However, government data reveals that Pandey is wrong to believe that “Aadhaar empowers the people”.
Peddling long-debunked assertions on savings as facts without any proof is an old UIDAI strategy. Pandey’s strongest claim, “an independent study by the World Bank”, reportedly estimates that “Aadhaar can potentially save Rs 72,000 crore every year by plugging leakages.” Actually, the study only states that “the value of these transfers is estimated to be Rs 70,000 crores ($11.3 billion) per annum”. There is no estimate of potential savings.
Pandey claims that Aadhaar has “cleansed delivery databases of fakes, duplicates and con men/intermediaries”. Job cards and ration cards cancelled in the course of routine updation (or “cleansing”) drives are attributed to Aadhaar. In fact, in many cases, the cancellation pre-dates integration with Aadhaar. For instance, the 20 lakh cards deleted in 2014-15 in West Bengal are credited to Aadhaar-integration though only 15,000 cards were Aadhaar-seeded on March 2015.
The case of LPG subsidies is well-documented. In July 2015, Chief Economic Advisor (CEA) Arvind Subramanian wrote in The New York Times that cash transfers resulted in “estimated savings of about $2 billion”. Yet, Cabinet Secretariat minutes from November 2015 report only Rs 91 crore savings due to Aadhaar. Later, the CEA himself clarified that it was potential (not actual) savings he had in mind, but the government still uses the earlier figures. The government’s claim on deleted ration cards is also interesting. Out of 1.2 crore deleted cards, 62 lakh were from West Bengal. Here’s the catch: All states (except West Bengal) report the number of cards in terms of families; West Bengal reports individuals. The ministry ignores the difference in units, adds them up, thus inflating the numbers.
Why are governments resorting to such desperate measures to defend Aadhaar? Primarily because during UPA 2, they over-sold the benefits of Aadhaar. For instance, Aadhaar cannot reduce quantity fraud. When a PDS dealer undersells, whether I am forced to put my thumbprint in a paper register or a POS machine makes no difference to quantity fraud.
Aadhaar cannot enhance inclusion. Possession of Aadhaar alone cannot guarantee benefits (say, pensions or scholarships), one still has to meet the eligibility criteria of those programmes. Exclusion from welfare was rarely due to the lack of ID documents (in a response to an RTI query, 99.97 per cent of those who enrolled in Aadhaar did it on the basis of existing ID documents). What Aadhaar can fix is identity fraud — for example, if I illegally get two ration cards or duplicates. But then, Aadhaar is one among several ways of de-duplication, and not the most efficient either — smart cards, or even painting the full list of beneficiaries on panchayat walls works well to identify ghosts and duplicates!
The key question with respect to identity fraud (and the Aadhaar project) is what Senior Advocate Arvind Datar asked the government in court (during the PAN-Aadhaar linkage case), “Did you do any study?” The fact is there is no reliable evidence on the scale of identity fraud in welfare programmes. We are told that people are getting their benefits “directly from the government without middlemen usurping them” due to Aadhaar. Three clarifications are in order: One, benefits under some of the schemes he lists have been credited into bank accounts for years, so middlemen were absent from the payment process to start with. For example, payment of MGNREGA wages into bank and post office accounts became mandatory in 2009. Two, where middlemen existed (pensions delivered by a postman who demanded money), one type of middleman has been replaced by another (banking correspondents have taken the place of postmen). Three, the Aadhaar eco-system is breeding an army of middlemen (enrolment, re-enrolment of biometrics, Aadhaar-seeding, correcting demographic details, etc).
Meanwhile, Aadhaar is also disempowering people. For example, names are being struck off pension lists without people’s knowledge (say, for not submitting their Aadhaar number) or MGNREGA wages get “lost” in the electronic payment system. In Rajasthan, more than 10 per cent of PDS beneficiaries are unable to get their ration after Aadhaar-based Biometric Authentication (ABBA) was introduced. Monthly authentication of any one member is pointless: If someone dies, I can continue to claim their ration. At the very least, the government should move to annual authentication of all members, put people out of their monthly misery. Since 2009, we were lulled into believing that privacy is the price we pay for better welfare programmes. In 2009, the present National Security Advisor A.K. Doval rightly said: “Now, it is being projected as more development-oriented, lest it ruffle any feathers. People would be unwilling to give up their right to privacy.” Welfare, efficiency, transparency, empowerment, etc., was the sugar-coating.
The writer is an associate professor, Economics, at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi