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Why India's Big Fix Is A Big Flub.

Reetika Khera | NYT Syndicate AADHAAR, India's grand programme to provide a unique 12-digit identification number to each of its 1.3 billion residents, appears to be collapsing under its own ambitions. When it was set up by the Congress Party-led government in 2009, it was touted as a voluntary biometric ID system that would ensure the smooth delivery of public services - notably welfare benefits and subsidized food for the poor - while limiting the risk of fraud. The Bharatiya Janata Party, then the main opposition party, was among the project's fiercest critics at first, calling it too costly and a"political gimmick." But after it came to power, in May 2014, the BJP went further than Congress had ever dreamed of: Since then, it has made Aadhaar mandatory for accessing numerous public services, as well as for some private transactions. So far, Aadhaar -"the foundation" in Hindi - seems to have helped neither with welfare nor against corruption, all the while creating new problems, including by exposing people's personal data to theft or predation by the private sector. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court began hearings in a long-running collective case challenging the programme's constitutionality. In their opening statement, the petitioners argued that Aadhaar, if fully implemented, would"reduce citizens to servitude," since not having an Aadhaar number - that"electronic leash" - in effect meant"civil death." On the one hand, having an Aadhaar number does not in itself guarantee access to India's welfare benefits - among the least generous in the world. On the other, the need to have one and to link it to one's various accounts and benefits has prevented some Indians from obtaining state assistance. In September, an 11-year-old girl from Jharkhand died of hunger after her family was struck off the beneficiaries registry because it had failed to link its ration card to an Aadhaar number. (The government has contested this account, claiming the girl died of malaria.) A half-dozen other Indians are reported to have died because of similar reasons. These deaths are the starkest and most tragic example of the system's shortcomings. But many, many thousands of Indians, perhaps even millions, are at risk - if not of dying, at least of losing access to food, pensions or other benefits they sorely need. And all of this, precisely as a result of a system that was supposed to help them get state help. To buy subsidised grain in some states, for example, a beneficiary must authenticate her identity by placing the tip of a finger on a hand-held machine. Collecting a readable fingerprint this way requires functioning electricity, an internet connection and operational servers. In large swathes of rural India, such as in Rajasthan, all of this is a steep ask. Yet if any one of these steps fail, applicants are denied food assistance. Previously, an infirm, older person could send a relative or neighbor with the relevant paperwork as a proxy to collect monthly rations. Now, the biometric identification system requires one's physical presence. In theory, biometric identification could help reduce identity fraud, but there has never been much evidence of large-scale identity fraud in India's welfare programmes. The main problem with, say, the main food aid programme is that officials and intermediaries appear to misreport official disbursements and skim off some of the aid. In a survey of about 2,000 randomly selected households in eight Indian states that the economist Jean Dr'e8ze and I conducted in 2013, the households collected only 87 percent of their entitlements; the rest of the resources were misdirected. There is no evidence that Aadhaar has put a dent in corruption. In our 2017 survey, we found that among households that succeeded in buying grain, skimming levels were the same - about 7 percent - in villages with or without the Aadhaar system. Despite these problems, the administration of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has expanded the reach of Aadhaar over the past year, requiring it for a host of public services beyond welfare benefits - such as to register marriages or file income tax returns. Worse, the government wants to make it compulsory to link bank accounts and mobile phone numbers to Aadhaar numbers. Online shopping portals have also started asking for the ID from Indians simply trying to buy a book or a pair of shoes. Some critics have warned that Aadhaar could turn into an instrument of mass surveillance. At a minimum, it already raises grave concerns about data security and privacy, neither of which is currently protected under Indian law. (The Supreme Court affirmed, in a landmark judgment, that privacy was a fundamental right under the Constitution last year.) The government has admitted that last year millions of Aadhaar numbers had been carelessly displayed on more than 200 government websites. Earlier this month, an investigative reporter for The Tribune newspaper claimed to have found a way to buy unrestricted access to the details of any Aadhaar number for just 500 Indian rupees, about $8, from people operating on the mobile app WhatsApp. Given the many ways in which the Aadhaar system is broken, at the very least it should be made voluntary again, and the data of anyone who opts out should be destroyed. Aadhaar was supposed to showcase the government's forward thinking about efficient administration; it has only exposed the state's coerciveness. It was supposed to ease the poor's access to welfare; it has hurt the neediest. It was supposed to harness technology in the service of development; it has made people's personal data vulnerable. One of the Indian government's biggest banner projects has become a glaring example of all that can go wrong with policy making in this country. (Reetika Khera is a development economist based at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi.)

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Publication:Qatar Tribune (Doha, Qatar)
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Jan 24, 2018
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