Professor Reetika Khera is a development economist. Her work on the implementation of welfare schemes has deepened our understanding of India’s social policy interventions. The time period in which she has worked overlaps with the boom of application information technology in development in India. Her work becomes a critical commentary to evaluate which of these technologies enhance administrative capacity and which ones diminish it. Along with others, her work has been instrumental in the promulgation of legislations like the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (2005) and the National Food Security Act (2013).
Can you describe your work in rural India?
All of my research in the past 15 years or so has been on social policy in rural India. With a large number of highly motivated and idealistic students from across the country, we have been conducting surveys on welfare programmes such as the Public Distribution System (PDS) which provides subsidized grain and in some states, pulses and edible oil too, to people; the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), mid-day meals, anganwadis, social security pensions, etc. Some of these surveys have included an ‘action’ component – e.g., social audits of government records, public hearings and grievance redressal camps, etc.
What are the most common difficulties that result from linking Aadhaar to essential services in rural India?
Most people have managed to get Aadhaar, but the very few who haven’t are really the most vulnerable – e.g., around Christmas, in Surguja District, I met Kapil Paikra who has been bedridden since 2009 because of a bad accident. Aadhaar barely existed at the time! He has not enrolled for Aadhaar because of his condition. Now because it has been made compulsory, and his share of PDS rice has been discontinued.
“Seeding”, i.e., linking your Aadhaar number can also be a pain for people – due to connectivity, errors in data entry, and sometimes they also have to pay a fee to get it done. Rather than being a one-off exercise, it can be a repeated nuisance for these reasons. (In fact, for some even enrolment is not a one off exercise either, because when their biometrics change, they have to re-enroll their biometrics.)
Another headache is errors in the demographic data – e.g., if their name has been misspelt, or their date of birth is wrong, getting that corrected can be a nightmare. This is necessary for cash transfers (such as social security pensions), because if there’s a mismatch between the information as recorded in your bank account and your Aadhaar card, then your pensions can be disrupted or discontinued.
Finally, all of this has given rise to a thriving industry of middlemen. In Visakhapatnam, enrolment, re-enrolment, corrections, seeding, etc. shops have mushroomed at the Mandal level. Sometimes they charge more than the officially prescribed rates. Others may charge for services that are supposed to be free.
In Alwar, the “customer service center” (E-Mitra) is given an “incentive fee” for seeding, but not for disbursal of pensions or NREGA wages. As a result, when an old couple came to withdraw their pension, the E-Mitra he gruffly declared to them “today is not the day for disbursal of pensions, come tomorrow!”.
What are the most serious manifestations of Aadhaar failures shown in your research?
Aadhaar technology is not suited for the sort of applications that it is being made compulsory – for instance, even in metros connectivity can be a problem. In rural areas its much worse. In Delhi, we have met bureaucrats who say that after trying thrice to authenticate their fingerprint in Krishi Bhawan, they give up and don’t bother. This problem, again, is much worse for rural folks who perform hard manual work all their lives.
Another unintended consequence of this insistence on biometric authentication is that it has enhanced the power of the disbursal agent (whether it is the E-Mitra or the PDS dealer) over people – e.g., we have seen instances of when the dealer may lie that the fingerprint authentication has failed when in fact it has been successful. Then the person is turned away without their rations.
What’s worse is that because this is technology that centralizes control, it prevents grievance redressal at the local level. Even when the PDS dealer is honest, he may not be able to figure out what a particular error code (there are up to 50 error codes!) on the Point of Sale machine means and how that problem can be fixed!
Here are some stories of deprivation caused due to Aadhaar discovered during our work in Jharkhand
What would your recommendation be with regard to the Aadhaar linking with essential services?
Aadhaar must go from these programmes. Our most recent survey in Jharkhand looked at the integration of Aadhaar Based Biometric Authentication (ABBA) in the PDS. We find that monthly authentication achieves nothing, while causing a lot of hardship – pain without gain. If everything works smoothly, then people are left where they were before Aadhaar was introduced. But the fact is that things do not work smoothly for a large number of people and that can mean anything from denial of grains to even death: there have been at least four Aadhaar-related deaths – Santoshi Kumari, Rupal Marandi, Premani Kunwar and Etwariya Devi – in Jharkhand alone.